Maybe It IS Time for a Change!

Affecting change is difficult, particularly in the culture and environment of policing. Policing in America has gone through some major metamorphoses since the early 1900’s. The Political Era   (1840-1920) of policing was dominated by political corruption, graft, and bribery. Appointed by political leaders, police officers often were given the job description of carrying out the often dubious mandates of those in political office.

The Professional Model Era (1920-1970) was ushered in with the goal of centralizing police administration, improving the quality of police personnel, and removing policing from the political arena. The Wickersham Commission Report (1931) recommended that policing move away from the service-centered model and toward a law-enforcement model. Policing was to be based on well-trained, well-disciplined, and tightly organized police departments, embracing technology and incorporating a merit system for hiring and promotion.

The 1960’s and 1970’s proved to be a very challenging time for policing in America. Crime rates doubled, the Civil Rights movement began, and anti-war sentiment was prominent, as were urban riots. These events spawned the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice as well as the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Police were seen as partially responsible for the continuing high crime rates and civil unrest. The number of complaints and civil actions brought against the police skyrocketed during these decades.

The Community Policing Era (1970-2000’s) changed the focus of policing from Sgt. Joe Friday approach (“Just the facts, ma’am!”) to recognizing that embracing the public and encouraging its cooperation, could improve the effectiveness of the police department in the areas of crime control and order maintenance. This era also saw the emergence of community relations programs, citizens police academies, fear reduction programs, and D.A.R.E.

Problem-oriented policing was a spinoff of community-oriented policing. Such an approach analyzed the connections between events that on the surface may have appeared to be unrelated. It allowed officers to work with citizens and representatives from various city and state agencies to find more permanent solutions to a variety of problems that have gradually migrated to becoming a policing responsibility.

Contemporary policing strategies have brought forth several notions, including “one size fits one” policing, reassurance policing, and intelligence-led policing. Today, police utilize crime mapping and other such technology-based methodologies that have a significant effect on the prevention and investigation of crime.

These shifts in policing philosophy were implemented with the purpose of making policing more efficient and more effective, precipitating fundamental changes in how policing has been operationalized in the last 120 years. These changes were driven from two distinct camps: the judiciary and politics.

The responsibility of the judiciary is to interpret whether or not the statutes have been enforced appropriately. As judiciary changes are top-down driven (i.e., from the United State Supreme Court down to local courts), police trainers have had to adjust to these judiciary fiats.  For example, when the Supreme Court ruled on Miranda, the typical response from the policing community was that the “Miranda Warnings” would greatly impede criminal investigations. This did not turn out to be the case; nevertheless, it is reflective of how the policing community tends to resist change.

The bulk of changes in policing over time have been politically driven. Something has happened that has caused the political entities to become involved in policing. The George Floyd incident is the most recent and possibly the most consequential happening in recent history.  And now, the political influences, particularly in metropolitan areas, have stepped forward attempts to “correct” the perceived problem.

The focus of this narrative is not on the historical changes in policing, but rather to ask the questions: Why don’t the police drive the change? Where are the forward thinkers? Why do we do the same things over and over, until there occurs an event that forces change upon us?

There has been a school of thought for decades that suggests the police psychological evaluation should shift from a “select out” process to a “select in” process. Instead of having an evaluative instrument that identifies candidates who “demonstrate an abnormal psychopathy” and, hence, would be deemed unfit, why not develop an evaluative instrument based on the characteristics the community and the police department consider desirable for the type of policing that meets the community’s standard? Not all community standards are the same, so why do we tend to hire police officers from the same mold?

The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform reports that 36 states allow a police officer to begin working, for as long as a year, before attending the police academy. The website reports that on average, the time requirement for police basic training is 647 hours, with the range being from 408 hours (Georgia) to 1,321 hours (Connecticut). Mandatory police in-service hours average 21 per year, with a range of 6 (Alaska) to 40 being required in several states. For comparative purposes, to become a licensed barber requires 1,300 hours, which does not include varying lengths of apprenticeships and exams.

De-escalation is a hot topic for police. A training deficiency has been identified and nationally exposed by virtually every news outlet both in America and around the world. To address this issue, 13 states have initiated “de-escalation” in-service training. This preparation ranges from requiring the training with no minimum number of hours set, to one hour of training per year, to three hours of training every three years. Wouldn’t you think that learning how to de-escalate a situation like the one involving George Floyd would be of paramount importance? Yet, 37 states do not require in-service de-escalation training.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that police academies run by POST agencies and colleges/universities were more likely to use a “non-stress” training model, which is based on academic achievement, physical training, and a more relaxed and supportive instructor-trainee relationship, as opposed to a “stress” training model, based on intensive physical demands and psychological pressure. How do you teach police recruits critical thinking skills if you do not put them in situations where they have to think and respond immediately? How do you teach a police recruit to critically assess a situation and initiate a response when their training is sitting in a classroom and memorizing “Student Performance Objectives” to regurgitate on a written final exam?

In the early 1980’s, the Commonwealth of Kentucky required a Basic Academy instructor to have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree, five years’ of on-the-job experience, and the completion of a 120-hour Instructor Development Course.  As of this writing, the police academy instructor requirements are a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent, a minimum of three years’ experience, and the completion of a 40-hour Instructor Development Course. So, over the past four decades, while society advances, the requirement for those charged with training the police in Kentucky has diminished. I am fairly certain that Kentucky is not the only state that such a digression has occurred.

Research has been neutral on whether or not college-educated police officers function more effectively than do officers with a high school diploma or GED, with one exception: the use of physical force. The research is clear that a police officer’s educational level is inversely related to the officer’s propensity to use physical force. What this means is that the higher the level of education a police officer has, the less likely the officer is to use physical force. One could make the argument that the critical-thinking skills learned in college makes de-escalating a potentially violent confrontation more manageable.

I used to work with a police officer who was not overly successful in high school. He graduated but not anywhere near the top of his class. I remember once when he and I responded to a domestic call. He was attempting to give some direction to the husband. When the husband did not respond as the officer wanted, the officer repeated the exact same instructions, but louder. When the husband still did not respond, the officer repeated the exact same instructions, but louder still. Apparently, the officer felt getting louder would make the husband understand the command better. After the husband again failed to respond, the officer hit him. This is clearly a lack of critical-thinking skills. While only one example, what if this happens during 1% of the police-public contacts? This would mean it’s happening approximately 3.5 million times a year.

I attended the 83rd session of the Administrative Officer’s Course at the Southern Police Institute (SPI). The education and training program was geared for police management personnel. This was at a time when Community-Oriented Policing (COP) was hitting its stride. Dr. Forrest Moss, then director of SPI, had finished a presentation outlining the benefits of COP: how will making the police more transparent to the community and how involving the community help the police be more effective and efficient, just to name a few. The basis for the presentation was how police departments could implement the COP program. At the conclusion of his presentation, I asked him if this COP program was new and for whom was it new? At this time I was the police chief in a small-town and we had been doing COP policing for years, but we did not know it. Generally, small departments look to larger departments for policing strategies. This is because it was and may still be believed that due to the sheer number of calls larger departments take, they are much better at responding to particular incidents, and smaller departments want that insight. It may be time to invert the formula, encouraging larger departments to look at how smaller departments respond. In the aftermath of George Floyd and the calls to defund the Minneapolis Police Department, one of the changes proposed was hiring social workers to take non-emergency calls. I refer you to Bulletin of Applied Criminal Justice ( Vol 1, No. 3) for an article written by J. Michael Ward, Police Chief in Alexandria, Kentucky. Several years ago Chief Ward initiated a program where social workers responded to non-emergency calls and the program works very well in Alexandria. This is an example of forward thinking.

It may be time for a change . . . a change in policing philosophy. It may be time for a change in how and whom we hire. It may be time for a change in how and what we train. It may be time for a change in identifying who the police should be.

Let’s encourage the forward thinkers to show themselves. Let’s get away from our comfort zone of “how we have always done” policing. Let’s finally take control of our industry before the politicians ultimately mandate what we will do and how we will do it.

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