Policing needs alignment, not reform
Restoring relationships with our neighbors will require a commitment on both sides to honest and open dialogue
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Police alignment, not reform | Why cops must wave | Door-to-door visits, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd the law enforcement profession has been inundated with demands for “police reform” with public officials nationwide reimagining public safety. Some ideas are better than others, while some are outright unrealistic and dangerous.
I personally don’t like the term “reform,” as we have tried this before in the period referred to as the “reform era” of policing from 1930-1980. I prefer the term “alignment,” meaning we (cops) and our neighbors (community members) need to get into alignment with each other.
Here are three steps to start on the road to alignment:
1. Develop a set of shared values
Work with your community to develop a set of shared values. We recently completed this in Minnesota after we conducted statewide listening sessions in which we asked citizens what character traits they wanted their police officers to possess.
After conducting the listening sessions, we took the community feedback to LE agencies and developed a set of shared core values that were reflective of both the values discussed by both the community and the LE agencies.
When we originally started this project, it was set up to gauge if each of our state LE agencies' core values were in alignment with the community, but after the data was collected a new realization emerged. As I looked at the shared values of honesty, leadership, respect and service, I was hit in the head with the bible verse Luke 6:48: They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. In essence, for something to last, whether it is a house or a relationship, it is critical that we build on a strong foundation.
The foundation of our departments is the community because we all come from the community. If the community wants cops to continue to have the values of honesty, leadership, respect and service, we must start to reinforce these shared values within our communities. The values of society are reflected in our departments. Society doesn’t like to hear this sometimes but it’s the truth. We are and have always only been as good as society and we may not like to hear that. As society has lost its way in terms of respect, honesty, leadership and service it can only be expected these sentiments sometimes seep into our departments.
If we develop shared values with our neighbors, we can come back into alignment with one another. Developing shared values could also help us establish behavior standards and consequences for violating those standards either as a member of the neighborhood or a police officer. In addition, shared values could help shape your local criminal justice system so that it reflects those values.
2. Consider residency requirements
Having a residency requirement for police officers is not popular but in order for us to be aligned with our neighbors, they must be our neighbors.
Livability issues such as housing costs and access to good schools are often cited as reasons for not wanting to live where you work. So, when I say residency, I am defining that as being either 15 minutes from your jurisdictional line or 15 miles, whichever best suits the agency. We all know in some agencies that 15 minutes would get you half a mile away from the jurisdiction, but the point here is to have some interaction with those you are charged with protecting when you are not working. It becomes easy to dehumanize the police when people don’t know us as their neighbors.
3. Rethink where we bring the tail of the criminal justice system
We need to have an honest discussion with our neighbors regarding what I call “the tail of the criminal justice system.” Again this is something I know some won’t agree with, but over the years we have got out of alignment with our neighbors in part by allowing the tail of the criminal justice system to be brought into places where it doesn’t belong.
What do I mean by this? As a police officer, every place I go while working I bring the tail of the criminal justice system with me. When I am called to respond to a house where a 13-year-old doesn’t want to go to school, I bring it with me. When I am dispatched to a call where an autistic child refuses to eat their breakfast, I bring it with me. When I am dispatched to respond to a suicidal person who has taken pills, I bring it with me.
None of the situations I mentioned on the surface would require the tail of the criminal justice system, but my mere presence may cause any of these individuals to enter the criminal justice system.
I believe we need to stop bringing the tail of the criminal justice system places it doesn’t belong. I know some will ask “If we don’t go to these types of calls who else will?” We had mechanisms in place previously that brought the hand of the healthcare system into these situations and we need to bring that back so we can come into alignment with our neighbors.
Alignment, not reform, is what I believe is needed to restore our relationship with our neighbors. As a profession, we can either choose to focus on those who are looting and rioting in our streets, or we can view this as an opportunity to establish long-lasting alignment with our neighbors. What an opportunity we have to get this right.