As if the first two decades of the 21st century were not dynamic enough, the first year of the third decade has impacted every person on multiple levels. While the viral pandemic continues to affect every profession, health care professionals around the world are dramatically reassessing their service delivery models. The pandemic indiscriminately sweeps across geopolitical borders, similarly the strong call for social justice reforms is traversing the globe demanding action and change. For example, within hours of the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, demonstrations insisting on social justice reform emerged in cities worldwide. The energy behind these demonstrations and even violent protests continue to fuel police reform measures beyond the U.S. In a series of four articles, the DomPrep Journal will examine the foremost initiatives of modern police reform in America.
Much of the world looks to the U.S. as an innovative leader in democratic policing. Therefore, the modern U.S. police reform movement will shape global democratic policing for decades to come. Calls for reform range from sound initiatives – building upon collaboration and inclusion – to extreme calls for eliminating public police services all together. This article, together with other articles in this series, will cover a select number of the most prominent or most promising police reform initiatives. It is important to recognize that police reform is a continuing journey of improving and right-sizing the police-citizen coexistence. There are lessons to be drawn from the origins of modern democratic policing that hold relevance to 21st century reforms.
The Original Democratic Police Reform Movement
The foundation of values in policing democratic societies trace its origins to a reform movement in London in the 1820s. At that time, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel led a landmark transition from privatization to public policing in order to establish professional standards and effectiveness, which had to be balanced against public consent of policing. Peel is credited as the father of modern policing with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. The importance of professionalizing police service was reflected in an enormous record of instructions, orders, and memoranda issued to govern police service.
In just over 30 years, instructions to police occupied 22 volumes that are historically preserved by the London Metropolitan police. The lessons drawn from creation of the London Metropolitan Police (Met) emphasize community and police cohesion. Early police service performance metrics at the Met emphasized crime prevention over arrests and enforcement action. The Nine Peelian Principles of Police Service, drawn from those early instructions, still remain relevant in the 21st century, as Americans continue the journey of improving their police service approach. Essentially, there are four pillars of the modern British policing model, which share relevance with U.S. police reform today: (1) consent of the public, (2) accountability to the rule of law, (3) restrained use of force, and (4) independence from political influence. Considering these core pillars, police services in the U.S. – as in other democracies – are presented with inherent friction between “consent and balance” and “independence and accountability.”
Four pillars of U.S. police reform – past and present – include public consent, rule of law, restrained use of force, and independence from political influence.
Reorganization & Fiscal Reprioritization
In January 2020, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) announced sweeping reorganizational initiatives under Interim Police Chief Charlie Beck (former Los Angeles Chief of Police). CPD’s steps include reallocation of personnel such that sworn officers previously working in administrative and support positions are returned to field assignments to perform patrol duties. This provides greater police connection with communities in preventing and deterring crime. Homicide Division detective assignments have also been decentralized with the added overall emphasis on precinct-based command accountability. Beck’s expectations are that decentralizing homicide detectives to assigned areas will increase investigative effectiveness resulting in higher and faster case clearance rates through closer community connections.
One of CPD’s most progressive restructuring initiatives is the creation of the Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform, placed under the command of Deputy Superintendent Barbara West. In advancing CPD’s implementation of the 2019 Chicago Police Consent Decree, the Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform is organizationally on par with the Office of Operations as the two main sections in CPD. The Los Angeles Police Department (CA) also has an Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy as one of a number of organizational reforms under the 2001 Los Angeles Police Consent Decree and other initiatives. Other agencies have taken similar measures, for example, Long Beach Police Department (CA) announced in August 2020 the creation of the Office of Constitutional Policing to “rethink traditional policing in a manner that will help implement equity, justice, and constitutional public safety.”
Additionally, CPD’s Use of Force Policy, updated 29 February 2020, states that “the Department’s highest priority is the sanctity of human life.” In keeping with the Peelian principles, the revised policy adds that “a strong partnership with the public is essential for effective law enforcement.” CPD’s revised policy also requires CPD officers to “ensure compliance by themselves and other members” of CPD, adding further instructions to “act to intervene” and “immediately” report observed excessive force of fellow officers.
Coinciding with New York’s Office of Attorney General’s July 2020 release of the Preliminary Report on the New York City Police Department’s Response to Demonstrations Following the Death of George Floyd, New York Attorney General Letitia James called for moving oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD), the largest U.S. municipal police department, from the purview of the mayor to an independent commission. In June 2020, the New York City Council voted to reallocate $1 billion from NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget. To put this example in context, while enacted amid calls for defunding NYPD, NYC reported a $9 billion loss in revenue due to COVID, and the council’s passage of an $88.1 billion 2021 budget was a 7.6% reduction from Mayor DeBlasio’s original $95.3 billion budget request. As a result, NYPD canceled its July academy class and is under a hiring freeze, as are many other city departments, except those performing health and safety responsibilities. Some like former Deputy Major Richard Buery Jr. criticized the NYPD cuts, tweeting that “these aren’t really cuts to NYPD and don’t reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of policing in NYC.”
According to Forbes in August 2020, over a dozen other police departments have received budget cuts to their police services. Seattle’s City Council voted in September to override the mayor’s veto of immediate police department budget cuts. Council’s budget authorization for Seattle Police Department (SPD) projects workforce reduction through layoffs and attrition of nearly 100 by the end of 2020. Subsequent to the council’s vote, then Chief Carmen Best announced her retirement. Best pointed out that the council’s salary cuts and layoffs would inflict the most harm on younger, more diverse officers due to the seniority rules. Seattle’s cuts to SPD also impact school resource officer programs and other specialized units, like harbor patrol and mounted (equestrian) patrols. As part of Seattle’s Navigation Teams, an interdepartmental program operated in cooperation with Seattle’s Human Services Department, specially trained police help the homeless population relocate from the streets to shelters and into a variety of social services.
Many studies have shown higher incidence of mental illness among homeless populations. Homeless adults with mental illness are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and become crime victims than adults with mental illness in shelters. Seattle’s plan for eliminating the Navigation Teams program, of which police participation has been critically viewed by some as street sweeping and retraumatizing homeless, also affects Seattle’s Human Services participation, thereby providing no alternative redirection assistance to this vulnerable population. U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a statement regarding Chief Best’s abrupt resignation commending her on her dedication while acknowledging her frustration. The attorney general’s press release also admonished state and local governments, “This experience should be a lesson to state and local leaders about the real costs of irresponsible proposals to defund the police.”
Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is facing funding reductions that will diminish the nation’s second largest police department to 2007 staffing levels. Reducing police officers on patrol assignments increases response time and adversely impacts crime prevention through patrol presence. These reductions disproportionately affect socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Resource constraints, like those imposed on LAPD and other police departments, require organizational realignment to operate within available resources. During periods of budgetary austerity, police services can no longer be the solution to all problems. Public safety communications specialists (dispatchers) have limited resources available to direct an ever-growing number of calls for services.
In 2019, LAPD responded to 20,757 mental health crisis related calls for service, most of which did not require enforcement action. To address the rise in mental health crisis calls, LAPD had created the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) comprised of officers specially trained as System-wide Mental Assessment Response Teams (SMART) paired with a clinician from the LA Department of Mental Health. Reduced LAPD workforce and availability to send officers to specialized training, like the SMART program, will impact Los Angeles City’s ability to effectively address the nearly 21,000 mental health crisis calls help, which according to LAPD resulted in 456 weapons confiscations in 2019.
In a September 2020 interview with Attorney General Barr, Chief Steven R. Casstevens, who is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, asked about the fiscal and resource austerity approach some communities are taking toward achieving police reform. The attorney general pointed out that defunding “is counterproductive and will lead to more victims.” The attorney general added that law enforcement agencies need to improve community-based and national messaging about law enforcement. In response to Casstevens’ question about the future of policing, the attorney general pointed out the realities of fiscal constraints facing all government levels of law enforcement. He added that recruiting and retention will be challenging. Community trust and respect are important aspects of attracting the best people to the police profession.
Barr pointed out that the federal agencies’ support to state and local law enforcement in combatting violent crime is as important today as it was when he was attorney general in the early 1990s. He cited examples in which the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Operation Legend, launched in July, has significantly reduced violent crime by applying federal interagency law enforcement personnel to work with state and local police in highly successful task force models.
Other Aspects of Current Police Reform
Leading up to and catapulted by the George Floyd tragedy in Minnesota, the current drive for improving police service and reinspiring community trust is far more complex than just budgets or organizational structures. There was great debate 200 years ago in London about the risks of publicly funded police to citizen freedom. A year after the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 with the creation of the London Metropolitan Police, there was a cry to abolish the police over militarization of policing and the lack of transparency eroding public trust in procedural justice, “let us institute a police system in the hands of the people.”
This article is Part 1 of a four-part series on New Age of Police Reform. The next part will address the call for reforms in police hiring and promotion diversity and inclusion.
Podcast – Law Enforcement’s Perfect Storm 2020
Part 1 – Introduction to the New Age of Police Reform
Part 2 – Building Community Trust Through an Inclusive Police Workforce
Part 3 – Police Accountability & Oversight: Redundancies & Opportunities
Part 4 – National Police Reform: Intergovernmental Friction & Cohesion