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What are the biggest challenges impacting policing in America?

The Heritage Foundation’s report shows encouraging evidence that law enforcement leaders are acknowledging the challenges of policing today

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Police officers on the front lines can be encouraged that those at a high level of influence are addressing the realities that affect every officer.


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The Heritage Foundation recently released a report that shows encouraging evidence that leaders are facing the reality of the pressures and dangers of today’s law enforcement climate.

Retired police executives, lawyers and other police advocates met in March of this year for a policing strategy summit. The resulting report, Policing in America: Lessons from the Past, Opportunities for the Future, recognizes four major challenges:

1. The false narrative of systemic racism in law enforcement;

2. The lack of budget support for needed improvements;

3. A lack of credit for success in maintaining historically low crime rates;

4. The need for more application of scientific crime-fighting methods.

To quote from the report’s introduction: “Agency budgets have tightened. At the same time, hostile narratives have emerged in mainstream and social media, which encourage antipathy toward police and paint American law enforcement as ‘systemically racist.’ The high volume of consent decrees handed out by the Department of Justice under prior Administrations has only exacerbated this misrepresentation of today’s police. The predictable result has been friction between police departments and the communities they serve, which has occasionally erupted in violent protests and targeted attacks on law enforcement officers. This prevailing narrative belies major successes and innovations in law enforcement across the country, as well as long-term declines in crime rates, which are now being threatened.”

False Narrative

As I discussed in my article on how the outdated police media strategy lost the Twitter-verse in Ferguson, law enforcement agencies are just now developing the ability to use the variety of media platforms to form a fact-based narrative.

The Heritage Foundation’s report calls for better “branding” – a term purloined from marketing – to provide a consistent reputation as a backdrop for the inevitable rough spots.

The report criticizes reports of systemic racism that are based on legitimate data-driven crime control methods. Police contacts with citizens will disproportionality involve minorities when crime reports are highest in minority communities. Numbers without context have been used by the Department of Justice with increasing frequency under the Obama administration to intervene in local agency operations, such as reducing stop and frisk decisions by patrol officers.

The cruel irony is that crime has increased in places where officers and administrators become hesitant to use proven methods of criminal interdiction.

Budgetary Constraints

Police leaders recognize what economic development and political leaders often do not – that quality law enforcement is as much a factor in attracting jobs to a community as are parks and schools. Political leaders seem to succumb to pressure from anti-police activists to reduce the effectiveness of law enforcement, including budget tightening, rather than accepting the necessity to support and encourage quality policing for a community’s health and vibrancy.

Lack of credit for crime control

Successful crime control methods are being labeled as civil liberty violations despite the wide protections of Constitutional guidelines. The report cites that the “stop and frisk” debate leaves out the reality that police don’t randomly stop and search citizens, but must articulate acceptable reasons for the contact, questions and frisks. Critics further cite the low rate of discovery of weapons, rather than interpreting that statistic as a success of deterrence.

Despite the reality that crime is at historic lows, law enforcement is seldom credited with its part in the decline. An increasing erosion of support for the effectiveness of quality of life enforcement often credited for dramatic crime reduction in New York City and other jurisdictions is being associated with the perception that police officers are wasting time on petty offenses that target minorities.

More science

Calling for increased federal cooperation and more sources of funding, the report cites high promise for the application of scientific methods for predicting and solving crime. Efforts to concentrate on repeat offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime should be enhanced by predictive intelligence and more efficient processing of physical evidence.

Federal involvement

Many summit participants expressed hope that the Department of Justice would become less political and more constructive. The federal government could foster great gains in training, technology and best practices if it moves toward less oversight and more support.

Although not all summit participants agreed on all points, police officers on the front lines can be encouraged that those at a high level of influence are addressing the realities that affect every officer.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.