The Successful Failure of Reform

When cases of police brutality, fabrication of evidence or corruption burst into public view they are inevitably followed by calls for police reform. The demanded changes sometimes produce temporary improvements, though more often, not. In any case are soon eroded, reversed or even turned into instruments of increased police power once the public outcry dies down. Here are the most common of these ill-fated efforts at accountability.

Citizen Review Commissions. What these bodies have in common is their lack of real power. They depend on police investigations, they are often required to include police officers and can only make recommendations to the police chief. What little authority they start out with is continually eroded by police push-back. Even when they recommend disciplinary action be taken, it rarely is.

Body and dash cameras are potentially powerful tools for accountability. Therefore police departments have moved quickly to limit public access to the footage while permiting officers to view it before writing their reports. In the latest twist, departments are exploring the addition of face-recognition software to the cams – thus turning them into surveillance tools.

Residency requirements – These measures force officers to live in the city they police. They can still choose segregated or isolated neighborhoods within that city, however. Such requirements are viewed with suspicion by other public workers who don’t want to face similar restrictions.

Better training – Workshops and seminars on de-escalation, mental health responses and implicit racial bias can sometimes influence the perspective an a police officer here and there but are often met with resentment by cops who beleive they are already competent enough. The National Association of Police Organizations is fighting to block de-escalation training requirements, arguing that they are not needed and that they put officers lives in danger.

Hiring more African American and other officers of color. Officers of color face pressure to leave white people alone and often end up focusing on dark and poor people because these cases dont get reversed by higher-ups or dismissed by prosecutors. This has actually led to increased racial profiling in some jurisdictions. At the same time, Black officers face racial discrimination within the department as well as retaliation for challenging police misconduct in their own communities.

Outside investigators. A common demand is to have an outside agency investigate the local police . Investigations might be performed by a state agency, the FBI or the Justice Department. All these agencies tend to give a the benefit of the doubt to their fellow professionals so it is the rare case ends with punishment of an officer. Communities might also demand that a Grand Jury be empaneled to decide whether charges are warranted — or the reverse, that the prosecutor make the call instead. Jurisdictional and procedural demands such as these might affect some high profile cases but have no discernable effect on police behavior.

Justice Department Consent Decrees. When a police or sheriff department faces a large number of brutality or corruption complaints it is sometimes placed under Justice Department supervision in what is called a Consent Decree. This is an agreement under which department procedures are examined and reformed data transparency rules imposed (until the Decree expires). There have been 68 of these in the last 20 years. Cities such as Cleveland, Miami and NY have been through the process more than once. The improvements that come from this process evaporate within a few years in the face of active resistance from all levels of the department. The Trump administration has taken the police view that the agreements are burdensone and unnecessary.

Community policing. This police strategy is meant to get officers out of their cars so as to build relationships in the community. The community policing approach produces a one-way flow of information to the department and a cohort of community leaders prepared to “rebuild trust” after police incidents. Derived from counter-insurgency theory and spurred by the urban rebellions of the 1960s and 70s, community policing couples relationship-building with a greater reliance on tactical units, also known as SWAT teams. In place of thorough investigations the police act on tips from their sources, leading to door-busting, flash-bang raids which often produce tragic results. SWAT team raids increased 25-fold from 1980-2014, paralleling the spread of community policing.

A resilient system. The police system has demonstrated a remarkable resilience. Local police and sheriff departments, regional fusion centers, police unions and professional associations, the FBI, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are all parts of a networked system and shared culture that allows them to fend off attempts to impose accountability. The failure of police reform is their most impressive success.