Policing in Crisis – There Are No Quick Fixes
By any reasonable assessment, American policing is facing a crisis in public confidence. Whether one considers the flood of negative media depictions of police, the dearth of people interested in law enforcement careers or the waves of protests across the country, it is hard to say that policing is not confronting a loss of institutional legitimacy.
While reasonable people may differ as to the causes of this dilemma, few would argue policing is not under the microscope. After all, images of police-citizen encounters can now be disseminated globally within a matter of minutes — and the vast majority of these media images are less than flattering. Good or bad, true or false, perceptions are real in their consequences.
History shows that institutions experiencing crises often resort to simple strategies to regain legitimacy. Chief among these strategies are realigning occupational mandates, adopting technology to manage problems and counter-messaging to alter public perceptions.
In institutional contexts other than policing, we have seen these stratagems used by the military in the post-Cold War era when its mandate was called into question, the Veterans Administration in the wake of scandals over the delivery of healthcare and by big oil companies in response to the climate-change controversy.
The military’s attempt to become more institutionally relevant by shifting to a global-policing function was short lived and a serious failure. The Veteran Administration’s adoption of technology to manage healthcare resulted in even more scandals and big oil companies have yet to convince many people they really have “gone green.”
The police institution also has used variants of these strategies to recapture legitimacy during periods of crisis. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, policing came under increased scrutiny because of corruption and politicization. In response, police began a long campaign of reform under the rubric of ‘professionalization.’ Reform efforts focused on better administrative and management techniques and the adoption of a legalistic and technologically-based model of policing. This reform movement lasted for decades, but also seemed to detach police from the needs and desires of communities.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, policing once again faced a crisis because of a lack of responsiveness to the needs and concerns of minority communities. This time around, the police response was to develop public-relations programs to counter perceptions that police were not fairly serving minority communities. By most measures, these public-relations programs achieved little.
In the 1980s, a spike in crime rates and a seeming inability of police to control violent crime gave rise to community-policing reform efforts. While it is debatable whether the community policing movement resulted in meaningful change to the occupational mandate, the tragic events of September 11 marked an abrupt end to that movement.
What is interesting about these crises is that reform efforts were most often driven by external federal intervention. During the political crisis, the federal government enacted civil-service laws and established police commissions. During the race crisis, the federal government created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which funded education, training and technology, and federal grant dollars largely drove the community-policing movement. In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government once again intervened into policing, shifting funding from community policing to homeland-security initiatives.
For most people, police are the most visible and symbolic representatives of government. As such, a crisis in policing reflects not only a police problem, but also a loss of confidence in government. Policing is a barometer of society’s social, political and economic condition and an indicator of its critical tensions.
As in the past, solutions to this current crisis will not be found in simple fixes or external interventions — the adoption of new technologies, more training or better ‘counter-messaging.’ While use-of-force incidents certainly can spark outrage and even violence, they are not the tinder that fuels the institutional crisis.
Policing is facing a crisis that will require police leaders to rethink the nature of police-community relations and political leaders, likewise, will have to squarely confront the underlying socioeconomic conditions that set the stage for this crisis.