A Path for Police Reform

A Path for Police Reform

I’ve been thinking more about the other side (beyond body cameras) of police/social reform might look like. How do we tone down police-community conflict which still cutting down on crime?

Ross Douthat’s recent post suggested an argument that I think deepens my own suggestion from last week. Douthat, reflecting on an interview of David Simon, parses two propositions:

First, that just constantly “rounding up bodies” is terrible for police-community relations, for reasons that should be apparent even without a crystallizing tragedy like the case of Freddie Gray. And second, that it’s a strategy that actually leaves more real crimes unsolved, because there’s little incentive to actually work a murder or any other case … and that, too, increases the community’s hostility toward the police, because people are constantly getting jailed and hassled while the crimes that most people in the neighborhood really want solved are left to languish unattended.

Douthat then goes on to suggest that a big part of the problem is incentives for police officers which reward quantity over quality. This leads to more police focused on a broader set of “simple” arrests (low-level drug busts, ‘broken windows’ policing, etc) rather than more difficult but also more significant work (murders). This can lead to a dangerous cycle: departments use their arrest statistics to argue for more police, which then leads to more arrests/incidents as each officer responds to the incentives to quantity, contributing to the argument for yet more police. The cycle can continue and even accelerate even as the number of violent crime continues to decrease (as it has over the last decades).


The Reforms

To break this cycle, we need to begin by scaling back the number of police (or drastically curtailing new hires) and instead increasing the number of other types of community service professionals. Imagine if, the next time a police chief came with a request for thousands of new officers, waving drug arrest statistics, a major city instead responded by hiring additional drug counselors, gang prevention counselors, homeless outreach experts, mental health professionals, youth outreach coordinators, social service workers, and child welfare advocates? In other words, what if we responded to the symptoms by addressing the causes rather than just increasing our ability to put people in jail?

At the same time, the city would need to curtail the scope of what we expect from the (fewer) police. Though they will continue to act as first responders and the main street presence in our communities, we should not expect that so many of their encounters will automatically result in a criminal justice response (arrests, fines, etc.). Instead, create incentives for them to move problems out of the criminal justice system and into alternative pathways in coordination with these other professionals. For instance, time spent coordinating with other agencies could be rewarded in much the way that days in court are now.

This will require a new focus, a long-term vision of municipal transformation instead of an attitude of maintenance. Instead of thinking as high-crime areas as a permanent feature of urban society – one which requires heavy-handed policing to keep ‘in check’ – we need to keep in mind that these are usually areas in transition where a concerted effort – involving a host of agencies and programs – can make a long-term difference in improving the quality of life. Yes, police work is part of this, but only part. And it should probably a much narrower portion of the overall approach than it is now. We have got to stop assigning every social challenge to the criminal justice system.

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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