Moving Beyond Slogans and Rhetoric

A Civil Framework for Reforming Law Enforcement

The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the U.S.


  • Since our founding, American law enforcement agencies have proliferated into a fragmented, poorly-coordinated law enforcement patchwork of over 18,000 agencies
  • Since the 1960s, the growing politicization of police unions and militarization of law enforcement agencies have influenced the culture of most agencies and all too often exacerbated tensions between police and the communities they serve
  • The disappointing fate of so many prior reform efforts, including the blue-ribbon commissions, should cause us to seriously consider a more creative and inclusive approach to reform
  • We should confront police reform as an integral part of a broader effort to improve neighborhood services, strengthen communities and address the underlying socio-economic conditions of crime  


This is the first of three commentaries on law enforcement reform. This piece offers a new conceptual framework for approaching (and selling) substantive police reform. The second piece highlights the most daunting challenges of our law enforcement system and the third piece offers some pragmatic and promising recommendations for reforming law enforcement in America.

The Evolution of American Policing

During the 18th century, American law enforcement emerged to address narrow, ad hoc needs (e.g., slave patrols in South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina). Early in the 19th century, one city after another replaced night watchmen with formal police units (e.g., Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia). At times, the local proliferation of law enforcement agencies even triggered jurisdictional tensions (e.g., the 1857 Great Police Riot).

During the latter half of the 19th century, law enforcement units continued to spread, usually to address local needs, and often without the benefit of uniform professional standards. In northern cities, police units enforced the status quo (e.g., strike-busting). In southern states, police units enforced Jim Crow laws. In the West, vigilantism gave way to marshals, sheriffs and state police units (e.g., the Texas Rangers). Some police units were embedded in government and some were privately-financed.

It was not until the Progressive Era that modern American policing emerged. Some cities (like Theodore Roosevelt’s New York City), instituted reforms to counter political patronage and corruption. Many police agencies started to upgrade professional standards and increase their use of tougher, quasi-military tactics. The Congress established federal police agencies such as the FBI and US Border Patrol. As police units continued to multiply, law enforcement became more and more decentralized.

Since the 1960s, one of the most striking trends has been the emergence of police as the militarized face of our nation’s fight for law and order. President Johnson, after declaring a “war on crime,” signed legislation establishing the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). Over the next 15 years, LEAA helped fund over 80,000 crime-control projects and the provision of military-grade weapons to local agencies. Presidents Nixon and Reagan accelerated the shift of federal funding from social services to policing and prisons. Congress enacted the Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994 (with mandatory sentencing).

Since 1997, under the National Defense Authorization Act, the Defense Department has transferred $7.4 billion of excess helicopters, armored vehicles and weapons to state and local law enforcement agencies. Since 2003, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has supplied $24.3 billion of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies under two discretionary grant programs—the State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) and Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI).

Two other trends characterized the late 20th century: the disappearance of the traditional beat cop and the rise of the politically powerful police union. Both trends contributed to a growing gap between police officers and the communities they served. Replacing the beat cop with more efficient vehicle patrols severed the connective tissue between police agencies and neighborhoods. Granting police unions undue influence over discipline and accountability widened the gap.

In recent years, we have witnessed a stunning decline in the national crime rate. At the same time, a growing number of law enforcement officials have worked quietly to improve the relationships between their agencies and the communities they serve. Many departments have given their officers crisis intervention training to de-escalate precarious situations and prevent violence. Some cities have tested civilian first responder units or community policing strategies (e.g., Albuquerque, Birmingham, Oakland and Stockton). While it may be premature to issue a final grade on such ideas, the early returns are encouraging.

Camden, New Jersey has been touted as a success by many police reform advocates. Long known as one of the nation’s poorest and most dangerous cities, and on the precipice of bankruptcy, Camden disbanded its municipal police force and engaged the county to provide police services. Merging city-county operations, coupled with replacing the municipal union, freed the city to adopt community policing strategies and invest in other initiatives (e.g., education, workforce and property demolition). Since 2012, Camden’s violent and non-violent crime rates have declined (with some exceptions).

The Call for Police Reform

For those of us paying attention, the fight for police reform has begun. It is not the first of such campaigns, nor was the George Floyd killing the first of such tragedies. We are merely experiencing the aftershocks of the most recent (and clearly-recorded) tragedy. As the protests have spread across the globe, it is fair to ask if the time has finally come for real change. Will the momentum for change continue to mount or will it wane like so many times before?

Since 2014, there have been too many senseless killings. Eric Garner in New York City. Michael Brown in Ferguson. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Walter Scott in North Charleston. Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Breonna Taylor in Louisville. George Floyd in Minneapolis. During the same time, the Washington Post estimates that there were over 5,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, about 1,000 every year. While most victims were white, Blacks and Hispanics were killed at disproportionately high rates (over twice the rate of whites).

Police officers also have been victims. From 2014 to 2018, for example, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 619 federal, state, local, tribal and territorial officers lost their lives in the line of duty, about 124 per year. And some tragedies have generated national headlines. In July, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed a group of police officers in DallasTexas, killing five officers and injuring nine others.

This is not the first time we have heard calls for police reform. Riots and tragedies have produced many blue-ribbon commissions which, in turn, have recommended sweeping reforms. Kerner (1967), Wickersham (1929), Knapp (1970), Overtown (1980), Christopher (1991), Kolts (1991), Mollen (1992) and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015). Many reforms have been proffered (some more than once), but few enacted. More recent reform efforts, like the one underway in Minneapolis, have encountered head winds. The beat goes on.

Still, these commissions and other reputable studies are at least some cause for hope.  At a minimum, they confirm the need for reform and suggest many worthwhile reform ideas. The fact that so little has changed raises an unavoidable question: Do we need a new approach for attaining reform?

A Promising Strategy for Police Reform

There is no shortage of ideas for reforming our law enforcement systems, but few pragmatic strategies for implementing those ideas. As popular support for some reforms wavers and some cities lose (or dismiss) reform-minded police chiefs, it has become increasingly clear that achieving meaningful change will require us to move well beyond the feverish rhetoric, protests and slogans that characterize the reform debate. We need a fresh approach to change.

Instead of forming lines of combat, perhaps we ought to first create lines of communication. Instead of demonizing all police officers, perhaps we should identify and work with those who want to be part of the solution. Instead of defining the problem through divisive lens like police racism and brutality, perhaps we should focus on broader issues like public service and accountability. Instead of only addressing the problem from the top down with federal legislation, perhaps we also should try solving it from the bottom up (i.e., at the intersection of police culture and community needs).

It is important to see the problems and grasp the opportunities for reform, but we also need an honest recognition of the daunting barriers to reform, such as the following:

  • Funding – huge investments in reactive law enforcement, coupled with the waning commitment to preventative social and community development programs, increase our reliance on emergency law enforcement resources and hinder efforts to reallocate police funding
  • Service model – the long-standing dependence of politicians and citizens alike on police officers to handle most emergency calls will take many years to change
  • Fragmentation – the sheer number of law enforcement policies, rules and agencies will likely frustrate the implementation of many reforms, such as policy standardization, staff diversity and cultural change
  • Organization – if reform lives or dies with first-line supervisors, their deployment across so many organizations, bureaucratic layers and staffing units could frustrate reform efforts
  • Police unions – over the years, large urban police unions have accumulated significant political clout and have demonstrated an iron resolve to fight a wide range of proposed police reforms
  • Political infighting – even among reform advocates, philosophical differences, strategy disputes and an unwillingness to compromise could undermine reform efforts
  • Political demagoguery – political opportunists, all too willing to use civic tensions and simplistic slogans to boost their own political fortunes, will be poised to malign reform efforts

Overcoming such barriers will require a fresh perspective. A good start would be to reframe the problem as bigger than police reform. Instead of focusing solely on symptoms like police racism and misconduct, we should examine neighborhood needs and the underlying conditions of crime. Instead of limiting our analysis to the obsolescence of our local police patrol model, we should explore new models for delivering neighborhood services. Instead of merely condemning tactics we regard as reactive (e.g., broken windows policing, mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration), we should demonstrate the efficacy of those we view as preventative (e.g., job, education, housing, diversion and restorative justice programs).

The George Floyd protests have forced us to look anew at policing and the need for reform. But, it is the pandemic—and the coming fiscal tsunami—that will make enduring reform possible. Over the next two fiscal years, state and local governments will face unprecedented fiscal stress. Many of our 90,000-plus governments will face collapse. To survive, many will be forced to find new, more efficient ways to provide critical public services. Some will curtail once-important priorities (e.g., arrests for lower-level, nonviolent crimes). Some will merge, and others will develop new service models. No operating budgets, including police and fire budgets, will be untouchable.

Reform is hard, especially in government. If desperate times call for desperate measures, then our best chance for real reform may be now. As we navigate the pandemic, we also should be preparing for what comes next (e.g., the likely fiscal deluge threatening state and local governments). Planning now will help us better understand the problems and forge a thoughtful agenda for solving those problems. In the next two opinion pieces, we will outline those problems and offer some strategies for solving them.

Legislation Alone is not Enough

Malcolm X – “you cannot legislate good will.”

There are many laudable legislative initiatives underway to improve law enforcement (or at least address many of issues raised by protestors). The US House passed the 2020 Justice in Policing Act which would, among other things, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, modify the qualified immunity doctrine, expand federal investigatory powers for police misconduct and establish a national police misconduct registry. However, the US Senate and President appear unlikely to support the House’s proposal.

Several states have their own legislative initiatives. In Colorado, legislators are working on a bill that would require body cameras, increase the transparency of records, upgrade training, reduce civil litigation shields for police misconduct, require more police intervention, ease citizen litigation and strengthen tracking systems. In Connecticut, a bipartisan police accountability bill appears to be moving forward. In states with divided governments, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, legislators are considering similar measures, but compromise is proving elusive.

Across the nation, scores of cities, counties and school districts are cutting or at least exploring reductions to once-sacrosanct law enforcement budgets. Cities like Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle have cut or promised to cut police spending (often coupled with plans to reallocate funds to preventative programs). The National Conference of Mayors has formed a task force of mayors and police chiefs to recommend reforms

Such efforts are well-intentioned, but it is unlikely that they will have the desired impact. That is, legislation alone will not bring us meaningful police reform. This is not to argue that federal, state and local legislative efforts should be abandoned. Rather, it is to insist that community-driven efforts be supported, expanded and accelerated. Moreover, it is a plea to define the problem and craft solutions in ways that will maximize the prospects for reform while preserving public safety.

Our next two thought pieces will do just that.