March 13, 2021

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead, on Police Reform


Dear PERF members, 

Five years ago this month, PERF published our Guiding Principles on Use of Force. The “PERF 30” came out during a time, like now, of intense national debate over police use of force, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and other high-profile incidents.

Our Guiding Principles generated a torrent of reaction. Some people called our ideas transformational. Others said they were dangerous and would get cops injured or killed (a prediction that has proven not to be the case). Our report was intended to save lives, and I believe it has done that.  It required that we shake up the status quo, challenge conventional thinking, and elevate the national discussion about the defining issue in American policing: use of force.

Now, five years later, I thought it would be good to step back and take stock of what has happened since our Guiding Principles were published. Has the policing profession progressed, and if so, how far? As the nation once again grapples with issues of police use of force and reform, what work remains?

Encouraging Signs

There have certainly been signs of progress. Today, our very first principle – “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does” – is almost universally acknowledged. This language has been incorporated into agency mission statements and policies, and the idea of “everyone going home safely” is now commonplace.

Other elements of the PERF 30 have also become embedded in many agencies’ policies and operations. Departments have adopted duty-to-intervene policies, and many have begun to train in how to intervene through the ABLE curriculum, which teaches “active bystandership for law enforcement.”  

Duty to intervene is a critically important policy change. Just think of how different things would be today if the other officers in Minneapolis had intervened when they saw Officer Derek Chauvin using force against George Floyd.

And in many agencies, officers who use force that results in an injury are now immediately rendering first aid, something that did not happen routinely in the past.

Agencies are being much more transparent about sharing information, including body-worn camera footage, following serious use-of-force incidents. They are also providing statistical reports to the community and participating in the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection program. And earlier this week, in a major step toward transparency, the NYPD launched a new officer profile database that contains the disciplinary history and other information about every sworn member of the department.

Some New Reform Measures Miss the Big Picture

However, once again, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have rocked the policing profession. Across the country, legislators and policymakers have responded with a variety of measures intended to “reform” policing. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have introduced more than 700 bills addressing police reform since the killing of George Floyd, and nearly 100 have been enacted. At the local level, city councils have debated their own measures, and community leaders have proposed sweeping changes too.

But when you look at many of the remedies being proposed, you have to wonder whether the proponents of these changes are seeing the big picture, and what the real implications of their efforts may be.

First came the calls to “defund the police.” The defund movement sprang up at the very time when police budgets were already being stretched by the COVID-19 pandemic. The NYPD and LAPD were among the early casualties of this short-sighted thinking, and it’s worth noting that violent crime spiked in both cities. In Minneapolis, where the defund movement was supported by elected officials and others, the police department saw the biggest reduction in officers -- and the biggest increase in violent crime in decades.

In July, when PERF surveyed our member agencies about their budgets, 48% said they were experiencing or anticipating a cut. The primary items on the chopping block were equipment, training, and hiring. Failing to make these types of investments not only threatens meaningful reform efforts in the short term, it can threaten damage agencies for years to come as they fall farther behind in technology, research and development.

At the same time budgets are being cut, some states are saddling police agencies with new sets of unfunded mandates. For example, Illinois recently enacted legislation that will require every agency in the state to outfit all of their officers with body-worn cameras. Don’t get me wrong: body-worn cameras are a great tool for promoting accountability and improving policing. But to create an unfunded mandate at a time when agencies are having to scale back on other necessities hardly seems like reform, especially in small and rural communities in Illinois that have small tax bases and will be especially hard hit by this mandate.

Other reform efforts are simply misguided. Campaign Zero’s 8CantWait campaign has several important elements that align with the PERF 30, including requiring policies on de-escalation and duty to intervene, and prohibiting shooting at motor vehicles in almost all cases. But the campaign also calls on police agencies to adopt use-of-force continuums. These are rigid, mechanical systems in which levels of resistance by a subject are matched by an escalating police response of potentially greater force.  This old-fashioned approach is the exact opposite of the de-escalation principles outlined in the PERF 30 – slowing situations down, using time, distance and cover, and relying on a more flexible Critical Decision-Making Model, rather than a rigid continuum, to guide officers’ actions.

Moving Beyond “Check-the-Box” Reforms

With the PERF 30, we aimed at big concepts and principles – sanctity of life, proportionality, de-escalation. But many reforms being proposed today seem more like a “check the box” type of exercise. Ban chokeholds – check. Restrict no-knock warrants – check. Establish a civilian oversight panel – check.

These and other changes are well-meaning and important. But it feels as if they are only scratching the surface and not getting at the deeper, more fundamental changes that are actually needed.

To achieve meaningful reductions in use of force, we need to do more than create a checklist that tells police officers what they can’t do. We need to go upstream and focus on educating officers on what they can do and should do.

We need to recognize that today’s training is not meeting the new thinking about use of force. The landscape has changed dramatically, but the training hasn’t kept pace. And cops continue to do what they have been trained to do, based on the old thinking.

Training Officers To Be Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

In many ways, we still train our officers to think of their job as just rigidly following a convoluted set of rules and regulations, which keep getting more complex by the latest “reforms” dictated by state legislatures and city councils.

To achieve real and lasting reform, we need to start by blowing up the traditional police academy approach and begin training cops in a fundamentally different manner. We need to teach officers how to identify and solve problems, not by adhering to a checklist of “do’s and don’ts,” but by thinking critically and acting ethically.

We know this type of training works. As I’ve mentioned before, the recent study of PERF’s ICAT training in the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department found that PERF’s ICAT training produced significant reductions not only in the number of use-of-force incidents, but also in injuries to both citizens and police officers.

ICAT is grounded in the Critical Decision-Making Model and other key elements of the PERF 30. Our experience in delivering ICAT training to dozens of agencies across the country is that officers are ready – indeed, eager – to be trained in new ways that improve their performance and their safety.

Training as a First Step to Changing Culture

Changing how we train officers is critical, but it isn’t enough. Changes in training must be viewed as part of a bigger push to fundamentally change the culture of policing.  Culture, of course, is often difficult to define and even harder to operationalize. But there are two key points that I think agencies should focus on.

First is the myth that the police always have to “win.”

When it comes to an active shooter incident or other serious crimes in progress, the police must win. There is no choice. But in the case of a mother who calls the police because her son is out of control due to a mental disability, police officers get better results by stepping back, re-evaluating, and bringing in additional help.

In these types of situations, winning can’t be at any cost. Taking a step back is not losing. It’s good decision-making and smart policing.

A second key aspect to changing culture is asking, “What do we need to do to prevent the next officer-involved shooting?”  It’s important to have a process for learning from your own agency’s experiences, as well as the incidents that other agencies experience. When mistakes are made or improvements are possible, agencies need to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking and make changes based on what they have learned.  

We have done this with crime. In Compstat meetings, crime patterns are routinely analyzed in extreme detail.  We should do the same with uses of force.

As I look back on the past five years, I think the PERF 30 have held up well. I’m grateful to all the departments that worked with us so closely in drafting and vetting them. There has been no sign that we ever needed to go back and repeal any of the 30 principles. 

But there is still a lot of work to do. Fully embracing the Guiding Principles, transforming training, and changing culture will get us closer to achieving the real and lasting reforms we are all seeking. Five years from now, we certainly don’t want to be having these same conversations all over again.