A New Age of Community Oriented Policing

by: Tristan McCallister

     Policing in America has obviously come under extremely hot water recently as protests and demonstrations raged throughout the summer and in the later months of 2020. Police distrust has skyrocketed and officers have begun to leave departments across the country at alarming rates.  According to Fort Worth Police Officer Association President Manny Ramirez there was a 60% drop in the number of applications to police departments nationally.  (Rozier, 2020) Due to these events, policing is becoming increasingly dangerous, as of July 13, 2020 there was a ”28% jump in felonious officer deaths.” (Hutchinson, 2020). So it is important to note that while there is much need for reform, police don’t really have much reason to flow with public opinion, because public opinion largely doesn’t seem to fall on their side.  Looking back at the general flow of police history from the political model, to the reform model to what is seen today in community oriented policing, the development of COP during the reform era of the 60s devalued the legalistic idea of crime control.  In turn this prompted citizens and police to “develop new strategies and methods to respond to crime and order-maintenance problems.” The professionalization of police seen in this period also went hand in hand with the development of police unions in the 1960s. (Novak, Cordner, Smith, & Roberg, 2009) Perhaps the reforms of 40-60 years ago did not go far enough, or perhaps it is time to update policing to the trends of increasing mental health issues, the decriminalization of drugs, sex crimes and other order-maintence crimes.  So, there is potential for a new much needed era of police reform and it appears America may be entering it, if not in its full swing currently. There are thousands of reforms that can transform American policing and many involve revolutionizing training or education or use of force policies, etc.   Changes in training and education are vital steps for any changing profession and they are reforms that have been made in policing before, and perhaps need to be made again.  But, the promotion of a nationally mandated use of force database, transparency encouraging civilian review boards, and safe alternative crisis intervention teams for the mentally ill are reforms that have never really been instituted before recently and they work to address the problems of accountability, transparency, and safety.  

     Today, 1 in 5 Americans struggle with some type of mental health condition, a number that has risen in recent years, especially depression rates with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (American Psychiatric Association, 2019)  Previously, mentally ill were “institutionalized” into state-run “insane asylums,” but from roughly the 1950s to the 1990s in an effort to cut budgets and improve mental health treatment it became a more localized issue with the rise of “community health centers” coming largely in the 1960s.  In short, these community health centers were better suited for mild to medium psychiatric issues, but with the mass discharge of patients and closing of state instructions communities simply became overwhelmed and there quickly became a severe lack of mental health treatment. (Barker, 2013)  With a seemingly increasingly struggling society when it comes to mental illness, and apparent lack of funding in these areas, police have taken on the burden.  While police are being forced to practice discretion and patience in an area where they are seemingly unprepared, “they generally prefer to pass the person on to a treatment provider, but the ‘safety net’ in many communities is not sufficient to meet the need.”(Novak, Cordner, Smith, & Roberg, 2009) While funding for mental health programs is a highly debated topic outside the realm of police reform, I would like to focus on the pure danger that is caused by deploying police officers with little to no mental health related training.  The result is 37 % of officer involved shootings with the Los Angeles Police department involved people suffering from documented signs of mental illness. (LAPD, 2015) Nationally,  according to the Treatment Advocacy Center,  one quarter to half of all deadly law enforcement interactions involved someone with a mental illness, but perhaps the most alarming statistic is that when compared with the average US citizen people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by Law Enforcement.  Due to these statistics, the Treatment Advocacy Center contends that reducing interactions between Law Enforcement and the mentally ill “[represents] the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States, the authors conclude.”  Also, it’s important to note that this strategy of combating mental illness is not just dangerous for those in a crisis, but life threatening for anyone responding that is untrained in how to properly handle a mental health crisis or wellness call.   Executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center John Snook described the mental health issue as not “a law enforcement problem” because “police are forced to be first responders for mental health calls, something that they aren’t suited to do.” (Maciag, 2016)  With the development of this problem came efforts to work with police through “Crisis Intervention Training” in order to give police officers the skills to recognize, understand, and deescalate a mental health related situation.  (Novak, Cordner, Smith, & Roberg, 2009)  While efforts have been made in an attempt to mold police into the crisis responders that society needs, some cities seem to be moving in a slightly different direction.  In Eugene and Springfield, Oregon all 911 calls that do not require law enforcement because “they don’t involve a legal issue or some kind of extreme threat of violence or risk to the person” are redirected through an independent crisis intervention strategy team called CAHOOTS.  In 2019, out of 24,000 calls, police back up was only needed 150 times, or .625% of the time, and perhaps the biggest difference is that CAHOOTS handles 20% of the calls, yet their 2.1 million dollar budget is only 2.33% of the combined 90 million dollar budget for Eugene and Springfield. Ben Brubaker, clinic coordinator for the White Bird Clinic which partners with the police for CAHOOTS, estimates that CAHOOTS has saved over 15 million dollars a year. (NPR, 2020) So, not only does CAHOOTS seem to be safer for both parties, it seems more economically feasible and encouraging to allow these independent teams with a small percentage of a police budget to handle a large chunk of the calls, and calls that police are flat out just not prepared for.  Timothy Black, a member of CAHOOTS, says that “since the summer’s protests, he’s been flooded with calls from across the country from city officials and advocates” searching for advice on how to replicate the model.  This is occurring just south of Eugene in San Francisco, California where in late October they announced the implementation of a system modeled off of the success of CAHOOTS where these teams will consist ofa specially trained psychologist or social worker, a fire department paramedic and a peer support expert” instead of a uniformed, weapon yielding policeman.  (Westervelt, 2020) A real life example of the usefulness of these programs this can be seen with the tragic death of Patrick Warren Sr in Killeen, Texas on January 10th of this year.  According to S. Lee Merrit, a Civil Rights attorney and frequent family attorney for the victims of police violence, Warren Sr. was experiencing a mental health crisis and after an officer responded to his home Warren Sr. ended up with three gunshot wounds in his front yard.  The details of this interaction, and where the fault lies is beside the point, because a similar story took place on January 9th but with a much different ending.  Warren Sr. was experiencing a mental health crisis: same as the day that followed.   A non-emergency number was called requesting help: same as the day that followed.  But here is the difference, on January 9th a mental health deputy was deployed and Warren Sr. was consensually transported to the local hospital with no issues whatsoever.  On January 10th, the family requested help again, expecting the same deputy that Warren Sr. had built a healthy relationship with the day before, but instead a regular uniformed officer was deployed and what proceeded was the same, nearly impossible tragic interaction that is seen across the country between police officers and the mentally ill much too often. (CBS News)  The trend of CAHOOTS and these mental health teams being adapted and spread across the country aligns strongly with the trend of police reforms.  There is not much ability for governments to test hypotheses and procedures when it comes to law enforcement policies, but local experimentation and reform acts as the science experiment for other localities, as well as state and federal governments. (Robinson, 2020) So, with the rising issues of mental health, the danger posed on the police as well as the mentally ill, crisis intervention teams are emerging as a potentially cheaper, safer, and much more helpful first responder in the necessary situations.

     A push for transparency has been seen recently not just in law enforcement and policing, but the entire criminal justice system including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, etc.  Geraghty and Velez, both members of the Southern Center for Human Rights, present the fact that “no good comes from permitting government officials to perform their duties in secret” and any “officials who have become accustomed to operating without accountability are loath to relinquish the power that comes from conducting their business without public scrutiny.” (Geraghty & Velez, 2011)  This is exemplified in policing in America. While the topic of this paragraph is transparency not police unions, it is important to note that police unions are seen as one of the largest obstacles to transparency, and “have also challenged the legitimacy of transparency measures such as civilian review boards and police auditors, all while advising officers not to cooperate with them and seeking legislative repeals.”  The uncooperativeness even expands beyond the scope of transparency on a more broad level as police unions have become a “major obstacle to affecting change in some jurisdictions.”(DiSalvo, 2020) With this in mind, let’s move onto the more specific issue of transparency specifically as it relates to use of force, and citizen review boards.  Currently, the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection relies on voluntary contributions from all law enforcement agencies, and releases data when participation levels reach 40%, 60% and 80%. (FBI, 2018) So, in instances of violence-sanctioned government officials killing American citizens (justifiable or unjustifiable) there is no comprehensive, mandated database to keep track of these statistics.  In line with recommendations made by the 2015 President’s Task Force, Lum and Nagin push for much more in depth information “if the suspect, a bystander, or a police officer is killed.”  Going hand in hand with the lack of reporting of the incidents themselves is the lack of accountability and communication when it comes to accusations and investigations into police misconduct.  It’s important to note that the role of confidentiality is important, but “sometimes it is questionable, having more to do with union policies, labor contracts, or other legal restrictions that needlessly hide disciplinary processes and outcomes from public exposure.” (Lum & Nagin, 2017) The goal for accountability seems to be a sense of moral, or social justice with the police answering to the public and being held accountable by people they serve.  For example, drawing on San Francisco again, on the November 2020 ballot was proposition D which proposed the creation of the Sheriff’s Department Office of Inspector General, which would employ at least one investigator for every 100 sheriff employees, as well as a seven member Oversight Board with the ability to conduct investigations and recommend disciplinary action. (City of San Franciscos, 2020) The inspector general would also retain the ability to judge how the respective police department is complying with mandated federal reforms.  The measure passed with nearly 2/3rds majority in San Francisco, and an extremely similar measure passed in Oakland with nearly 82%. (Montes & Burbank, 2020) Similar to CAHOOTS in Eugene, and the similar program in San Francisco, these local changes offer sample sizes that may result in more localities adopting the reforms, and perhaps even broad state and federal reforms.  In addition to these local instances of data and experimentation, the police should be under some level of improved scrutiny by the average citizen and “the feedback should include changes in police strategies and tactics made in light of polling information developed in conjunction with officers and citizens” (Lum & Nagin, 2017) For example, in Chicago, they take action on less than 5% of ALL their citizen complaints, and in Los Angeles from 2012 to 2014 there were 1,356 complaints received by the LAPD alleging police bias, but 0 of the 1,356 complaints were sustained.  The resulting federal oversight performed by the DOJ in the Los Angeles Police Department focused on transparency with the handling of citizen complaints, and it appeared through “reform and oversight progress, the LAPD appeared to make significant strides in responding to civilian complaints during the time it was under federal oversight.”(Mazzone & Rushin, 2017) While federal oversight into every police jurisdiction is impossible and probably unwarranted, this Los Angeles example goes to show that federal oversight and reforms work to change the culture and system at the local level and not only are they effective, they increase transparency which in turn benefits the relationship between the public and the police.

     With any professionalized field, there is the constant needed for reeducation and the ability to change.  Policing proves no different, especially considering the ever changing political climate, and makeup of society.  Between revamping police training and education to meet the needs of a 21st century America, and the implementation of a new style of crisis intervention teams, civilian review boards, and a national use of force database, American policing can improve transparency, civilian-officer trust, and most of all promote the safety of the general public as well as officers in the line of duty.  In the 1970s and 1980s society began to push back against the reform model and push towards community oriented policing designed to improve officer-public relations, especially with minority communities. (Novak, Cordner, Smith, & Roberg, 2009) Perhaps with the current rise in tensions between officers and the public it is time for another similar move that will adapt and reform community oriented policing to fit today’s society and public opinions.  While the nature of these reforms can be debated for ever, it’s likely that change is needed in order to restore what is left of civilian-officer relations, as well as restore faith and confidence not just in the police from a civilian perspective, but as a profession from the perspective of a potential police officer.  Going down the list, mental health crisis teams serve to make police officers safer as well as the mentally ill, a national use of force database serves to provide a holistic view of deadly police force in the United States (in modern times not much is fixable without data), and civilian review boards draw back the blinds of policing slightly and give the community a meaningful role and say in how any type of police misconduct should be handled.  Broadly speaking, the decentralized nature of policing makes these reforms extremely challenging, and when it does come to successful reforms states prove largely ineffective except for voter initiatives, local governments are better suited to handle use of force issues and de escalation requirements, and the federal government, mainly the DOJ, plays a role in oversight of local and state governments in times of extreme misconduct.  Federally, the local and state voter initiatives serve very important because they set the groundwork for potential broad federal reforms based on the findings and results in certain localities or states. (Robinson, 2020) By reinforcing and developing a modern community oriented policing model that prioritizes relations, public opinion, and public safety and that is accountable to the public is probably the goal of every modern police orginzation, but the utter lack of transparency, the over policing of non-crime related areas (mental health, sex work, single use drugs), and the control, power and influence police unions have over local politics and displinary actions against officers has resulted in the disfunction and distrust that is wreaking havoc throughout society today.

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