I write this in my 40th year as a police psychologist and having devoted a majority of my professional life selecting, training, and supporting police officers, supervisors, and their agencies. I have been honored and rewarded in my work with police and believe in the dedication of the men and women in law enforcement.
In any complicated human or societal endeavor, from sports, to business, to love, and to war, participants need to understand, navigate, and negotiate factors that are beyond their control – they must anticipate and compensate for these factors and cannot ignore or be stymied by them. They must also deal with elements of challenging situations that they can change or control, have the right strategy, and use the most effective tools. The uncontrollable factors and the modifiable elements can be referred to as "the lay of the land." They have been formed by history, by law, by politics, by culture, by economics, and by traditions.
The Lay of the Land in Law Enforcement
Law enforcement as an institution and policing as a profession today face certain realities to be understood and navigated. Broadly speaking, our current police operations function in a politically fragmented society with: overt and implicit racial discrimination, a deep history of disenfranchisement of blacks, a growing and dramatic income disparity, a steadily increasing proportion of minority residents and cultures, a vast proliferation of guns, a drum-beat of publicized police excessive use of force incidents, and naturally escalating frustration, exasperation, indignation, and desperation among our people, who are demanding change now.
In addition to these societal realities, which law enforcement cannot itself address, several other potentially changeable factors have directly or indirectly hamstrung police agencies’ attempts at evolving toward better practices.
(1) As Paul Blumenthal in the Huffington Post writes (July 26, 2020), a number of Supreme Court decisions have cumulatively enabled law enforcement “to use force on citizens, stop them without a warrant, lock them up for minor crimes, and even raid their homes without a knock.” He points out that since 1968, the Court has reinterpreted the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, allowing police wide discretion and “creating a multi-step system protecting police from accountability when they are charged with abuse.”
Blumenthal reports these decisions “enable police to stop and frisk anyone they deem suspicious, to stop any vehicle driver for any infraction even if the
stop was a pretext for a different concern, to arrest anyone for any legal
infraction no matter how minor, and to use force, including deadly force,
even to enforce a speeding violation.”
(2) Police unions have often advocated so strongly for their members’ sustained employment that in some cities it has been difficult if not impossible for Chiefs and Sheriffs to terminate unsuitable officers – “bad apples.”
(3) Then there is the problem of entrenched police culture itself, at least in some cities, as explored by Zack Beauchamp in Vox (July 7, 2020). He describes an underlying police ideology, handed down from veteran officers, that enables brutality and systemic racism. He reports, “Something about the way police relate to the communities they’re tasked with protecting has gone wrong. Officers aren’t just regularly treating people badly; a deep dive into the motivations and beliefs of police reveals that too many believe they are justified in doing so.”
Beauchamp writes, based on his research, that this entrenched police
ideology “holds that the world is a profoundly dangerous place: Officers
are conditioned to see themselves as constantly in danger and that the
only way to guarantee survival is to dominate the citizens they’re
supposed to protect. The police believe they’re alone in this fight; police
ideology holds that officers are under siege by criminals and are not
understood or respected by the broader citizenry. These beliefs,
combined with widely held racial stereotypes, push officers toward
violent and racist behavior during intense and stressful street interactions.”
Beauchamp does note, however, that this ideology is certainly not universal
or evenly distributed across all officers, agencies, or departments – but that
where it exists, it can partially explain excessive use of force and apparent
disregard for citizens’ rights and welfare.
Dan Zak and Ellen McCarthy, in their July 7, 2020 Washington Post article,
“The Duty and Burden of the Black Police Officer,” describe the powerful
pressure of police culture and ideology on even black officers. They note a
conclusion of President Obama’s 21st century policing task force (2015):
“Behavior is more likely to conform to culture than rules.” They also quote
a St. Louis homicide sergeant: “Police culture will eat policy and procedures
for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
(4) We also must note the origins of policing and the reason policing grew and took its present form in the U.S. As Jill Lepore recounts (The New Yorker, July 20, 2020), policing in England and here was originally a civil force charged with deterring crime and “keeping the king’s peace.” She contends that policing in the U.S. grew so rapidly and into an anti-black institution because of enforcing and protecting slavery. Zack Beauchamp (above) agrees and notes that in the South, police departments grew out of 18th century slave patrols. In fact, Virginia’s slave codes for the control, policing, and punishment of slaves were adopted in 1680.
Another factor key to the development of modern U.S. law enforcement has
been the carrying of guns. Lepore notes that, “Modern American policing
began in 1909, when August Vollmer became the chief of the police
department in Berkeley, California….(He) refashioned American police
into an American military….(explaining): “After all, we’re conducting a
war, a war against the enemies of society.””
Lepore argues that from these slavery control and armed force roots, law
enforcement took its modern form of urban policing stimulated by
population growth, the widening inequality from the Industrial Revolution,
the rise in crimes such as prostitution and burglary, and hostility to
increasing immigration. Use of police in enforcing integration and in
responding to the anti-Vietnam protests enhanced law enforcement’s role
in controlling social movements. President Johnson’s “war on crime”
further defined law enforcement’s militaristic mission.
Finally, Lepore recounts that Johnson’s 1968 crime bill led to 15 years
of spending federal funds on over 80,000 crime control projects in which
“even funds intended for social projects—youth employment, ….along with
other health, education, housing, and welfare programs—were distributed
to police operations.” Then under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, prison-
building was ramped up, and funding died for mental hospitals, health
centers, jobs programs, and early childhood education.
Thus, our current institution of law enforcement exists in a polarized, heavily armed societal environment of many factors it cannot change. However, law enforcement, as it has come to be, has been shaped by several developments, ideas, policies, and institutions in ways that could be changed: Supreme Court decisions, police union obstructions, warrior and racist police mentalities, anti-blackness and social control orientations, militarization of image and equipment, and the assignment to law enforcement of important social and mental health functions beyond the scope and training of personnel who are armed and focused on enforcing laws and protecting safety.
The Challenge of Reforms
Something must be done, and it will not be easy – and not only because of funding issues. Reforms upon reforms have been tried already across the country, often meeting resistance and without demonstrating progress (see “Rage and Promises Followed Ferguson, But Little Changed,” New York Times, Dewan and Baker, June 13). However, many chiefs and sheriffs have been open to new approaches for years, and with the current public attention and pressure, maybe reforms can now be more creative, fundamental, comprehensive, and successful.
As Alex Vitale summarizes in The Washington Post (June 29, 2020), certain myths about police and reforms should be kept in mind. First, the myth that police spend most of their time fighting crime. Vitale notes that police mostly spend their time on non-criminal matters: patrol officers spend about 17% of their time “responding to crime-related calls, the majority of which are misdemeanors.” According to Philip Bump, a Washington Post contributor, 70% of 2019 police calls in New Orleans focused on property checks and protection (“What Police Work Actually Looks Like,” June 12, 2020).
Second, the myth that a diverse police force leads to better policing. Vitale writes, “Numerous studies show that the race of officers has no effect on the quality of policing. Having more diverse police forces does not reduce racial disparities in police killings, citizen complaints, vehicle stops, or arrests to maintain order….the overall (research) trend remains negative, in part because institutional pressures on black officers require that they not show any deference to black citizens.”
Third, the myth that implicit bias training can eliminate racial bias in policing. Vitale cites law professor Jonathan Kahn’s conclusion that advocates of bias training “have not proved a connection between the scoring on bias tests and actions in the world. They also lack evidence to support the effectiveness of the training to influence (individual) officer behavior.” There is also concern about the contrary potential that implicit bias training “may actually normalize stereotyping by promoting the notion that implicit bias is common and expected (Duguid and Thomas-Hunt, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015).
Fourth, the myth that community policing empowers communities. Vitale reports, “Research shows that police give up little power (in community-input processes).”
And fifth, the myth that police can effectively help with mental health crises. Despite millions of dollars invested in specialized Crisis Intervention Team training, Vitale reports that between 25% and 50% of all people killed by U. S. police are having a mental health crisis. According to Vitale, “A 2014 Criminal Justice Policy Review meta-analysis showed no improvement in safety for officers or the public from the use of crisis intervention teams. A 2019 study by (California researchers)….found….in most cases, deploying (CIT) teams didn’t affect arrest and use-of-force rates. The only time we see improvements in the outcomes of these calls is when such teams are combined with increases in community-based mental health services.”
We realize there are powerful current societal realities in our country that law enforcement cannot address, such as political polarization, the proliferation of firearms, increasing income disparity, deeply embedded racism and discrimination, and an increasingly culturally diverse population, along with the challenge of immigration. Each of these affects our law enforcement agencies and officers since they affect the citizens police are charged with protecting, as well as affecting the agencies and officers themselves.
We also understand the present obstacles law enforcement needs to navigate and could possibly contribute to modifying over time. Some of these originated and evolved to empower and protect police, such as certain Supreme Court decisions and law enforcement union policies, but have actually failed to give police the appropriate protective boundaries, guidelines, and accountability necessary to operate honorably and respectfully. These “supports” have actually harmed, overburdened, and overextended police and contributed to a loss of community trust and respect.
Other obstacles to reasonable and effective policing can be addressed more directly by police agencies themselves and by their communities: the war-like mental orientation, the racial discrimination and operational prejudice, the militarization and weaponization in image and tools, the social control and conformity mission, and the acceptance into law enforcement of non-police, social work, and mental health functions.
My belief is that if broader things can change for law enforcement, such as restructuring and repurposing the institution itself, then specific reforms in selection, training, supervision, policies, tactics, culture, and leadership will be much more effective than they have been so far.
Restructuring Law Enforcement
Voices have increasingly called for deconstructing and re-orienting law enforcement and its various functions. And even the overall purpose and societal impact of the law enforcement system itself have been criticized. Todd May and George Yancy (New York Times, June 22) argue that the important issue is not weeding out bad apples: “the question we should be asking of the police (is) not why they regularly fail to perform their duties correctly and thus need reform, but rather, what duties are they succeeding at?”
May and Yancy conclude police departments are succeeding at “keeping people in their place…They succeed in keeping middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe…(and) in keeping people of color in their place so that they don’t challenge the social order that privileges middle- and upper-class white people.” And, they say, “(police departments) succeed in suppressing those who would question the social order.” May and Yancy argue the whole policing institution is racist, whether or not individual officers themselves are racist, because of current law enforcement’s overall impact of defending the established inequities and discriminations in our society’s status quo.
These authors are not saying the individual men and women in law enforcement are necessarily racist or intending to restrict freedom or to keep people of color down. They argue not that racism problems come from a few bad apples, but that “the tree itself is rotten.” May and Yancy, rather than supporting police reform, suggest exploring “how to build healthy and safe communities of mutual respect and see which institutions we need to reach that goal.”
Key concepts here are “healthy,” “safe,” and “respect.” As we look at restructuring the various services law enforcement has come to provide in our country, a number of services can logically be retained under safety: crime intervention, investigation, and prevention; corrections supervision; 911 crime dispatch; traffic control; and special units related to crime or danger, such as SWAT, sex trafficking, child victims, sexual assault, narcotics, and terrorism.
Some current police functions might be better served conceptualized as health-related: mental health outreach, housing, and wellness checks; emergency medical assistance; crisis intervention and 911 non-crime dispatch; and accident response.
And some current police functions might benefit from being considered respect-related: property checks and protection; crowd control and event protection; dispute intervention; civil rights investigation and protection; and ordinance and licensing enforcement.
Law enforcement has come to mean much more than enforcement of laws for citizen safety. And it is questionable whether keeping the “order” in “law and order” really makes sense for only police to try to provide everyone in a diverse society. Expecting police officers (and departments) to provide for safety, to protect health, and to maintain order and respect seems an unrealistic and unnecessary burden on individual officers and agencies. Additionally, and very importantly, it may also overly militarize, weaponize, or “police” the image of those public employees charged with reaching out to the community to provide health and respect resources.
All of us, and our society itself, need each of these safety, health, and respect sets of services to maintain the general welfare in a diverse, multifaceted, and ever changing country – to protect life, to guard liberty, and to maximize opportunities for each person’s pursuit of happiness. The complex questions before us are how best to design, present, and administer these services to maximize accountability and transparency, to minimize negative perceptions, to increase trust and access, to lessen fear and divisiveness, and to realistically enable our public service employees to do their jobs as comfortably, effectively, and respectfully as possible.
Appropriate reassigning of various health and respect police functions to specialized or civilian personnel would have advantages in (1) more differentiated and appropriate personnel selection and matching with duties, (2) more suitable skills training for each function, (3) elimination of the threatening image and impact of the service providers’ carrying of weapons, and (4) greatly reducing the stress and burnout police officers currently experience when they are asked to cover situations and provide services for which they are not adequately prepared -- or for which armed police are not needed.
Also, (5) the providers of each set of services – safety, health, and respect – would then be much more apt to be perceived by the community (their customers) as helpful, supportive, and effective. This restructuring and repurposing should be of benefit to the service employees themselves, to their administrators and agencies, to community members in need, and to lawmakers and those responsible for funding and accountability.
Specific Policing Reforms
With a serious review and appropriate restructuring of our current law enforcement institution, then specific changes in policies and practices are likely to be much more lasting, accepted, and effective than they have been previously. A number of recommendations have been tried or are worth consideration and priority:
· Improved academy and continuing officer training on dealing peacefully with confrontation, resistance, and defiance – with individuals and with groups/crowds
· Improved initial psychological screening of applicants for prejudice, rigidity, authoritarianism, and bias
· Increased availability of wellness support programs for officers
· Prohibition of certain tactics, such as choke-holds and shooting at moving vehicles
· Prescribed limits on use of force options in specified situations
· Reserving the options of use of force and arrest as last resorts in de-escalating situations
· Getting away from quotas or merit awards for tickets written or arrests made
· Certifying and reinforcing each officer’s duty to intervene with fellow officers when unprofessional behavior is occurring
· Proactive involvement of police unions in crafting and supporting changes to police department culture
· Insistent leadership from chiefs, and continuing education, regarding subtle bias, racism, symbols of separateness, and absolute intolerance for actions or attitudes of disrespect, discrimination, and brutality
· Early identification of unsuitable officers, along with remediation opportunities and exit avenues if necessary – with the involvement and support of unions
· Involvement of community boards in advising police administration and unions
· Converting police culture and purpose from a use of force perspective to a social resource, facilitative outlook (where force can sometimes be necessary)
· Movement of departments and police image away from militarization – in uniforms and equipment, as well as in battlefield or warrior mindset
· Referring certain police calls to other (non-armed) social or municipal services and resources, e.g., Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program (see below)
Eugene’s CAHOOTS program, in partnership with Eugene’s police department, began 30 years ago. Scottie Andrew of CNN (July 5, 2020) described this program, its evolution, and its success. 911 dispatchers refer violent and criminal calls to the police, and they refer medical, drug-related, mental illness, and similar calls to CAHOOTS. “CAHOOTS workers responded to 24,000 calls in 2019 – about 20% of total dispatches. About 150 of those required police backup. CAHOOTS says the program saves the city about $8.5 million in public safety costs every year, plus another $14 million in ambulance and ER costs.” CAHOOTS providers are not armed or uniformed, they cannot make arrests, and they cannot force anyone to accept their services.
Andrew’s report reminds us that, nationally, “of homeless people with mental health conditions, anywhere from 62% to 90% of them (in encounters with police) will be arrested.” And studies show that at least 25% of people killed by police are mentally ill. Most of CAHOOTS’s clients are homeless, and almost a third of them have severe mental illnesses. CAHOOTS staff have backgrounds in mental health, substance abuse, and medical issues. For example, they can be crisis counselors or EMTs. And CAHOOTS sees partnership with police as essential to their success.
The Impact of Police Weapons—On Officers
Lastly, I believe, from my perspective as a police psychologist, that the mere possession of guns and other weapons (and tactical, militaristic uniforms) by officers has significant emotional impact on their encounters with members of the community. I believe this impact negatively affects both the officer and the citizen individually, making the role of each, as well as problem-solving between them, much more difficult.
For the armed officer, having a lethal weapon itself can subtly reinforce a sense of defensiveness, wariness, and potential danger: “I wouldn’t have this gun with me if I didn’t need it.” The mere possession of a gun can elicit hypervigilance and a subconscious sense of danger, perhaps intensified by previous accounts of other officers having been ambushed and killed. Officers are increasingly aware, with experience, of the dangers in their profession, even sometimes in benign situations, and this elevated wariness can be felt more strongly (and the danger cues more ambiguous) when dealing with individuals from another ethnic group or culture. These elements, taken together, can cause officers to react more quickly and more aggressively to minimize perceived risk.
An officer’s possession of weapons can also reinforce or subtly magnify an attitude of command – and a sensitivity to being disobeyed or disrespected. The gun and other tools of force can lead the officer to expect cooperation and deference – and to be more likely to escalate or pursue. Many severe or fatal encounters with civilians begin with individuals resisting or ignoring a low-level command, such as step out of the car, put out that cigarette, sit down on the sidewalk, show me your hands, empty your pockets, and so on. These situations can escalate into force being used. We often focus on the increased fear in the citizen being confronted by an armed officer, but when meeting with resistance, the officer himself or herself often feels their anxiety increasing as well, since most officers do not want to go down the path of using force.
Another potential effect on an officer of bearing arms in a citizen encounter is a tendency for this to prompt an authority figure stance over a helpful or facilitative one. The bearing of arms actually can be a burden, particularly in dealing with a frightened or mentally ill person who needs reassurance and a feeling of safety.
Likewise, bearing arms may sway an officer’s sense of mission toward controlling and containing situations rather than toward mediating or problem-solving.
The Impact of Police Weapons – On Subjects
Encountering a police officer carrying weapons or dressed in combat gear (as opposed to an unarmed official) can create or intensify fear and stress in individuals approached, particularly in the cases of minorities, immigrants, the mentally ill, and children and adolescents. The presence of officers’ weapons can influence the citizen to see the cop as more an authority figure than a person, thus impeding listening and communicating. This can also enhance the perception of an officer’s mission as one of correction and control, rather than providing help or resources, thus stimulating more indignation, resistance, and pushback.
Being approached by an armed officer can imply criticism, an accusation of wrongdoing, or possible punishment or blame. It may imply someone is being considered an offender or a problem, rather than neutral or even a respected community member.
An officer’s weapons, tactical gear, combat boots, and even sunglasses can evoke or reinforce a sense of inequality and unsettling power differential, particularly with poorer people, immigrants, and minorities. White people may have a sense of equal status and privilege which to some degree can counterbalance an officer’s weapons and gear. Minorities, the homeless, and those who do not speak English or own property do not enjoy this same balance of power and status.
Weapons in Policing Situations
Police officers do certainly need a range of non-lethal and lethal weapons – and appropriate training and situational practice – to function effectively and safely in crime intervention and prevention activities. Guns have proliferated in the hands of criminals, and armed criminals are a threat to our communities and to police.
However, for the reasons outlined above, weapons and tactical gear may detract from the effectiveness of officers in providing many public health and safety services – services which comprise the great majority of officer calls. In providing these services, such as crime investigation, mental health and homeless outreach and wellness checks, emergency medical assistance, property checks, traffic control, accident response, ordinance enforcement, and dispute intervention – the presence of arms and tactical gear may increase resistance and lower cooperation from key individuals.
Importantly, this resistance and reduced cooperation make the job of the cop much more difficult and stressful, and they increase police officers’ frustration, cynicism, and the formation of stereotypes of certain, typically disadvantaged and minority groups. This then, can add to the confrontation-oriented, harsh, discriminating, us-against-them culture that forms and is handed down in some departments.
This essay is written in the spirit of supporting the safety, effectiveness, and job satisfaction of public safety employees. It is also written in hopes that changes in law enforcement structure may benefit the public and reduce police-community confrontations, mutual defensiveness, and stereotyping. And particularly, it is offered in hopes that we can reduce excessive police use of force incidents.
I have reviewed several political, cultural, and historical realities in the US creating challenges for modern policing. I also noted several current realities that are obstacles to navigating toward reforms and improvements in providing the range of services covered by present law enforcement. These obstacles, though significant, are amenable to change and evolution in the longer term.
I then discussed the difficulties faced in making specific police reforms successful, noting that many reforms have been tried across the country and many police departments are open to policy and operational changes. I argue that these and other reforms could be more feasibly implemented and successful in outcome once institutional restructuring has been achieved.
I outlined one potential plan for possible law enforcement restructuring, noting the likely benefits to both the public and to the safety, health, and “respect” personnel who provide services currently organized under law enforcement. I described the advantages to officers/employees, to municipalities, and to the effectiveness of services by having personnel recruitment, selection and qualifications, training, policies, identities, missions, and equipment specifically dedicated to different purposes and “consumers.”
I then listed a number of specific policing reforms that appear to have merit, a number of which have been tried and most of which have been suggested by other observers over recent years.
Finally, I presented a consideration of the various subtle, but influential ways in which the mere presence of guns and tactical gear can shape, distort, trigger, or interfere in interactions between members of the public and police. This can occur particularly with regard to disadvantaged, mentally ill, youthful, or ethnic/racial minority individuals or groups who are objects of police efforts. I supported the usefulness and necessity of weapons and tactical gear for police in crime prevention and intervention; however, I offered the opinion that such a military-like presentation might actually hinder officers and increase resistance (and potential for violence) in non-crime situations.
There is now significant motivation, energy, insistence, and momentum toward creative reforms in policing. All the functions now covered by law enforcement are necessary for the community and the public welfare, and there can be no overall “defunding.” I look forward to the many initiatives to come and am sure every one of us will benefit and adapt to the new systems that evolve.
Dr. Claiborn has been a police psychologist for 39 years, serving over 60 departments and agencies in Missouri and Kansas. He is a forensic psychologist specializing in serial criminals, mass violence prevention, and individual violence risk assessment. His Ph.D. is from the University of Missouri (1975), and he has served as president of state psychological associations and as Ethics Chair for the Kansas Psychological Association for the past 25 years.