[Inclusive—and Lasting—Police Reform]
This is our second commentary on Police Reform in America (see Part I here) and part of our overall series on reconstructing American government. If you’re new to the list, please subscribe to continue receiving emails or share with friends and colleagues. And, as always, please share any feedback or questions in the comments section below.
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 working with governmental agencies across the US.
- Police reform cannot succeed without broader state and local government restructuring
- A new public service model that relies more on civilian professionals than uniformed officers requires a sufficiently large—and flexible—organization to accommodate staffing changes
- A new public service model should reflect different levels of specialization—regional for highly specialized units like crime labs, municipal for less specialized units like mobile crisis intervention teams and community for basic neighborhood beat services
- To change the culture of law enforcement agencies, it will be necessary to align the cultures of all local agencies—not just police units—with the new public service model
- To finance a new public service model and spur smart investments in community, public safety and justice, public resources must be reallocated—in a phased, data-driven manner
- By broadening our focus and being inclusive, we can channel the passion of protests into lasting reform, not just for law enforcement, but for all of state and local government
This is the third position paper from Civic Way on law enforcement reform. After first presenting a framework for advancing reform, we examined the toughest challenges facing our law enforcement system. In this paper, we offer several ideas for reforming law enforcement, structural strategies that will lay the foundation for enduring law enforcement reform.
Civic Way’s recommended approach to police reform is distinctive, one that we think will bring constructive change. What makes it distinctive is its focus. Since law enforcement is an integral part of state and local government, we believe that reform initiatives should focus on the entirety of state and local government, not just law enforcement. This approach will involve testing ideas for improving law enforcement in the context of broader ideas for improving state and government.
Understandably, the police reform debate sparks intense passions. We share the commitment of reform advocates to change, but also harbor concerns about crime, public safety and neighborhoods. Simplistic strategies, like abolishingor defunding police, could trigger an upsurge in crime, especially if pursued too hastily and in the absence of significant restorative justice initiatives, smart community investments and new models for delivering vital public services.
The window of opportunity for reform won’t stay open for long. Raw anger, incendiary rhetoric and senseless violence, coupled with misleading media coverage and exploitive political demagoguery, will only shut it more quickly. Demonizing each other. Promoting slogans as solutions. Inciting violence. Exploiting fear for political gain. Such behavior may offer temporary solace, sell media ads and even advance political careers, but they will not secure the reforms we need to restore public trust in law enforcement and government.
Instead, we should chart an impartial, impassive and data-based path to reform, one that is inclusive and deliberate. We should organize federal, state and local reform efforts with mechanisms for integrating top-down and grassroots ideas. At every level, we should build diverse reform teams with broad community, government, nonprofit, police, academic and business representation. We should engage in constructive discussions about restructuring and improving local services and craft comprehensive new public policies based on research (not emotion) and hope (not fear).
Restructure Law Enforcement Agencies
Police reform cannot succeed without broader government reform, and government reform is virtually impossible without a fundamental restructuring of state and local government. So long as we tolerate our disjointed, inefficient hodgepodge of state and local governments, any efforts to reform government will be thwarted. So long as we have 18,000 law enforcement agencies, legislation alone will fail to transform our law enforcement system.
To date, the primary focus of police reform has been on our major cities—Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City and Seattle, for instance. These cities have large police departments (some have over 10,000 employees). However, most of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies are quite small. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 49 percent of all agencies have ten or fewer full-time officers, 73 percent have less than 25 officers and 86 percent have less than 50 officers. Over 2/3 of the nation’s law enforcement agencies serve populations of less than 10,000.
Why should we care? If we want a new service model that shifts local costs from uniformed officers to civilian professionals (e.g., social workers and mental health specialists), we must have a large enough organization to accommodate that new model. A small agency with less than ten positions lacks the flexibility to equip, train and deploy officers for other functions. Even if over 90 percent of that agency’s calls involve non-violent situations, it will likely hire officers best suited for violent situations. And, because of the agency’s size, it will be forced to deploy such officers to non-violent calls.
Real reform will require a new local government model designed around people, communities and economic centers. This model will allow us to reduce overlapping local governments, synthesize local law enforcement services, reduce public costs and increase our investment in community programs that will prevent crime. Merging the 18,000 non-federal law enforcement entities (especially the 80 percent embedded in city or county governments) into a more manageable and efficient network of law enforcement agencies will, in turn, greatly facilitate other reforms.
This new state and local government structure is the foundation for a more flexible, efficient and effective law enforcement model. In every region, we could have three service tiers with each tier involving a different degree of specialization. Tier 1 (regional) would provide highly specialized law enforcement functions like SWAT teams, crime labs and complex investigations. Tier 2 (municipal) would provide moderately specialized intervention services like violence mitigation, mental health support and homelessness support. Tier 3 (community) would employ generalists to provide basic neighborhood patrol services.
A key element of restructuring new state and local government is the transformation of our 3,100 counties into larger regional entities. Merging counties into larger, more flexible regional entities will help us make the county sheriff offices more effective, efficient and accountable. We should make all sheriffs appointed officials (in some states, this may require constitutional amendments). We should strengthen oversight and accountability. Increase professionalism and upgrade operating practices. Tighten internal controls, especially for discretionary funds and civil asset forfeitures. Minimize the duplication of services in urban areas. The opportunities are virtually boundless.
Create a Community-Based Public Service Model
The restructuring of state and local government, coupled with the restructuring of law enforcement agencies, will set the stage for a new, community-driven public service model. If we look at law enforcement as a service, through a private sector lens, we can see an exciting opportunity for improving customer service and, at the same time, reducing operating costs. Merging local governments provides the canvass on which we can design a better model for seizing that opportunity.
How do we improve customer service and lower costs? By using data. If over 90 percent of the constituent calls referred to police involve non-violent situations, for example, then we could use more staff adept at resolving non-violent issues (e.g., traffic violations, disorderly conduct, homelessness, substance abuse and behavioral problems). Over time, we could employ fewer armed (and more costly) uniformed officers. In short, we should recalibrate local public services to local service demands (as measured by call data), reorganize staffing and reduce average costs per call.
This new public service model should ultimately require fewer uniformed officers and more civilian employees. The actual staffing needs—and the characteristics of the new model—will vary by jurisdiction based on local service needs (e.g., the degree of violence-related calls). But the goal should be the same—exploit opportunities for assigning nonviolent matters (long referred to uniformed officers) to nonuniformed personnel or community partners.
What might this new law enforcement model look like? A few examples should help.
At the regional level (Tier 1), the model would likely have several specialized units. To illustrate, a regional traffic enforcement unit could be created to perform most traffic enforcement activities. A unit could train traffic officers to handle special enforcement scenarios (e.g., DUI or reckless driving). A regional unit also could increase access to law enforcement technology as future needs change (e.g., self-driving cars, red-light cameras and speeding cameras). Properly deployed and used, such technology also could minimize the potential or perceived incidence of racial bias.
At the municipal level (Tier 2), the model would include a revamped first response system. This could include three types of mobile emergency response or intervention units—one for non-violent situations, one for violent situations and a hybrid unit for other situations.
- The non-violent response unit, which would include unarmed, non-uniformed staff like mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, social workers and housing specialists, would defuse nonviolent situations and link people with available services (e.g., Eugene and Olympia).
- The anti-violence response unit would use data to target the most serious risks (most violent crimes are committed in a few neighborhoods), expedite responses to violent crimes, improve case clearance rates, identify potential serious offenders, connect participants with available programs, recruit neighborhood guardians and reward them for attaining goals (e.g., Oakland).
- A hybrid response unit could co-mingle uniformed officers with other professionals to resolve situations that are potentially violent.
At the community level (Tier 3), the model would fundamentally change the delivery of neighborhood patrol services. It would, for example, require replacing the conventional vehicle-centric police patrol model with a proactive, people-centric and community-driven patrol model. Non-uniformed personnel would build rapport with residents and link those residents with any specialized services they need. It would assign other duties to civilians (e.g., filing crime incident reports). It could ease the conversion of traditional police precinct facilities into public service facilities or community centers.
A new community-driven public service model would nudge local governments to outsource key functions. Through long-term service contracts, local governments could foster the expansion of private entities to support complimentary community programs. As these community-based entities prove their effectiveness, local governments could outsource more duties, galvanize citizen volunteer programs and train citizens to help identify potential crimes. Through community partnerships, local governments also could test innovative crime prevention ideas.
Finally, the new public service model will require a modern communications system. Most existing systems, with a 911 system for emergency calls and a 311 system for non-emergency calls, are a vast improvement over prior systems. However, a modern communications system would give residents one number to call and increase the burden on trained dispatchers to assess and route those calls to the suitable response units. Reengineering communications and dispatching systems is essential.
With a modern communications/dispatching system, residents would call one number and convey the facts on the ground, based in part on questions posed by trained dispatchers. The dispatchers would then assign each call to the appropriate unit depending on the dispatcher’s assessment (e.g., police, fire, social worker or other resources). As needed, dispatchers also could use relevant data and predictive models to assemble and deploy armed officers or unarmed, multi-disciplinary response resources. The increased automation of dispatching, coupled with the smart use of data, also would provide an effective, continual survey of community needs.
Realign Organizational Culture
The calls for changing organizational culture tend to limit their focus to law enforcement agencies. This is a mistake, potentially a fatal one for police reform.
Why? First, we have too many law enforcement officers to expect immediate cultural change. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US has over 1.1 million law enforcement employees in the US, of which 69 percent are sworn officers and 31 percent are nonsworn officers (about 54 percent are municipal employees and 32 percent are county sheriff employees). It will be anything but easy to change organizational culture involving 1.1 million employees.
Second, we cannot realign the organizational culture of law enforcement agencies with a new public service model without first changing the organizational culture of other public agencies involved with implementing that new model. Changing the organizational culture of law enforcement agencies will be much easier as part of a more expansive effort to realign the organizational culture of local government. By creating a more responsive, community-driven organizational culture for local government, we are far more likely to build a new police culture, one that is more Peace Corps than Special Ops.
Reform requires cultural change. We must reduce the paramilitary culture of so many law enforcement agencies, but we must do so by aligning the cultures of all local agencies with the new public service model. Not just police, but other neighborhood service agencies as well. To that end, the following measures should be considered:
- Redefine jobs, skill requirements and staffing needs in accord with the new model
- Reorganize, train and equip staff to meet community needs as evidenced by service call data
- Upgrade hiring practices to improve staff suitability and diversity
- Conduct pre-hire reviews of every applicant’s job record (e.g., complaints and discipline)
- Refine performance evaluation criteria for patrol employees
- Standardize on-the-job training (e.g., high-risk situations and high-frequency incidents)
- Continually adjust compensation in accord with market conditions
Changing the culture cannot be done overnight. It will require a plan and long-term commitment. Local government mergers and fiscal stress can expedite such changes (see Camden), but changes that disrupt current services and workers will meet fierce resistance. However, vacancies will occur, and local governments should redefine obsolete positions and seek different skills.
Much has been written about confronting and even decertifying large police unions, but this may not be necessary. As uniformed positions are replaced with nonuniformed positions, and other types of professionals join police unions, those unions may be transformed. As their membership changes, these unions could choose different leaders and embrace different issues and tactics.
Reallocate Law Enforcement Funds
The defunding police debate is worthwhile, so long as it doesn’t obscure pragmatic, if not long-neglected, ideas for improving the way we fund public services. Per the Urban Institute, state and local governments spend over $115 billion per year on law enforcement (four percent of state and local direct general expenditures). Local governments account for about 86 percent of this amount and states account for the other 14 percent. While defunding police may mean different things to police reform advocates, reallocating such funds should not be done overnight.
The defunding police slogan has become a source of controversy, partly because of its imprecision. Instead of dismissing it as simplistic or counter-productive, however, we should think more broadly—and with more nuance—about how we fund all public services, not just law enforcement services. In this way, we can avoid a binary budget decision trap (e.g., law enforcement versus everything else). We can free ourselves to make synergetic budget decisions that will address the root causes of crime, reduce crime and preserve public safety—preventative rather than reactive.
In the context of a long-term budget plan, we can seize short-term opportunities for reallocating funds from traditional law enforcement budgets to investments in in safe, vibrant communities and promising restorative justice and crime prevention programs. For example, as police officers retire, we can replace uniformed officers performing civilian functions with non-uniformed civilians. Over time, we can reinvest annual savings into more productive investments (e.g., job training, housing, neighborhood revitalization, transit, public health, substance abuse, mental health and family support services).
Local support will be critical to enduring change. Local legislators should resist the inevitable pressure to act quickly and enact headline-grabbing resolutions and, worse yet, punish local police officials. Instead, public officials should work with the community, nonprofits and police officers to build strong local support for change. By securing voter approval for a new public safety model—and the funding for that model—public officials will have more latitude to implement lasting reforms, such as targeted anti-violence community programs and mobile multi-disciplinary intervention units. By working together to exploit cost-saving opportunities (e.g., paramilitary units, mounted police units and lawsuit bonds), we can increase the likelihood that such savings will be achieved.
The federal government has a vital role to play, both in terms of what it funds and what it doesn’t. Instead of merely enacting bills telling state and local governments what they cannot do, the federal government should encourage to do what they should. The Department of Justice, for instance, should revamp federal funding criteria to incentivize state and local reforms (e.g., agency mergers, civilian patrol units, community-based, restorative justice strategies, rigorous accreditation programs and police accountability measures). Congress should fund grants for local communications and dispatching infrastructure. And it should institute tighter controls on the supply of federal military weaponry to local jurisdictions (e.g., shift to regional entities).
The timeline is critical. While some demand immediate budget changes, the more promising path is to gradually—and inexorably—reallocate funds over multiple years. To make smart investments that will help attain justice, preserve public safety and improve community services—that is, boost law enforcement—we must realign public resources in accord with the new public service model, but we must do so in a phased, data-driven manner.
The Inclusive Police Reform Imperative
We must honestly confront law enforcement issues, but we do so in a way that maximizes the prospects of improving policing, rebuilding communities and preserving public safety. At the national level, we must involve not only the large police unions, but also smaller groups promoting reform (e.g., the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers). At the local level, public officials, law enforcement employees, other government staff and community activists must work together. Collaboration cannot guarantee success, but success will not be realized without it.
A collaborative approach to police reform offers many potential benefits, including the following:
- Reduced law enforcement fragmentation, duplication and costs
- Smarter community investments, preventative programs and healthier communities
- Lower crime, recidivism and jail occupancy rates
- Reduced community violence, excessive-force complaints and police litigation costs
- More effective policing and better clearance rates for serious crime
- More responsive public communications and interventions for other incidents
- Improved community relations and greater public trust in government and police
If we do it right, we can channel the pain, passion and hope of the protests into meaningful, lasting reform, not just for law enforcement, but for state and local government writ large. By broadening our focus and being inclusive, we can transform the way state and local government serves neighborhoods and reform policing. By adopting proactive, far-sighted measures, we can preserve the safety of our communities, ease the burdens on law enforcement and ensure fairer, more restorative justice.
This is the time to move beyond slogans and good intentions and forge systemic solutions to systemic problems.