Op-Ed: The Need for a Fundamental Culture Change in Our Police Departments

Harry Pozycki, Jiles H. Ship | July 6, 2020 | Opinion
‘In too many police departments, progress is blocked by a resistant warrior culture’

The cold-blooded killing of George Floyd provides yet another costly reminder that a fundamental culture change is needed in our police departments. It is the case that some progress has been made in implementing certain elements of de-escalation, but in too many police departments, progress is blocked by a resistant warrior culture that stands in the way of truly “protecting and serving.” To be effective in changing the culture of police forces in order to stop the excessive use of force, a comprehensive approach that is tied to officers’ promotions must be put in place.

The Citizens Campaign Comprehensive Police De-escalation Policy sets forth all the elements required to truly bring about a culture of de-escalation, including a specific and clear use of force policy, de-escalation training, tracking and review of use of force incidents, and most importantly, requiring promotion decisions to be tied to officers’ use of force records. These measures are essential to dramatically reducing the number of incidents where force is used excessively, limiting avoidable injuries and deaths and gaining the trust required from residents essential to effectively protecting public safety.

Taken together, the components of this Citizens Campaign policy are designed to make “use of force as a last resort” the accepted and adhered-to standard.

Civic Trusts, facilitated by The Citizens Campaign, are set to present this de-escalation policy to their local governments in six Civic Trust cities: Newark, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Trenton and Philadelphia. Plans will be adapted to factor in varying existing local police department policies and community needs. Civic trusts are comprised of about two dozen civic trustees who meet in monthly “no-blame solution sessions” to find and adapt cost-effective, evidence-based policy solutions.

Key policy elements

 The general plan elements are outlined briefly below:

  • Putting in place use of force as a last resort policy: Use of force policies, such as the one put in place by the Camden County Police Department, which has primary law enforcement responsibility in the city of Camden, provide clear and specific guidance for use of force as a last resort and contribute to significant reductions in excessive use of force incidents. These policies spell out that the first order of business is to work to “de-escalate confrontations with the goal of resolving encounters without force.”
  • Substantial de-escalation training: Police departments that have implemented serious and expanded de-escalation training show significant reductions in injuries and fatalities for both civilians and police officers and much lower payouts in excessive force legal suits. Tying the training to the specific use of force as a last resort policy will make it even more potent. Serious de-escalation training teaches “officers to slow down, create space, and use communication techniques to defuse potentially dangerous situations.” It also gives officers strategies to more effectively deal with people who are experiencing mental and emotional crises.
  • Tying use of force records to officer promotions: Success in appropriate use of force should be given significant weight in promotions in order to incentivize the culture change needed. In addition, superior officers who have officers reporting to them should have the records of their division or precincts on “use of force as a last resort” incorporated into their overall performance evaluations, as well.
  • Requiring body-worn cameras: Body-worn cameras mounted on an officer’s eyeglasses or chest area provide a visual record of use of force incidents and other more positive interactions with community members. Their required use provides the transparency that builds trust, deters the inappropriate use of force and, importantly, enhances evaluation and on-the-job learning. Keeping the cameras turned on must be strictly enforced with consequences for officers who don’t comply.
  • Tracking and publishing use of force incidents: Mandating the filling out of use of force reports, including the race and ethnicity of suspects, is essential to building the accountability necessary for implementing a comprehensive de-escalation policy. Incidents must be reviewed with the officers involved for both evaluation of de-escalation performance and lessons-learned purposes. Additionally, a comprehensive use of force report for the police department must be produced quarterly in order to measure progress on de-escalation, and made public to ensure accountability.
  • Psychological testing to identify police recruits who possess strong interpersonal skills: Psychological testing has been used by police departments mainly at the tail-end of the hiring process to rule out someone with obvious red flags, such as explicit racial biases. It is better, as some police departments are beginning to do, to use the tests earlier in the hiring process to help identify candidates who have high executive control of impulses and strong interpersonal skills that would make them more likely to be interested in and skilled at de-escalation.
  • Connecting police to the community: Research shows that regular contact with members of the community in non-law enforcement settings reduces implicit bias. Devising programs that bring police officers to high schools and junior high schools on a regular basis to meet with students to discuss their work and to talk about careers in law enforcement — rather than employing them as enforcers of school discipline — can help build mutual respect. Promoting regular contact with a broad cross-section of residents through a community policing approach is also essential.