Policing has always been one of the country’s most complex and challenging professions. People call the police when they cannot solve the problem themselves. The police are called in to repair, or at least lessen the damage done. However, right now, communities across the country are wondering whether the police are helping to alleviate the damage. The need for police accountability has never been more apparent than now. Last week, people watched George Floyd die at the knees of Minneapolis police officers. The death of Floyd demonstrated what some communities have complained about for decades: the blatant use of excessive and deadly force by the police.
The policing system
The policing system in the United States is unique. It is neither centralized nor does it fall under the control of the Federal Government. Each local, state, and tribal law enforcement agency in the nation falls under the control of a local governing body, executive, or elected officials. It also presents the most significant challenge to establishing standardized ethical and professional practices in a system that few would deny needs reform. The discussions of police reform need to focus on operational systems rather than individual officer behavior to have the best impact on policing outcomes.
William Edward Deming, a management guru, formed an 85/15 rule, which states that 85 percent of an organization’s problem is system-related, and 15 percent is worker-related. The rank-and-file officers do not decide on organizational policies and practices. Officers do not establish hiring standards, have the power to administer discipline or determine whether an agency embraces crime reduction strategies that result in racial disparities. Yet, when disparities and other system problems occur, rank-and-file officers are blamed for the outcomes. The rank-and-file officer must be held accountable for their actions. However, if the systems they operate are flawed, even good officers can have adverse consequences.
People’s focus must be on the policing systems, rather than the police officers, to achieve real and sustainable reform in law enforcement. Through reform, the policing systems need to identify not just the roles and responsibilities of the police, but also the vital roles and responsibilities of the communities. Healing the divide between the police and the community is a significant component of police reform. Not all the answers will be available. Holding a listening session to hear from officers and community members can go a long way to determine what works and what needs to happen to strengthen the relationship between the police and the communities.
We are at a defining moment in history. Through collective efforts to meet the challenges, the country faces, the police, and the communities they serve created an opportunity for everyone to see the need for policing reform. Changes will not come quickly or easily, and it will be a lot of work, but it is necessary.