Policing in the new era: Lessons from the George Floyd incident

Calls to reform, reimagine or disband the police can be seen as existential threats, but are opportunities for change that can work to the advantage of law enforcement


The verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial is in. While some celebrate that the justice system actually worked, and believe that their voices demanding justice were heard, others aren’t so sure and see it as a confirmation that all cops are bad. Others are saddened at the loss of life and aren’t sure the media or the police have told them the full story.

No matter what has happened, police professionals want to consider that the protests and crimes committed in the past year are not something to “get through.” They are a bellwether of the future unless and until the police act in different ways and work with the people they serve to create public trust.

Policing alone is a profession whose customers almost never want their service. In truth, some people also don’t “want” the police – they want to be safe, and the police are the best way we’ve figured out thus far to make that happen. Just because our current models of policing are the “way it’s always been” doesn’t mean the status quo will continue once the maelstrom of the present subsides.

Just because our current models of policing are the “way it’s always been” doesn’t mean the status quo will continue once the maelstrom of the present subsides.
Just because our current models of policing are the “way it’s always been” doesn’t mean the status quo will continue once the maelstrom of the present subsides. (Getty Images)

Calls to reform, reimagine or disband the police can be seen as existential threats, but are present opportunities for progressive change that can work to the advantage of law enforcement. The police themselves largely agree that mental health, homelessness and many aspects of family issues are better handled by professionals trained in those disciplines. 

Even as those shifts in responsibility happen, the police should guard against irrelevance in the public’s eyes, and recognize they have an opportunity to exercise leadership to help create a future in which they themselves may not be the beneficiaries.

To that end, there are lessons that can be learned from the case itself, and also from the larger public sentiments about policing nationally.

lessons from the Floyd case

There are three things regarding the outcomes of the Chauvin trial and its verdict that should be kept in mind for those who will be doing the actual work to create best practice policing for the future:

  1. That Chauvin’s actions, although beyond the scope of his training, can’t be dismissed as an act of a “rogue cop.” An easy conclusion could be that training protocols are already in place and that the use of excessive force was dealt with by the department and justice system. A closer examination of the case reveals a number of issues agencies should confront to respond to expectations in their communities that similar events would not occur in their cities. 
  2. That an indictment of all of law enforcement as a result of this incident is an oversimplification of a set of complex social issues, one of which is law enforcement. Addressing poverty, joblessness and access to healthcare underlie the dysfunction of many urban communities and contribute to the disorder seen on a daily basis that leads to the presence of the police.
  3. That the protests, riots, looting and acts of lawlessness may not confirm hopelessness for the future but have created the energy and dissatisfaction with the present condition that is necessary for any change of significance. It is, in short, a generational opportunity to improve public safety.

The police make contact with about 60 million persons age 16 and older each year, and only a fraction of those contacts result in violence or injury to an officer or person they contact. That does not mean that the lack of frequency of this type of incident should be taken as a sign that specific action by police leaders should not be taken. In fact, if they fail to act, legislators and others may be ready to act to end what many see as systemic violence.

From a police perspective, the actions (and inaction) in the Chauvin case could prompt deliberation on three things:

  1. The use of force, especially arrest and control and weaponless defense skills. The inability of officers to control combative subjects has been seen in a number of videos where higher levels of force were employed as arrest and control efforts fail. In addition to de-escalation training, skills to effectively escalate from voice to hands-on control with a minimum of risk for all involved should be taught to automaticity.
  2. The duty to intervene with another officer to protect life, both the subject under the officer’s control, and the officer themselves. Other officers present appeared to have had ample time to prevent Chauvin from killing George Floyd, but none did. Their inaction, along with Chauvin’s sustained position with his knee on Floyd’s back and neck, helped create the tragedy we all witnessed.
  3. Cops are already trained to intervene when they become aware of the unlawful acts of another officer, but it should be culturally reinforced to the point that it is a skill that is ready for use whenever necessary. The reality of peer intervention is one whose difficulty could be underestimated. Peer conformance works against doing the right thing in evolving and dangerous circumstances, although that difficulty should not dissuade agencies from working to address it.

The police and their community – what now?

No matter how well a police agency performs to suppress crime and maintain order, unless it has the confidence of the people it serves, it is meaningless. Public confidence is built one contact at a time, and by every member of police staff.

A recent Quinnipiac poll of public sentiments about the police shows that 55% of people approve of the way the police are doing their job, while 34% disagree (down from a 60% approval rate in 2016). Black Americans, however, disapprove of the way the police are doing their job, with a 63% negative response; conversely, white Americans' approval rate is at 65%. Hispanic Americans are almost evenly split, with a 46% approval. Interestingly, when asked about the police in their communities, nearly three-quarters approve of the way their own police force is doing its job. Three lessons can be learned from those numbers:

  1. Confidence in the police has dropped, and a 34% disapproval rate is unacceptably high. The absence of substantial commentary by police leaders about why and how funds are spent on public safety, and the reality of daily challenges to investigate crime and bring offenders to justice, allows others to frame the narrative in other ways, many of which advocate defunding or diverting resources to achieve what they see as desired services.
  2. There is a sharp divide in confidence in the police along racial and ethnic lines. This strongly indicates the need to develop approaches to collaboration and cooperation that could be markedly different with different constituencies in more diverse communities, and that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to police work will be insufficient to meet the needs of those we serve. 
  3. Approval of their local police has dropped from 81% in 2016 to 73% today. This is significant but also indicates that support at the local level may be much stronger for the police than it is for law enforcement in general. This may mean local support is a foundation from which to sustain or regain support; however, the 8% decline in five years also indicates work remains to be done even for those who traditionally approve of their police.

The data reflect distinct differences among the various communities in America’s towns and cities, and also that confidence in the police, in general, has slipped noticeably in the past five years.

It is critical to remember that many people don’t really want the police – they do, however, want to be safe. The police have been the best way thus far to fulfill the promise of safety, but the recurring instances of police misconduct and use of excessive force, especially against Black males, has eroded public confidence to a point where “business as usual” is no longer enough.

A useful starting point could be both to examine police practice, and also violent crime and homicide data to explore why the police are called for help, and what motivates offenders, so we can address the system, not its symptoms.

Conclusion

In times of great uncertainty, those who can create a compelling vision of the future, and a narrative to describe it to others, may have a decisive advantage to create the futures they see. If law enforcement leaders sit back and allow others to frame that narrative, policing will change – but not in ways they may want. Unless police professionals come to terms with the opportunity to alter the equations of the present in ways they know would serve public safety best, well-intentioned but often ill-informed others may do it for them.

It is comforting to some in the short term to just “circle the wagons” and hope for the best. Doing that, however, could be a path to failure in the basic responsibilities of police – to keep people safe, to identify and arrest those responsible for crime, and to maintain or restore order so people can live their lives without fear.


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