Though evidence of the breakdowns in policing have been constant (Daunte Wright, Caron Nazario, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, etc., etc., etc.), change has been painstakingly slow. So, what can we do to prevent unnecessary deaths and provide equal justice under the law? To begin, let’s look at the reality of policing in the US:
1 – Only 6.7 percent of police calls involve a possible crime. The vast majority of 911 calls involve welfare checks, trespassing, homelessness, drug abuse, and mental health issues.
2 – It requires relatively little training to receive certification for law enforcement in the US. Although some police departments require a college degree in criminal justice, others simply require candidates to complete basic training. Much of that training consists of classroom work and military-style discipline (inspections, marching in file, and firearms training). There are no national standards.
3 – US police officers receive less training than many of their international counterparts. In Germany, for example, recruits are required to spend up to 4 years in basic training. By contrast, US recruits may receive as little as 20 weeks of basic training.
4 – The focus of policing is on solving crimes more than preventing them. The old-fashioned beat cop is increasingly rare. Further, many officers do not live in the community they serve. As a result, police departments often don’t reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender make-up of their communities.
5 – Despite what we see on TV and in movies, police solve relatively few violent crimes. According to Pew Research, in 2019, police solved just 45.5 percent of the violent crimes reported to them and only 17.2 percent of property crimes. Only one-third of reported rapes are solved.
6 – Law enforcement is less dangerous than many other professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, logging, deep sea fishing, piloting aircraft, roofing, waste collection and recycling, truck driving, farming, construction, and even landscaping are more dangerous. Working as a law enforcement officer ranks 19th, yet most police officers are armed to the teeth.
Now let’s look at how we can change policing to become more effective and less costly:
1 – Create a separate department to respond to non-criminal, non-violent calls. There are several successful alternatives to police. In Eugene, Oregon, a program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) has operated successfully for nearly 30 years. 911 calls are triaged. If the call does not involve criminal behavior, the dispatcher sends a two-person team that consists of a medical professional and a mental health professional. The focus is on de-escalating situations and providing needed help rather than the threat of incarceration.
2 – Improve hiring and training of officers. Institute national standards for all law enforcement. Those standards should require the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. They should also include a battery of psychological tests plus training in de-escalation, and race relations. Additionally, they should include training for non-lethal responses to offenders who are armed with weapons other than guns.
3 – Improve training of dispatchers. Dispatchers should be skilled in triaging and clearly preparing first responders for what to expect. Poor communications can lead to poor results. For example, a 911 caller reported a young man pointing a gun at passersby but noted that it could be a toy, a detail not relayed to responding police officers. As a result, a young boy was shot and killed while playing with his airsoft gun.
4 – Reduce the number and lethality of weapons on the street. Thanks to the NRA and gun manufacturers, police must assume everyone they encounter represents a deadly threat. Fewer guns will result in fewer deaths of citizens and police. It would also help police to solve violent crimes by demanding registration of all guns and ammunition so they can be tracked to the perpetrators of crimes.
5 – Rely on technology for most traffic control. Using so-called redlight cameras to control speeds and most other traffic violations will prevent racial profiling and relieve police officers from many of the encounters that can turn deadly.
6 – Refocus prisons on rehabilitation of inmates. Prisons should not be mere warehouses for offenders or finishing schools for criminals. They should offer more programs to prepare prisoners for their return to polite society. It is well-known that such programs can reduce crime and recidivism.
7 – Expand mental health facilities and destigmatize mental health issues. Suffering a mental health crisis is not a crime. It should be treated like any other health problem.
8 – Eliminate or reduce poverty. Poverty is not a crime. But it, too often, leads to interactions with law enforcement, such as failure to pay traffic fines, failure to purchase licenses and required drivers insurance, as well as homelessness. In too many cases, it leads to drug abuse as a form of escapism resulting in encounters with law enforcement.
9 – Decriminalize the use of illicit drugs. Substance abuse is a medical issue and/or a mental health issue that cannot be solved by law enforcement.
We cannot know if implementing such measures will solve all the problems. But we do know what doesn’t work – the system we have now.