Although it may be difficult to recognize right now, policing has made significant advancements in recent years. Police leaders have acknowledged—and some have even apologized for—the misdeeds of the past and have sought out community partners to build a better future. Agencies have worked hard to increase transparency, revise policies to enhance procedural justice, recruit and hire officers who reflect the communities they serve, reduce use-of-force incidents, and focus on eliminating police cultures that prevent officers from holding each other accountable.
Despite these advances, there is more work ahead. Police leaders are embracing the concerns and criticism and reexamining their policies and approaches. They are committed to working tirelessly to earn and keep the trust of communities. Change will require both dedicated resources and an enduring commitment from police leaders, community members, and elected officials.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that the issues in our criminal justice system extend well beyond the behavior of police. Over the years, reductions in federal, state, and local budgets have slashed funding for mental health support, homelessness, untreated substance abuse and recovery services, offender reentry programs, educational and vocational training, and programs that promote economic improvement.
By default, police agencies have been required to fill the voids created by these funding cuts. The lack of access to mental health services means that the police are often the only ones left to call. Although agencies are working to train officers in crisis intervention or mental health first aid, this does not take the place of proper medical treatment.
At the same time, while policing is the focus, community members and elected officials must realize they play a crucial role in moving constructive efforts forward. Collectively, we must be willing to listen and discuss the realities of policing, identify meaningful solutions, and understand that police officers have literally dedicated their lives to protecting their communities.
To that end, there are several steps that law enforcement agencies, community leaders, and elected officials should be engaged in. These changes would impact both the culture of policing and the laws and regulations that govern police operations. They include:
1. Adoption of National Consensus Use of Force Policy
All police agencies should adopt the National Consensus Use of Force Policy (Consensus Policy) developed by a broad coalition of law enforcement leadership and labor organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), and others.
The Consensus Policy makes it clear that it is the policy of law enforcement agencies to value and preserve human life and that they should develop policies and training practices that focus on de-escalation and the application of force only when necessary.
In addition, the Consensus Policy states:
- Officers shall use force only when no reasonably effective alternative appears to exist and shall use only the level of force that a reasonably prudent officer would use under the same or similar circumstances.
- Officers shall use only the force that is objectively reasonable to effectively bring an incident under control while protecting the safety of the officer and others.
- Use of physical force should be discontinued when resistance ceases or when the incident is under control.
- Physical force shall not be used against individuals in restraints, except as objectively reasonable to prevent their escape or prevent imminent bodily injury to the individual, the officer, or another person or property damage. In these situations, only the minimal amount of force necessary to control the situation shall be used.
- Once the scene is safe, and as soon as practical, an officer shall provide appropriate medical care consistent with his or her training to any individual who has visible injuries, complains of being injured, or requests medical attention. This may include providing first aid, requesting emergency medical services, and/or arranging for transportation to an emergency medical facility.
- An officer has a duty to intervene to prevent or stop the use of excessive force by another officer when it is safe and reasonable to do so.
- All uses of force shall be documented and investigated.
2. Mandatory Participation in the National Use of Force Database
Participation in the National Use of Force Data Collection effort will help law enforcement, elected officials, and community members better identify and understand the totality of incidents, trends associated with use-of-force incidents, and other outlying factors.
3. Development of National Standards for Discipline and Termination of Officers
There is a need to develop national standards and policies for the discipline and termination of officers in order to establish uniformity and a gold standard of excellence and to prevent malevolent, incompetent, or dishonorable individuals from remaining in the police profession.
4. Participation in the Police Officer Decertification Database
The database aids law enforcement agencies in making informed hiring decisions and prevents officers who have been terminated by an agency from being able to go to another state to be hired. An agency or official in each state should be responsible for submitting data concerning officers separated from employment and whose certifications have been revoked in the state.
5. Enhancement of Police Leadership and Culture
Police leaders must prioritize diversity and create a culture of equity and inclusion by working to eliminate racial, ethnic, and gender bias in the workplace. This should be accomplished by
- embracing procedural justice as a guiding principle that informs policies, practices, and training;
- adopting comprehensive bias-free policies;
- ensuring officers are trained in bias-free policing;
- ensuring that field training incorporates core values and communicates them to new officers; and
- providing communities with a direct, ongoing voice in their police agencies by involving community members in the review and development of departmental policies and procedures.
6. Implementation of Improved Recruitment, Hiring, and Promotion Practices
This includes increased educational standards, background investigations, targeted recruitment efforts, review of hiring standards and practices, diversity, in-service training, and recruit training programs.
7. Enhanced Ability of Police Agencies to Implement Effective Discipline
Contracts, labor agreements, and civil service rules often make it difficult for departments to swiftly remove problematic officers. While ensuring that the due process rights of officers are respected, the authority of management in disciplinary proceedings needs to be enhanced to allow agencies to expediently discipline and terminate officers. Further, when negotiating such agreements, police leaders have a responsibility to ensure the agreement aligns with the envisioned organizational culture and community expectations.