Policing in America: Time for Repair or Reform

By Dr. Anne T. Sulton, Esq.
JA Senior International Correspondent

Chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe,” tens of thousands across the USA recently have joined the clarion call to change police practices relating to the use of force. Claiming “the system is broken,” many argue American policing needs “repair”.

However, almost unnoticed for nearly a half century, a long-running debate is occurring among some scholars and practitioners concerning organizational “reform” of American policing rather than “repair” of existing police practices.  These discussions are designed to ensure that policing is suitable for modern times.

Currently, American policing is loosely based on a model designed by Britain’s Sir Robert Peel during the mid-1800s.  American policing uses a quasi-military structural design, often applying the 1940s systemsanalysis evaluation tools.  Decision making is centralized, with decisions flowing from the chief at the top of the organizational chart, down through the ranks, to the front line officers at the bottom of the chart.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 780,000 persons work for local, state and federal police agencies.  This number is expected to reach 820,000 by the year 2022.

The current median annual salary for police is nearly $57,000.  When adding employment benefits and other personnel related costs, the actual cost annually for each officer is considerably higher – often more than $75,000.

For most police jobs, only a high school diploma is required.  According to Diana Bruns of Savannah State University (2010), a mere 1% of local police departments require a four-year college degree, while 16% of state police agencies require a two-year college degree.  Bruns reports that “Out of the 100 largest cities in the United States, only four police departments require a four-year degree (Jacksonville, FL, Arlington, TX, St. Paul, MN, and Tulsa, OK).”

Other scholars,also conducting rigorous empirical research, have found a statistically significant relationship between college education and police decisions to use force.   For example, Jason Rydberg and William Terril of Michigan State University (2010) found “College education does … significantly reduce the likelihood of force occurring.”

While American news media headline marches questioning police use of force and the grand juries reviewing questionable cases, little attention has focused on discussions concerning modifications to the organizational structure of police agencies.

Before and since the early 1970s, scholars and practitioner have discussed transforming local police agencies from quasi-military centralized decision-making agencies to neighborhood-based agencies with the ability to manage policing at the neighborhood level.Some writers argue this idea is worthy of serious consideration given the potential to prevent crime and lower the cost of providing police services by hiring neighborhood residents to police their own neighborhoods.

For example, the research of Elinor Ostron of Indiana University and Gordon Whitaker of Brooklyn College – CUNY (1973) found that “small police forces under local community control are more effective than a large, city-wide controlled police department in meeting citizen demands for neighborhood police protection.”  They noted that “differing preferences of individuals living in different neighborhoods should affect the type of services they receive.”

Arguably, American policing currently is not well-suited for modern times.  An arrest is made in less than 25% of the nearly 13 million serious violent and property crimes annually reported to police. Furthermore, making matters worse, as crime rages throughout America, residents are challenging police officers’ commitment to their five-word slogan – “to protect and to serve”.

Currently, American policing too frequently is being hotly debated within the vacuum of anger, including that emerging from the righteous indignation many feel at recent shockingly incomprehensible grand jury decisions.  The divide is deepening.  We are in crisis.

However, the essential questions remain. Does American policing need “repair” or does it need “reform”.

If only repair, then perhaps a panel of non-police residents reviewing questionable police conduct might be sufficient.

If reform, then perhaps it is time for fundamental changes to American policing – changes  designed to modernize their operations – such as: 1) requiring all police to hold at least a four-year college degree because empirical research suggests better educated officers are less likely to use force when interacting with residents; and 2) adopting a decentralized neighborhood-based policing model because it might prevent crime and cost less money.

Publisher’s Note:  Dr. Sulton is a civil rights trial lawyer.  She also earned graduate degrees in criminal justice and criminology.  Her 1975 master’s thesis focuses on community control of police.  Her 1984 doctoral dissertation, and subsequent empirical research, examine neighborhood-based crime prevention programs and school violence prevention strategies.