In the minds of the Missouri police officers who, a year after Michael Brown’s death, sought to celebrate the cop who killed him, policing does not need fixing. To the rest of America, the institution is badly broken and in desperate need of repair.
This is nothing new. From the time the first one was founded in the mid-19th century, police departments have been tainted by recurring spasms of corruption, brutality and racism—accompanied by escalating militarism.
Stories of police beneficence and courage—the cop who springs for new boots and warm socks for a homeless man on a bitterly cold night in Times Square; the officers who buy diapers or baby formula for impoverished shoplifters in Roswell, New Mexico (or in Kansas, Florida, Kentucky and many other places); the street cops who risk their lives to stop a shooter or to pull a suicidal woman from a freeway overpass—are important and deserve wide recognition.
But until we confront and change a system that allows the cold-blooded murders of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina and Laquan McDonald in Chicago—and the attempted cover-ups in both cities—we will find ourselves returning again and again to the question of how to assure ethical, compassionate and lawful policing.
It’s time America’s police officers recognize they belong to the people, not the other way around.
The biggest barrier to this kind of police work is the paramilitary-bureaucratic structure and mentality of every law enforcement agency in the nation. It’s a mentality that gets conveyed to the public as “We are the police, and you are not.”
It’s time America’s police officers recognize they belong to the people, not the other way around. How do we accomplish this? Put simply, your local government must invite community participation in all aspects of police operations: recruitment and training, policy making, program development, crisis management and effective, credible citizen oversight of police performance and behavior. If that invitation doesn’t arrive, the people—critics, grassroots activists, civic-minded supporters of public safety and neighborhood health—must demand a place at the table as full partners in local police operations.
A city or county that forges an honest community-police partnership will soon realize the benefits of mutual trust and respect, enhanced crime fighting and neighborhood problem solving, fewer unarmed citizens dying at the hands of their police and, critically, improved officer safety and morale. With the exception of exigent circumstances that demand an armed response, officers will no longer make unilateral or arbitrary decisions. Partners don’t have to agree all the time, but they do have to communicate, cooperate and support one another.
Two additional steps can tremendously benefit community-based policing. The first is to end the obscenely expensive, immoral and utterly ineffective war on drugs, a war that has made many citizens—including a disproportionate number of young, poor black and Latino Americans—the enemy of their local police. This pointless war has destroyed individual lives, fractured families, brought about mass incarceration and strained community-police relations beyond the breaking point.
The second step is to use the tens of billions of dollars saved by ending the war on drugs to support education and treatment for those in need and to establish a much-needed federal accountability presence in local law enforcement.
There are about 18,000 police agencies in the U.S. and only one Constitution. Each of the country’s more than 1 million law enforcement workers is legally obligated both to enforce and to abide by all provisions of this “secular Bible” of the land. Like it or not, when it comes to policing—from Ferguson to the NYPD—America is in need of more big government.
In order to ensure that local law enforcement abides by laws governing search and seizure, stop-and-frisk, use of force and free-assembly protections, the Department of Justice must be given the authority and the resources to do three things. First, it needs to set reasonable, defensible standards of police performance and conduct. Second, it needs to certify every law enforcement officer and agency in the country. And third, it must be given the power to decertify, for just cause, any individual or department that refuses to play by the rules.
Imagine America’s cops as defenders, not violators, of their fellow citizens’ civil liberties, and work toward that. It’s as doable as it is necessary.
Norm Stamper was a cop for 34 years and served as chief of the Seattle Police Department. He is the author of To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police, out this June from Nation Books.