How can we heal the rift between police officers and the communities they patrol, improve public safety, and reduce violence committed by and against officers? That question was at the heart of a recent panel on police reform at NYU Law. An impressive group of panelists with experience as community leaders, police officers, civil rights prosecutors, and public defenders shared a range of ideas with a common thread: a change in department culture is the key.
Eric Adams, Brooklyn Bureau President and former police officer and state legislator, opened the discussion by asking the audience to raise what they were drinking. Analogizing to the successful culture shift from drinking soda to drinking water, he stated, “We have evolved as a society – policing has not.” Changing the culture within police departments will require “getting them to leave the Pepsi on the table.”
Camden Police Commissioner J. Scott Thompson elaborated on the idea of a culture shift, calling it a shift from “warrior to guardian.” Getting out of the patrol cars and into communities is the first step. In Camden, this meant (among other things) literally loading up paddy wagons full of cops and dropping them off in neighborhoods for the day. “You’re not going to change the culture through classroom training,” he explained.
Building trust between community leaders and police officers isn’t just good for PR purposes – it has the potentially to significantly reduce crime. “In some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, which were in Camden, we reduced the homicide rate by 50%. We didn’t do it by incarcerating people,” Thompson explained. “We did it by empowering the matriarchal and patriarchal figures in the community.”
Another panelist, NYU Law Clinical Professor Kim Taylor-Thompson, reinforced this idea. Studies have shown, she argued, that police officers – including police officers of color – are operating with embedded racial stereotypes that shape the way they approach certain communities, leading to disparate stops, arrests, and use of violence. Fixing this (huge) problem requires understanding the problem, and it requires exposure to members of the community that you’re policing that doesn’t start and end with a crisis. Police officers need to understand that the categories the criminal justice system imposes – offender, victim, etc. – are “permeable – they change every day.” When you see someone in contexts other than crisis, you see them as more than a threat to public safety.
Police academies don’t typically teach officers how to have casual, pleasant conversations with people in the communities they’re patrolling, but Adams had some concrete ideas for getting a new discourse off the ground. Cops who walk beats usually aren’t responding to calls – they could use that time effectively. “We’ve got a pre-K program – have them spread the word about that. We have a new municipal ID program – they could be talking to people about that. They could be saying ‘Hello.'” It’s Adams’ view that this could create a cascade of change in a community: “All of a sudden, you’ll have people talking about their neighborhood cop at cook-outs, at church.”
Another concrete recommendation for change included a shift regarding ways that departments get money. Right now, most funding programs ask questions about the number of arrests you have. As panelist James Johnson put it: “What are the questions you’re asking? What are the practices you want to see?” If those aren’t aligned, then you’re sending mixed messages.
Christy Lopez, Deputy Chief of the Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Unit, in the U.S. Department of Justice, suggested motivating good policing by emphasizing something most cops are drawn to already: legality. They’re here to uphold the law, she argued, and they are motivated to follow it themselves. But that requires consistently upholding standards not just within police departments, but throughout the whole criminal justice system.
Mixed messages come from prosecutors and judges, figures that Adams described as the “co-conspirators” of bad policing. These actors in the system know when they’re seeing the results of overly aggressive, racist policing. When they play along, they validate bad actors, a message that responsible, idealistic officers will absorb.
Lopez pointed to another complicit party: partners. Advocating for training on peer intervention, she pointed out how powerful a voice of reason could be. “How much better would these situations we’re talking about be if the partner has just stepped in?” she asked. Training on peer intervention – and support within the department for officers who are willing to intervene – would go “much further than body cams.”
NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has a different strategy for change in mind: turning resisting arrest into a felony. “We need to get around this idea that you can resist arrest,” he told NPR in December. “It results in potential injuries to the officer, to the suspect. And we need to change that, and the way to change that is to start penalties for it.”
Taylor-Thompson disagrees. She described representing clients charged with resisting arrest while with the D.C. Public Defender Services. Those clients were often beaten so badly they were hospitalized, while the police officer involved walked away unscathed. This led her to conclude that these charges were nothing but a cover for officers to justify use of force. Talking about increasing penalties is “missing the point,” she said.
But what can we do with departments that aren’t willing to make reforms on their own – or even to admit there’s something that needs to be reformed? Lopez recently returned from the prototypical example of just such a department: Ferguson. “Within moments, it was obvious this was a troubled department,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever used the word ‘compassion’ in a DOJ report, but that’s what it was – the lack of compassion was just so palpable.” She was particularly explicit about (very) thinly veiled racism she heard from officers she interviewed. “It was more normal, less harmful, for Black people to go to prison. ‘Some people just need to take responsibility’ was the message. This is what they were telling themselves – this is how they slept at night.”
Ferguson may be the poster child for problem departments,but the panelists made it clear that racism is a problem everywhere. Adams, for instance, described training a rookie officer in a housing project when he was a cop. The rookie pointed to urine in an elevator to say that the project residents didn’t deserve their help. “One person pissed in an elevator,” Adams responded, “a hundred others are just as upset about it as you are!”
Taylor-Thompson explained the message that was drilled into her growing up a Black girl in the Bronx: if a police officer talks to you “don’t talk back; pray they won’t do anything.” The idea that police officers might be violent was normalized. Adams talked about being arrested and beaten by police officers when he was 15 (“My brother and I peed blood for weeks”), and Johnson described moving slowly when he was pulled over because he knew that “your next fast move might be your last.”
Changes need to happen, and for some departments they will undoubtedly need to be imposed from the outside, like Lopez’s work with the DOJ in Ferguson. Change can also come from internal leadership, as Scott has shown in Camden. And it can come from local pressure, like that Adams is advocating in Brooklyn. Whatever the source, confronting racism head-on and turning to communities for guidance and partnership will be instrumental.
And what about the rest of the system? Adams pointed out that police officers don’t need to be identified exclusively with the criminal justice system – they’re already engaged with communities in many ways, and that can be expanded. But realistically the shortcomings of the rest of the process will be reflected on the gatekeepers: police officers.
“Police bear the brunt of the problems within the rest of the criminal justice system,” Lopez acknowledged. Improvements to the rest of the system will make their jobs and reputations better as well.