For more consistent policing, we need federal standards
Wide local variations in its delivery help breed distrust of law enforcement – here’s how to fix things
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Lieutenant Sameer Sood
It’s 7 a.m., and Officer Jones walks into his local Starbucks in Los Angeles, California. The barista waiting to take his order is behind the typical Starbucks counter cluttered with random food and swag, hoping to entice an impulse purchase. Jones asks for a large coffee. Several minutes later he happily enjoys his tepid cup of overpriced caffeine.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Deputy Smith walks into her Starbucks in Fresno and orders the same drink. A barista wearing the same green Starbucks apron and standing behind the same cluttered counter smiles and takes the deputy’s order. Like Officer Jones, Deputy Smith receives the same subpar cup of coffee and is on her way.
On the surface nothing about these encounters seems unique. Therein lies the genius of Starbucks and other billionaire chain retailers like McDonald’s and Walmart: They have mastered the art of consistency. For instance, the classic Starbucks green apron first appeared in the early 1990s because the franchise wanted to invoke a chic European vibe. The practice was not intended for one specific market or area. Rather, it was implemented for the entire company, local and international. Starbucks understood it was a singular entity and must be viewed as such, regardless of location. This was done purposefully – walking into one Starbucks is like walking into all of them.
When retailers like Starbucks and McDonald’s are mentioned, consumers know exactly what to expect and how their service will be delivered. However, the only profession in the country with the power to take lives and restrict constitutional freedoms does not have a discernable level of consistency from one jurisdiction to another. Police practices across the country are as vast as the patches they wear. Location, demography and political climate are all factors that play a role in how public safety is provided.
This reality, though, can change. If the police established federal minimum standards related to areas of policing, consistency in outcomes would be more likely. It could also help give the profession a new level of trust and cooperation it desperately needs.
Inconsistency leads to mistrust
Law enforcement practices related to hiring, training, use of force and complaint processes vary greatly from one department to the next. It is common for one agency to require body-worn cameras while a neighboring agency does not. When conducting background investigations, an applicant could be disqualified by one agency due to moral impropriety but then hired by another. When misconduct complaints are lodged, smaller agencies often rely on management staff to investigate, while larger agencies have dedicated commands and community oversight. Regarding education, the Modesto Police Department in California requires 15 completed college credits to become a sworn officer, while the Sacramento Police Department just 55 miles away requires 60.
Risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham, a leading figure in law enforcement policy for over 30 years, has trained thousands of law enforcement professionals around the world. Graham has discovered that when people observe one person being treated one way and another in a different way, it leads to anger and the belief that “the system” is corrupt. This erratic application of standards and dissatisfaction of those contacted by the police has led to various corrective legislative measures.
In California, legislation passed in 2021 established a decertification board as part of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training’s (POST’s) oversight. This new board has the power to conduct investigations into officer misconduct and decertify officers who violate the law. Also passed that year was another bill that dictates what equipment agencies can use. It defines what constitutes military equipment and requires an agency seeking to use such equipment to first pursue approval from their city’s or county’s governing body. Nationally, the Police Reform Act of 2021, also known as the George Floyd Act, sought to establish federal guidelines related to training, use of force, qualified immunity and a national registry of officer complaints. Although the bill failed on the Senate floor over the issue of removing qualified immunity, it illustrates that when law enforcement fails to address inconsistencies and shortcomings, elected officials will step in.
California is still arguably the most progressive state when it comes to police practice. California created its POST commission in 1959, and Section 1031 of its government code establishes minimum standards for all California peace officers. Hiring, complaint investigations and training standards are all clearly established in POST guidelines.
Even with that level of state-guided policy, though, agencies vary considerably in how they interpret and apply it. That is why the George Floyd Act was so meaningful: It sought to establish clear standards for police officers nationally as a means to create federal oversight over all U.S. police departments. Rather than wait for elected officials to dictate change, police leaders should consider advocating to establish a Cabinet-level position for public safety.
How a new position could help
A Cabinet-level position for public safety would give the police a standing equal to defense, education and other core Cabinet functions. If we created a Cabinet position for public safety, every sworn peace officer could be mandated to adhere to a set of minimum standards to bring consistency to a profession in need of a universal voice. This department could set standards related to hiring practices, use of force and other areas that affect the profession. Those standards would represent a single codified system to increase consistency and increase legitimacy across law enforcement.
Creating a Secretary of Public Safety would give voice to the police and their communities in ways the Justice Department or Department of Homeland Security do not. Such a position could reasonably lead to establishing a POST for the entire country that creates consistency from one jurisdiction to the next and reduces vagueness and confusion on what police should and should not do.
The biggest challenge to establishing a Cabinet-level office would be the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which notes that powers not explicitly described as federal in the Constitution shall be granted to the states. The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice may also object to another department doing work now done, in part, by their personnel. This could be mitigated, however, if the position worked in tandem with the Department of Justice.
Not all communities and states are created equal. Less-affluent states may struggle to hire qualified personnel and manage mandates for larger agencies. Conversely, larger agencies with high standards of practice may decline to standards intended for the lowest common denominator. Studies suggest that the level of perceived collective efficacy is positively associated with trust. When police practices are consistent and clearly understood by the public, trust increases.
Signs point to consistency
It is possible for U.S. law enforcement to reinvent itself in a way more suitable for America, and the federal government can lead that work. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994 was in response to the Rodney King incident. The law authorized the Justice Department to intervene and act against police departments that engage in a pattern of conduct that deprives people of their Constitutional rights. Unlike consent decrees, this was a proactive measure the federal government took to improve policing. Even some in the law enforcement community agree that consistency in policing needs to be addressed. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) both support the development of standards for all police.
Some may say federal oversight would negate a community’s ability to provide input. However, communities and local governing bodies could still tailor their agencies to fit their needs. Functions such as resource allocation, management of facilities, community outreach, department websites and recruiting events would remain under the purview of individual agencies.
Others would argue that federal mandates related to policing would give America the appearance of a police state. In response, we can point to federal oversight related to roadways, communications and agriculture. Those industries operate efficiently enough without consistent allegations of racism and abuse of power.
Constitutionalists may argue a federal public safety executive position would encroach on state sovereignty. Such an argument lacks substance, as the constitution is filled with amendments and supplemented by court decisions that modify and clarify the intent of our founding documents. Amendments such as the 13th, 14th and 28th were felt outrageous when they were new. Today the thought of not having them is outrageous.
The U.S. has a history of recognizing needs and evolving to meet them. It is time, perhaps, for that history of innovation and evolution to encompass public safety.
About the author
Sameer Sood has been a sworn police officer for 18 years and is currently a police lieutenant.