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America has a policing problem. It’s bigger than you think

Reforming law enforcement can't just be about preventing excessive policing. It also has to address the problem of under-policing.

Adobe; Photo illustration by Omar Vega/Globe Staff

Normally, on the anniversary of Cory Johnson’s murder, his family might gather for a prayer.

But this year, with the pandemic keeping everyone apart, the Johnsons arranged for a small caravan of cars instead — expecting eight or 10.

Cory’s mother, Debra, wasn’t sure if she’d participate. It seemed like “a young person’s thing.” But when her daughter coaxed her outside, and she saw some 30 cars lined up in honor of her son, well, “I was just like a crying fool,” she says.

“It’s 10 years in, and all these people are still showing up.”

Debra’s pain has subsided, some, since Cory was shot to death in Roxbury on that Memorial Day weekend a decade ago, leaving behind two little girls of his own. But one thing still nags at her: The police never found Cory’s killer.


Johnson quite likes the detective she’s dealt with over the years. And she knows the cops have a difficult job. But she can’t help but feel frustrated. There were witnesses, she says. Murmurs about who was responsible. And it bugs her that Black victims, like her son, are so much less likely to get justice than white victims.

Johnson says she’s not interested in retribution for Cory’s death. But she does want to face his killer some day.

“I just want to look this person in the eye and say, ‘tell me why.’”

America has a policing problem.

And the country is well acquainted, now, with half of it.

The brutal killing of George Floyd sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets demanding an end to police abuse — and not just the dashcam- and cell phone-recorded violence that erupts on CNN every few months. They’re concerned about the racially biased application of stop-and-frisk. About the heavy-handed enforcement of minor violations like loitering and public drunkenness in Black and brown neighborhoods. About a reliance on imprisonment unmatched by any country on earth.


They’re concerned about over-policing.

But the poorest sections of urban America also suffer from chronic under-policing. FBI data show that, in cities with a population of 250,000 or more, police “clear” just 39 percent of violent crimes — that is, they make an arrest and turn over the suspect for prosecution or otherwise credibly dispose of a case (by, say, establishing that a dead person was guilty of the crime).

That takes a heavy emotional toll on mothers like Johnson. But it has debilitating community-wide effects, too.

When the worst offenders can operate with impunity, families and shopkeepers who might bring stability to a neighborhood stay off the streets and children grow up in fear. Young men take matters into their own hands.

As one gang member told journalist Jill Leovy, who wrote about under-policing in Los Angeles in her 2015 book “Ghettoside,” while other people call the cops when they have problems, in his neighborhood, “we pick up the phone and call our homeboys.”

And it all compounds.

With little faith in law enforcement to solve serious crimes and deep resentment of police abuses, trust erodes. That’s made Black and brown residents less likely to help the cops with investigations, which leads to fewer arrests, more pain, and more distrust.

America’s policing problem is really a set of complex, interlocking problems. And they will not yield to a “defund the police” slogan or a hastily conceived 10 percent cut to the police budget.


That’s not to say that a substantial — even radical — reallocation of resources isn’t in order. But getting it right will require a rigorous reckoning with what it means to provide for public safety.

START WITH A simple question: What do cops do with their time?

If you’re a “Law & Order” fan, you might think they’re forever running down alleys and interrogating suspects. But the reality is much different.

Decades of studies built on police logs and ride-alongs show that cops typically dedicate a very small portion of their days to fighting crime.

In 1999 in Baltimore, one of the most violent and addicted cities in the country, patrol officers spent about 11 percent of their time dealing with crime. And about half of that time was dedicated to low-level offenses such as loitering and disorderly conduct.

Cops in small towns and rural areas spend even less of their time on crime: 0.7 percent to 2.2 percent, according to one analysis by criminologists at the University of North Texas and the University of Cincinnati.

More often, they’re responding to noise complaints, dealing with mental health crises, and intervening in domestic disputes.

“We are asking cops to do too much in this country,” former Dallas police chief David Brown told the Washington Post in 2016. “Every societal failure, we put it off on cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it . . . . Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops . . . that’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all these problems.”


And when policing is applied to these problems, the outcomes are often poor. Enforcement mechanisms — stops, arrests, physical force — are overused. And little is done to address the underlying issues.

So says Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University and faculty director of the Policing Project, which works with police departments and governments all over the country to improve policing.

He’s the author of a remarkable forthcoming paper for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review called “Disaggregating the Police Function” that breaks down policing into all its component parts and imagines how we might do it better.

Take training: Much of the popular debate is about whether departments need more implicit-bias training or better instruction on how to restrain suspects.

But Friedman takes a much more expansive view, arguing for a major shift in how law enforcement is constructed.

Examining the Nashville police academy’s curriculum, he found that recruits spend the overwhelming majority of their time studying law, the use of force, and administrative skills like interviewing and report writing. They spend very little time — just 8.5 percent — on the social work and mediation skills that will be so vital to their day-to-day work.


If we insist on throwing police officers at our most pressing social problems, he suggests, those officers need a major reorientation. And they need a very different reward structure once they’re on the job. The mark of success should not be arrest, but resolution.

“Under my model, you go back to . . . headquarters and your colleagues make fun of you because you arrested somebody,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t get that one under control, Joe?‘”

Building this new model, he says, will require a rigorous examination of how the government deploys police.

Domestic disturbances, a major source of 911 calls, can go south quickly. So it makes sense to have an officer present, he says. But it seems pretty obvious a professional with deeper training in social work and mediation should take the lead.

In mental health crises, a cop’s presence can easily ratchet up the tension. So it makes sense, Friedman argues, to put a counselor up front in such cases and keep the police on standby, fully out of the frame.

There are some promising models in the field, already.

In Eugene, Ore., a decades-old program called CAHOOTS — or Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — dispatches a medic and a crisis responder to handle mental health calls that don’t involve a legal issue or extreme risk of violence. The initiative now handles about one-fifth of the city’s 911 calls at a fraction of the cost.

Colorado is using tax receipts from marijuana sales to send mental health professionals out with cops. Seattle pioneered a widely replicated program in which police pass low-level drug offenders to addiction counselors and social workers. And New Orleans hired a private company to take accident reports because why, really, do we need an armed officer to perform that task?

Friedman says it’s easy to imagine lots of other smart approaches.

If someone calls 911 to complain about a neighbor hosting a loud party, “why doesn’t a mediator come and say, ‘Look, it’s 11 o’clock. How about we turn that volume down from 8 to 4 and by midnight, it’s off,‘” he says. “Somebody just tries to work out something that lets us all go back to bed, and on with their lives, without someone getting arrested.”

That’s not to say that most officers would arrest someone in that situation — or that law enforcement will never have to get involved. But mediation, done well, would reduce the chances of a costly law enforcement intervention. And it would free up cops for crime fighting.

SOLVING VIOLENT CRIME in big cities is hard.

It’s not just that witnesses often distrust the police. They sometimes fear retaliation on the street if they cooperate with authorities. And an “anti-snitching” culture, police say, can be a real impediment.

But smart tactics can make a difference.

In the mid-1990s, the Boston police teamed up with clergy and criminologists in an effort to stem gun violence. Using a strategy known as “focused deterrence,” they identified a small group of offenders believed responsible for a large share of violent crime, issued sharp warnings that criminal activity would not be tolerated, and offered a wide range of social services for those willing to take another path.

The subsequent decline in violent crime — a federally funded analysis found it was responsible for a two-thirds drop in monthly youth homicides — came to be known as the “Boston Miracle.”

By the mid-2000s, though, violence was on the upswing and Boston police were solving murders at a rate well below the national average.

Ed Davis, who served as Boston’s police commissioner from 2006 to 2013, was determined to improve on those numbers. That meant, in part, improving neighborhood ties. At summer cookouts and winter get-togethers with the families of murder victims, police would ask for help solving the cases.

“The idea of Sherlock Holmes is not real,” Davis says. “We solve these crimes because someone tells us who did it. So the more relationships we have, the more we go back and talk to people, the better our clearance rate gets with homicide.”

Davis also consulted with criminologists and made a series of bureaucratic changes — working to rearrange detectives’ schedules, for instance, so they wouldn’t be handling too many homicide cases at once. And he sent a pair of detectives to London, where clearance rates are quite high, and adopted that city’s practice of flooding a case with resources in the crucial hours and days immediately following a murder.

A study by Northeastern University researchers found that this approach increased homicide clearance rates by about 10 percent.

But the improvements only went so far. Almost half of all homicides still went unsolved. And the city’s Black neighborhoods suffered especially.

A Washington Post investigation published in the summer of 2018 examined 52 cities and found that Boston had the largest gap between arrests made in cases with white and Black victims of homicide.

“We don’t care what color you are,” then-commissioner William Evans told the Post. “Sometimes, because a case goes unsolved, people get the perception that we forget about their loved ones. . . . We never forget about them.” But, he added: “Getting cooperation is the hardest thing.”

If a department with nationally recognized community outreach programs struggles to build trust, then perhaps a more fundamental reorientation of policing is required.

Friedman of the Policing Project is working with the police, the mayor’s office, and community groups in Chicago on just such an effort.

That city’s Neighborhood Policing Initiative, he says, aims to “change the job of a cop from running around all day answering radio calls to having time off the radio to actually develop relationships with the neighborhood and help them solve practical problems they face.”

Those problems might be “a drug house, homeless people sleeping on the street, or a parking disaster around the public school. Whatever it is, they work together. And when you learn to work together and collaborate, then you can solve a set of problems differently than if you come flying in with a gun after the fact.”

MANY OF THE protesters who have taken to the streets of America’s largest cities in recent weeks are demanding nothing less than big, systemic change. And understandably so. But that kind of change will take time.

If the country wants more immediate remedies to police violence, it will have to grapple with smaller-bore reform.

And there is reason to think that can make a difference.

The overall rate of police killings hasn’t changed much since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. But that distressing story line masks signs of progress.

Data from the research collaborative Mapping Police Violence show that police killings have dipped sharply in America’s 30 largest cities since 2013. And nationwide, killings of unarmed people — and unarmed Black people, in particular — have also dropped.

Campaign Zero, an organization that aims to curb police brutality, is working to build on that progress with its “8 Can’t Wait” push — asking police departments to adopt eight use-of-force policies including a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds, a requirement that officers de-escalate situations where possible, and a bar on shooting at moving vehicles.

The effort has faced withering criticism from activists who say the moment demands more. And some have questioned the group’s research, which asserts that departments adopting all eight policies will kill 72 percent fewer people on average than those that adopt none.

The criticism has some merit; as the author of Campaign Zero’s main paper on the subject acknowledges, it’s hard to disentangle the policies from the kind of police department that would adopt them. Perhaps a department progressive enough to take up the 8 Can’t Wait proposals is less likely to use excessive force in the first place.

But the research does establish a strong statistical correlation between the “8 Can’t Wait” provisions and reductions in police killings. And several earlier studies suggest that changing the rules can make a difference. For instance, a change in the use-of-force policy in New York City in the 1970s was followed by a substantial drop in both civilian killings and injuries to police.

There is more contemporary support for tinkering with the rules, too. Las Vegas police figured an officer chasing a suspect on foot is likely to be pumped up on adrenaline, and prone to using unnecessary force at the end of the pursuit. So the department, working with the Center for Policing Equity, implemented a policy that forbids the chaser from being the first to lay hands on the suspect — leaving that task to back-up officers.

The change appeared to have real effects, including a 23 percent reduction in overall use of force and an 11 percent reduction in officer injury over several years.

Procedural changes can work, it seems, at least in departments willing to dole out sanctions for those who violate the rules.

In some cases, where police culture is particularly recalcitrant, legal changes may be required. Take the age-old difficulty with removing bad cops from the job.

Tom Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a visiting sociology professor at Emmanuel College, suggests setting up a state board that would investigate allegations of police misconduct — taking responsibility out of the hands of local internal affairs departments that are sometimes reluctant to sustain a complaint against one of their own. He also recommends getting rid of an arbitration system that frequently overturns the punishment or dismissal of abusive officers.

At the same time, there is reason to be skeptical of some of the most frequently cited prescriptions for curbing over-policing.

There’s little evidence that implicit-bias training changes real-world behavior, for instance. And the academic literature is mixed on whether building a more diverse police force matters.

“Minority officers come into a culture that already exists,” says Rod Brunson, a criminologist and political scientist at Northeastern. A culture that will take time to change.

THREE WEEKS AGO, at the height of the protests, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stood at a lectern outside City Hall and promised progress: “It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves, work together — work together — to get some real work done.”

Boston, he said, will be “a national leader in healing the wounds of our history and building a more just future.”

He was talking about a broad effort to address racial inequities in the city, but policing reform was clearly top of mind.

In the days that followed, the police department — which already had several of the 8 Can’t Wait policies on the books — announced that it would formally adopt all but one, which would require that it tally not just the discharge of weapons, but the pointing of weapons.

Walsh also formed a commission, headed up by former US Attorney Wayne Budd, to study the department’s use-of-force policy in greater depth and to suggest changes to a largely toothless civilian oversight panel. The city, it seems, is taking the small-bore stuff seriously. But that won’t be enough.

To be a national leader on police reform, it will have to go bigger. It will have to re-imagine public safety — working both to curb police brutality and to better serve people like Debra Johnson, the Roxbury mother who lost her son to street violence.

Johnson says she’s been moved by the events of the last several weeks.

“It’s heartbreaking, when I look at this George Floyd” video, she says. “I see him crying out for his mother. That brings up all kinds of things for me.”

Police killings must be stopped, Johnson says. But she asks that the protesters, and the city, remember her son, too. She asks that more be done to solve the little-noticed, street-corner murders that ravage so many Black and brown communities.

“I wish that could be part of the demonstrations, too.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him @dscharfGlobe.