As a police psychologist for the past 39 years, involved in selecting and training officers and helping them deal with dozens of critical incidents, officer-involved shootings, and officer and citizen deaths, I have observed law enforcement being tasked with more and more functions, responsibilities, and missions over recent decades.
Over the years, a number of crucial non-police functions have been placed under law enforcement, most notably emergency mental health response with the disappearance of state mental hospitals. We as a society are now re-examining the best overall structure for law enforcement (see “What Police Work Actually Looks Like,” Washington Post, Philip Bump, June 12). The current functions of law enforcement might be broken down as:
• Crime intervention
• Crime investigation
• Crime prevention
• Corrections supervision
• Mental health outreach and wellness checks
• Emergency medical assistance
• Crisis intervention
• Property checks and protection (70% of 2019 police calls in New Orleans)
• Emergency call response—911 dispatch
• Traffic control
• Accident response
• Crowd control and protection
• Dispute intervention
• Ordinance and licensing enforcement
• Special units…..SWAT, sex trafficking, child victims, drugs, animal control, terrorism
No one officer can be expected to have training, expertise, or a good personality fit for all or even several of these functions. Some functions might best conceptually fit together under a law enforcement umbrella, and a number might warrant a separate department or agency. Several would not require the military structure, uniforms, weapons, training, and image or identity of police, which would significantly benefit their employees as well as the public.
Things in policing could be better at the level of the individual officer, at the level of the department, in the relationship between departments and their communities, with the mission of police unions, and at the level of law enforcement structure.
In addition to better initial officer screening for prejudice, rigidity, and bias, a number of strategies have been suggested for police officers, agencies, and unions. They include
• Improved academy and continuing officer training on dealing peacefully with resistance and defiance – with individuals and with groups
• 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
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). 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, and successful.
I believe both structural innovations and specific, practical reforms will benefit not only the public, but that they also will make the mission and duty of each police officer/public safety employee clearer and more reasonable to accomplish. Employee selection and training could be more tailored to each job function, and the image of many public safety units could take on a service, rather than a traditional police identity.