Criminologists and police officers at a Washington DC panel contend that policing in the U.S. is improving, despite a series of well-publicized shootings of unarmed citizens.
Ever since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, police around the nation have found themselves consistently under fire for reasons ranging from alleged racism to unjustified use of force.
Are the critics making a fair assessment? Scholars who study policing, and some current and former practitioners, don’t think so, judging from panel discussions on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
The talks were held at a new outpost in the nation’s capital opened by Arizona State University, whose criminology faculty is very active in research on policing.
The basic message of several panelists was that, taking the long view, policing in the U.S. has improved in recent years—not worsened—despite several well-publicized cases in which officers shot unarmed citizens without good reason.
In a discussion of efforts by officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations with crime suspects and others, the experts agreed that the technique is being embraced by more and more officers on the streets.
William Terrill, a policing expert on the Arizona State faculty, said that about three-fourths of officers successfully practiced de-escalation as far back as the 1990s.
The problem, Terrill said, is that what he described as a small group of officers believes that escalating a conflict can help bring it to a resolution because the officer can “maintain the edge… stay in control.” It is difficult to change police culture entirely in a short period, he said.
In police hiring today, applicants are told that most of their time probably will be devoted to “social work, not law enforcement,” Terrill commented. “We ask officers to do a lot, and not everyone is up to it.”
Edward Flynn, who recently retired as police chief in Milwaukee, said that policing has become much more responsive to community concerns since two landmark reports that recently marked their 50th anniversary.
They were issued by panels appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s on criminal justice and on race and poverty issues (the “Kerner Commission.”)
In Flynn’s view, as government agencies across the board try to deal with problems in high-poverty areas, “the police are uniquely singled out for negative attention” because it is their job to enforce the law.
Taking part in a panel on the use of data in evaluating the police, Flynn lamented that “stories beat data,” alluding to “critical incidents” in which officers are accused of wrongdoing. Such episodes “become the reality,” he said.
Another discussion at the Arizona State gathering involved the increasing attention in law enforcement circles to “procedural justice,” the idea that police will get better results and engender more community trust if they are perceived as treating the public fairly.
Panelists agreed that police in many areas are making limited progress in this area because officers are not seen as being treated fairly in their own organizations.
If the public sees that promotions in police departments are decided on a political basis rather than on grounds of competence, for example, they may not be likely to respect officers in street encounters.
Milwaukee’s Flynn noted that demands of police unions sometimes fly in the face of police administrators’ being able to hold officers accountable for mistakes.
In a discussion of officers’ wearing cameras to record interactions with suspects and the public, panelists agreed that studies have disagreed on how useful the cameras are.
In some places, use-of-force incidents by officers and complaints from the public have dropped as more officers wear cameras, and many are more careful about how they go about their work. In other areas, particularly a recent study of Washington, D.C., police, little change has been noted resulting from the cameras, said Arizona State’s Michael White, who has studied camera use for several years.
Overall, public trust in police may be rebounding after it fell in the aftermath of Ferguson’s Michael Brown shooting, said Arizona State criminologist Rick Trinkner.
Trinkner cited a Gallup survey last year finding that “overall confidence in the police has risen slightly in the past two years, with 57 percent of Americans now saying they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in law enforcement.”
Gallup said that level matched the overall average over 25 years.
Wednesday’s panels were moderated by Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.