Thoughts on Policing a Free Society: Altering Public Expectations

“Policing is one of America’s most noble professions. The actions of any officer, in an instant, can impact an individual for life and even a community for generations. Given this realization, every police officer must be centered on what is important. Service, Justice, Fundamental Fairness. These are the foundational principles in which every police action must be grounded. The nobility of policing demands the noblest of character. ”Steven R. Covey

I spent the last 30 weeks teaching over 1,300 veteran police officers a mandatory class Fair and Impartial Policing and Procedural Justice. I thoroughly enjoyed facilitating the program. The program outcomes were to get us police officers to understand explicit and implicit bias, not just racial bias, but gender, profession, income, political, sexual orientation, age, and religious beliefs. Biases are not just for or against a person such as race or gender, but a person may have biases towards objects as well. The most powerful part of the program in my humble opinion is the Brett Brosnahan Video Footage of the Police Ambushed at Ci Ci's Pizza and Walmart Shooting that took place in Las Vegas in 2014. The video brought out powerful lessons on training biases for example; expecting a male shooter based on active shooter histories we police have learned throughout our training and not expecting a female shooter. This video also help us cops better understand the power of bias and cognitive dissonance and locking on to one way of doing things “the school solution” when it comes to tactics and the what we have always believed right or wrong when it comes to dealing with people. This video was a big factor in connecting the police officers and helping them override these implicitly held beliefs. Why? It got all to acknowledging that we all have biases and they come in many forms and they can be positive or negative. Biases also affect how we make decisions and hence how we police.

Facilitating these classes led me to research and studies some aspects of policing I am sad to say I only remotely touched on in the past. I mean I know the law, procedure, tactics and techniques of policing but only skirted the issues centered on fair and impartial policing and procedural justice. This program and my own research through reading and the back and forth discussions with veteran police officers really helped me get a better understanding of the benefits of Procedural Justice and what Col. John Boyd would call the moral level of conflict as it pertains in this case to policing.

We had many great discussion s and debates while I facilitated this program. I was asked almost every week how did you a tactical science, use of force, patrol procedure, firearms guy get roped into teaching this class? My response was always the same. I did not get roped into this. I have lived and breathed it for almost 30 years and I believe in it. I may not have understood theories as deeply as I should have but being fair was always my goal. I think most cops would agree they strive to do just that.

In my mind this program is really all about what I like to call old school policing. Others might recognize it as community policing or some other flavor of the month buzzword or phrase policing has given initiatives over the years. But whatever we call it, it is how we should be policing in America. In Policing in a free society understanding how and why we make decisions, beyond following procedure is crucial to effective police problem solving. This also increases officer safety because they look beyond what they know and explore outward towards the problem that’s unfolding and take into account not only what they know but what they are now in real time learning as the situation unfolds. If we want to solve real-time novel problems with solutions that build trust and legitimacy while policing a free society then we need to loosen, not tighten the reigns and allow people and ideas to better policy and procedure.

Freedom: Let Us Not Forget Why We Do What We Do

America’s greatest attribute is freedom. People have fought and died defending freedom. I am not just speaking of those that serve or have served in the military. I am also speaking of those fellow citizens standing up for individual rights, laid out in the United States Constitution. In policing a free society it is important that police never lose sight of and stay committed to Democratic values. That while we defend the homelands people from crime and disorder, we at the same time must uphold that which is dearest to us, the United States Constitution and what it attributes to freedom. If we are to alter public expectations favorably towards police we must never lose sight of why we police. We must never lose sight that our allegiance is to our country, communities and citizens first, and then our departments and brother and sister police officers. It’s not the other way around. It never has been! Nor should it be!

When we became police officers we swore an allegiance to country, community and citizenry. We swore and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and to the State in which we serve. We cannot and must not ever lose sight of this. This is what makes policing in America so beautiful and at the same time so ugly. The balancing act between creating harmony and sowing discord while policing is so fragile and yet so powerful it is what draws most police to this vocation and to protect and serve. It quite a responsibility police have.

The police officer on the street has the power to grant or take freedom away. He can do this not just because he is a police officer. He can do this because in America a free society the police officer follows democratic values which include laws and his discretion which allow him to make decisions for the populace. If we follow these democratic values to the best of our ability we gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. If the public feels otherwise they lose trust and what happens when people feel that a relationship is unjust, when they feel like they can’t turn to the police? Feelings of hatred, resentment, revengefulness develop. Community mistrust equals higher levels of crimes, disorder, violent crime and lower cooperation with police.

Many police officials and much of the public fail to understand the responsibilities of the police in providing equal law enforcement, in assuring due process, in protecting the rights of minorities, in protecting the privacy of the individual, and in protecting the right of political descent. Most bothersome is the fact that talk about supporting democratic values in the context of police operations has come to be equated, by many police and by some elements of the public, with a soft and permissive attitude towards criminals and toward unruly elements in our society. This situation is exacerbated when the loudest critics of the police, who vociferously defend constitutional rights, fail to acknowledge the complexity of the police task and seem totally unaware of the problems the police must handle on the streets, often under extremely difficult circumstances. (Goldstein, 1977)

Leading Police to Change

Perhaps the greatest job qualification for today’s police leaders is the ability to recognize and respond to the rapidly changing issues and opportunities facing them. Police leaders often speak of their role as being “agents of change.” Never before has leading change been a larger part of their jobs. Leading change in policing is one thing but actually achieving meaningful and lasting change is altogether different. Since the 1960’s there has been literally dozens of police reform research reports written on how to make policing more effective, including The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967), The National Commission on Civil Disorders (1968), The National Advisory Commission on The Causes and Prevention of Violence (1968), The Knapp Commission on Police Corruption in New York City (1970), The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973) , The National Minority Advisory Council on Criminal Justice (1976,1982), The National Commission On Higher Education for Police (1978), The Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Christopher Commission 1991) with the most recent being President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report (2015) commissioned by President Barrack Obama. Much of the work done by the commissions intended to make positive change. They have contributed to policing in America by providing the basis for increased professionalism as law enforcement prepared to enter the 21st century.

The problem with policing is we are quick to study and learn BUT slow to move and implement the ideas towards meaningful and lasting change. Because of this reluctance to implement change, the need for police improvement, so strongly mentioned in the Federal commission reports, had difficulty taking hold. One reason for the resistance was the lack of substantial knowledge about the impact of strategic and tactical approaches to policing so common throughout the country. (Brown, 2013) Few people questioned the basic premises on which policing had developed. Today policing strategies such as Fair and Impartial Policing, Procedural Justice, Problem Oriented Policing, and Community Policing are all in an effort for policing to obtain legitimacy from the public or society based on procedural justice. Essentially procedural justice is the measurement of the public’s trust and confidence in the police to do their job. The public must believe that the police are honest, competent and treat people with dignity and respect, which lead to police legitimacy.

But what is legitimacy and how do we obtain it? Essentially it is the measurement of the public’s trust and confidence in the police to do their job. The public must believe that the police are honest, competent and treat people with dignity and respect. Altering public expectations will take understanding police legitimacy and its importance in policing a free society.

Legitimacy is measured by:

  • The public’s trust and confidence in the police.
  • Willingness to defer to the law and police authority.
  • Public’s belief that the police actions are moral and justified.

How do we alter public expectations? How do we reshape the view people have of the police? How do we help people understand that to police fair and impartially and procedurally just that at times police must, use force up to and including deadly force? How do we get people to understand that in policing a free society, freedom that which we value so much can be taken away? This is a tightrope act for policing that’s very tough to walk. Herman Goldstein points out in his book Policing a Free Society:

The police are constantly criticized for not meeting goals that cannot possibly be achieved. A newspaper editorial, for example, chides the local police for a rising crime rate. A group of citizens complains that then police have failed to enforce the prohibition against the use of marijuana. An investigating commission castigates the police for failing to remove several hecklers from admits a large and unruly audience. In all these situations the police are seriously limited in what they can do by the laws under which they operate, by tactical considerations, by the lack of adequate personnel, and by factors over which they have no control. This, for example, in the case of crime, factors like the birth rate, unemployment, the sense of community that exists in a given neighborhood, and even the weather probably have much more to do with incidents of crime than do the police.

Yet most view the inability of the police to deal with these problems as a failure. In order to avoid such criticism, the police often attempt the impossible. This may involve taking shortcuts, acting improperly or illegally, or following unwise procedures. Aside from inviting more criticism, such responses perpetuate public expectations that are unrealistic.

The police must ask themselves is presenting a tough, albeit undefined, stance is of such importance that it offsets the cost in not sharing with the community a more precise description of police capabilities. Greater openness regarding their true capacity in handling various aspects of their business would greatly reduce the pressures now brought to bear upon the police. It would increase the willingness of the public to provide the police with additional resources when such a need is demonstrated. And it would increase the likelihood that the public would more aggressively explore alternatives for dealing with some of the problems now regulated to the police a development which is long overdue.

The situation is so aggravated, at the moment, that the chief of police who is truthful in assessing police potential runs the risk of being replaced by one who is willing to assert the omnipotence of his agency, misleading as this may be. One cannot, therefore, expect to correct present practices overnight. But the need to develop both more rational form of policing and a more rational response to some of the problems with which the police cope compels a gradual retreat from the position that police administrators have traditionally assumed.” (Goldstein, 1977)

We want the public to believe and feel that the procedures and practices that police adhere to are “just”. Police have discretion on what, when, and how to enforce those lawful procedures and practices. High feelings of Procedural Justice will encourage citizens to cooperate with police and help reduce violence and crime which adds up to a safer community. It is important to understand that the public’s perception of legitimacy will be subjective and vary among individuals and communities.

Although a judge can determine if a police action was lawful, and a police supervisor can determine whether an officer acted within the bounds of departmental policy, the citizen will form their own opinions about whether they view the actions of an officer as measured or excessive, as impartial or discriminatory. People base their perception on the respect they receive, if the officer is being fair in their judgment and decisions and finally if the officer is understanding and competent.

The realty of policing a free society is wrapped full of paradoxes. The police by their very function are an anomaly in a free society. Because of this fact it’s important that police do not become preoccupied with their internal operations and lose sight of the fact that the ultimate measure of effectiveness is the quality of their outcomes and how the community perceives them.

Stay Oriented!