Policing through 25 years of accelerating change
One can hardly imagine a time of greater change in the law enforcement profession than the past quarter-century
By Jason Johnson
Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, the law enforcement community had just endured what was, at the time, its most widespread and damaging scandal: the videotaped arrest of Rodney King by LAPD officers.
At that time, cell phones were an extravagant luxury for most people and used just for phone calls. Many people did not have internet access and those who did had to rely on slow dial-up connections. There was no such thing as social media, and 24/7 cable news was just beginning. Law enforcement enjoyed fairly broad public support, and, notwithstanding the Rodney King case, officers were rarely the subject of politically motivated attacks or prosecutions. It was a simpler time where cops understood their role was to fight crime head-on. Little did officers in 1994 know that a series of challenges were coming their way.
Challenge 1: A crackdown on crime...and cops
As more Americans grew weary of the increase in violent crime that attended the “crack era,” Congress passed a bipartisan crime bill. Among other things, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 funded police grants that aided in the hiring of 100,000 officers.
The same crime bill enhanced federal penalties for several offenses and created entirely new substantive criminal offenses. The strategy for police was to enhance public safety by identifying violent criminals and removing them from the streets through available, legal means.
The 1994 crime bill also included a provision allowing unprecedented federal investigation of local law enforcement agencies alleged to engage in a pattern or practice of excessive force or racial discrimination. Since then, the Department of Justice has initiated over 70 such investigations, with many resulting in powerful consent decrees overseen by federal courts and independent monitors.
Depending on who you ask, this federal power over local law enforcement is either saving policing from itself and communities from systemic law enforcement failures or is helping drive massive crime increases in cities like Chicago and Baltimore.
1994 was also the year the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF) was founded. The LELDF was ahead of its time in recognizing the impending challenges for law enforcement officers and how they would be imperiled by evolving politics. Its founding purpose was to raise funds from dedicated supporters of law enforcement to pay legal costs for police officers wrongfully charged for actions taken in the line of duty. Even its founders had no idea how good their timing was – the post-Rodney King years would mark a period during which prosecutions of police officers for line-of-duty actions would become relatively commonplace.
Challenge 2: A wave of police technology
Since 1994, the policing profession has changed so much that many law enforcement veterans hardly recognize the job today.
The widespread use of technology has played a significant role in increasing officer efficiency. Officers are surrounded by sources of critical, real-time information from in-car computers and other mobile devices. Detectives have access to myriad sources of data from surveillance video, social media, license plate readers, electronic transaction records, GPS transponders and cell tower communications. Supervisors and administrators can assess the performance of their officers by reviewing in-car and body-worn cameras.
While these tech advancements have helped law enforcement officers become significantly more efficient, it has not made the job itself easier; nor has it spurred greater interest in policing as a career option for greater numbers of qualified candidates.
Challenge 3: A police recruitment and retention crisis
There is a looming recruiting and retention crisis in law enforcement. Unlike 25 years ago, virtually every law enforcement organization in the nation is struggling to acquire and maintain a full complement of police officers.
Officers have become disillusioned with the way the profession is characterized by some members of the media. This characterization, often based on false narratives around police use-of-force, has caused a loss of professional esteem for many officers.
Beginning with the coverage of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police officers have been vilified and portrayed by many as racist and brutal. Officers feel this new perception of police in nearly every aspect of what they do. They see it in how they are treated by some members of their community. They read about it in media coverage, which sometimes sensationalizes police-involved incidents. They hear it in the talking points of their elected leaders, which are increasingly unsupportive of the law enforcement perspective. The net result of this is that the luster the police profession enjoyed in the past has been damaged.
Challenge 4: A new responsibility for officers
The role officers fill in their communities has also evolved greatly in the last quarter-century.
Increasingly, law enforcement organizations are responsible for addressing issues like homelessness, addiction and mental illness more in the role of a social worker than a law enforcer. Police training, even at the basic level, includes a much greater emphasis on recognizing signs of mental health crisis and providing tools for de-escalating crises and even how to match individuals with treatment resources.
Many departments have adopted policies that require officers to consider alternatives to criminal charges in drug possession cases. And many others have trained officers to provide naloxone for opioid overdoses.
Meeting the challenges
While things have changed a lot in 25 years, the one constant is the passion America’s law enforcers have for protecting their communities. Whether serving in 1994 or 2019 or any time in between, the overwhelming majority of officers display courage, compassion and bravery.
As a profession, we must continue to maintain a healthy culture that demands an ethic of professional service. We must also demand a restoration of our rightful place as community guardians. To the extent that we can counter false, negative portrayals, we can discredit what has become the prevailing public narrative and restore the respect we never stopped earning.
About the author
Jason Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF), former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department and a practicing attorney. The LELDF is a non-profit organization that, since 1994, has paid legal expenses on behalf of countless law enforcement officers wrongfully charged with crimes in connection with their line-of-duty actions.