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OPINION

Reforming policing must involve perspectives of the police

The current moment is certainly about understanding the pain felt by victims of police abuse. But it is also about understanding and improving police-civilian interactions.

A couple takes in the scene on the steps of the Rhode Island State House during a June 5 Black Lives Matter protest.
A couple takes in the scene on the steps of the Rhode Island State House during a June 5 Black Lives Matter protest.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A striking feature of the national conversation about police reform has been the near-total absence of the perspective of police officers themselves. Whether it is because they feel the time is not right or because they fear backlash, law enforcement personnel, with a few notable exceptions, have been largely absent from the national dialogue. This leaves a major gap in the public’s understanding of the current moment. What is the job of policing like from the inside? What is going through a typical officer’s mind when performing a routine traffic stop? What challenges do they face that might not be obvious to civilians?

As a civilian, I cannot fully answer these questions. But I can make the case that we should ask police.

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To some, becoming interested in a police officer’s perspective will sound tone-deaf. This moment, they would argue, should not be about elevating the voices of police officers, but about elevating the voices of their victims.

This perspective is only half-right. If reforming the medical system were at the top of the national agenda, it would make sense to seek out the perspectives of nurses, doctors, surgeons, and hospital administrators so that the general public might better understand the challenges they face, and the most promising avenues for reform. The same, I would argue, is true of policing.

The current moment is certainly about understanding the pain felt by victims of police abuse. But it is also about understanding and improving police-civilian interactions so that we never see a repeat of George Floyd’s death. And we cannot understand the relationship between police and civilians if we ignore the first half of that equation.

Policing is a difficult job. Part of that difficulty is inherent in the job of maintaining public safety. But part of it stems from the fact that we ask the police to do too many things. As one former officer observed, the job requires being “a marriage counselor, a mental health crisis professional, a conflict negotiator, a social worker, a child advocate, a traffic safety expert, a sexual assault specialist, and, every once in a while, a public safety officer authorized to use force.” Few could do any one of these things at a high level, much less all of them.

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Worse still, many cops are overworked. In Brookline last year, some police officers were reportedly averaging 80-hour workweeks because the department was short-staffed. Sleep-deprived police officers spell danger for everyone. In addition to the fact that as such they are more likely to be rude because of sleep deprivation, thereby provoking some suspects to resist arrest, one study found that such officers had higher levels of implicit racial bias.

The biggest threats facing cops, of course, are injury and death. About 300 officers were shot in 2019; 153 have been shot so far in 2020. And that is to say nothing of the many non-gun-related injuries that officers suffer. While it is true that police officers are aware of these risks going into the job, that is hardly a reason to dismiss their fears as unimportant.

Without a doubt, officers must be held to a higher standard because of the unique power they wield to take away someone’s freedom, their property, or even their life. But we must also recognize the unique — and tragic — irony that comes with that power. As one officer wrote in The Baltimore Sun: “To fight and die for a populace who ignores you or worse yet hates you engenders a lot of doubt, but it also speaks to a remarkable quality of character.” In this moment, whole police departments are being judged by their worst members. Evaluated by that standard, no public sector institution in America would escape denunciation.

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Defunding the police would not address the problems I’ve listed; if anything, understaffed departments with poorly trained officers might require more funding, not less. Moreover, sometimes it is the culture of police departments, rather than any particular policy, that must change. For departments with particularly toxic cultures, disbanding and replacing them altogether — such as was done in Camden, N.J. — may be the best path forward.

Successful police reform must be based on a realistic assessment of what policing is like, not just from the perspectives of those who are policed, but also from the perspectives of those who do the policing. No examination of a police officer’s perspective will exonerate or satisfactorily explain what Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd, kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes until Floyd died. But understanding the demands of the job can help ensure that reforms actually work.

Coleman Hughes is a contributing editor of City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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