May 22, 2021

What Police Reform in America Really Needs to Look Like


Dear PERF members, 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the issue of police reform remains front and center. But just what does “police reform” in America look like today?

In most jurisdictions – local, state, and now in Congress – reform has come to look something like this:

  • Ban chokeholds;
  • Restrict no-knock warrants; 
  • Require officers to wear body-worn cameras (and penalize those who don’t turn on their cameras);
  • Weaken qualified immunity;
  • Restrict the role of police chiefs in imposing discipline and give that authority to civilian oversight boards;
  • Create new use-of-force standards and require de-escalation training;
  • Involve other agencies in responding to mental health and other types of calls for service;
  • Reassign police officers and sheriffs’ deputies who serve as school resource officers;
  • Develop a database of officers who have been fired;
  • Prohibit officers from placing a knee on a suspect’s back, with criminal penalties.

Some of these reforms are clearly useful and necessary, and they’re a start.  Others will have unintended consequences.  A more comprehensive, thought-out approach is needed. This is similar to what PERF found when developing our Guiding Principles on Use of Force in 2016. The PERF guidelines were a good start, but we created the ICAT training program as a more holistic approach to guiding officers’ actions. Officers needed training on how they could do their jobs well while operating within the “PERF 30”  policy framework. Over the past few years, we’ve refined our ICAT training to provide officers with the skills they need to succeed.

Let’s step back for a moment and ask a basic question: Taken together, do we really think that the long list of reforms above will fundamentally change the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country and achieve the change we need? 

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer is clearly “no.” Every day, it seems, some new incident emerges that doesn’t fit neatly under the existing list of reform measures. Such incidents expose the shortcomings of the piecemeal approach to police reform and further frustrate those who are committed to real and lasting reform.

Police reform in America cannot be achieved through a list of do’s and don’ts. And unnecessarily punitive approaches will likely have a minimal impact on problem officers, but they may prompt good cops to worry about making a mistake that could threaten their careers and livelihoods. Take, for example, the Illinois reform bill that says that a police officer who knowingly doesn't turn on his body-worn camera or leaves a detail out of a report can be charged criminally.  I understand the intent to get it right, but is charging a cop with a crime the way to change behavior?

To achieve real and lasting change, we need to step back and think more comprehensively. Our country needs a major effort that will teach officers what they should do, rather than just expanding the list of things they should not do.

Just as President Kennedy launched the Apollo program in 1961 and set an extremely ambitious national goal – “before this decade is out, landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth” –  today we need a national commitment to inspire and attract young men and women to the nobility of good policing.

Why do I say we need a national commitment? There are two things that are apparent to me. One is that the working cop feels alone and under-appreciated. At the same time, the American people are seeing  videos of police actions that raise significant questions.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that everything is wrong, but we need to be honest with ourselves: There are fundamental elements of policing today that are simply outdated and need fixing … now.

Take police training. In many ways, the basic approach to training police officers has not changed substantially in decades. There are still too many boot-camp style police academies that train police officers more like soldiers than public servants. Should we be surprised that new officers often seem militaristic when they hit the streets?

Police training continues to emphasize hard skills like firearms proficiency and defensive tactics, which are critically important. But this focus often comes at the expense of instruction on communications, critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making – the skills that are crucial to helping officers deal with tense situations before they escalate.

Our whole approach to officer training is outdated. We need a new blueprint for how to educate the next generation of officers more effectively and smartly.

Another critical area is research on what works in policing. Over the years, federal agencies such as the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the COPS Office, as well as some private foundations, have valiantly supported policing research with the limited funds available to them.

But our country spends next to nothing trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work in policing and crime prevention. Our investment in research on how to keep Americans safe at home pales in comparison to what we spend on learning how to protect our country from foreign threats.

With homicides and other violent crimes significantly on the rise in communities across the country, public safety has become one of most pressing domestic challenges we face today. Yet our investment in research on how to effectively combat crime is amazingly minuscule in comparison to the need.

For example, there is very limited research on what works in training,  and whether various types of less-lethal equipment are effective. So police departments have no guidance.

We are facing nothing less than a national crisis in policing today. I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but I worry that we are losing public confidence. Fewer people are entering the profession, while more are leaving through retirements and resignations. Police agencies are stretched thin, and violent crime is on the rise.

So we have a national crisis that begs for leadership. And as President Kennedy set the goal of putting a man on the moon, we ask for our President to use all of his experience with us over the past 25 years to seize the moment, to own this issue, because he knows and appreciates good policing.  We need both investment and leadership.

Enjoy your Saturday, and thanks for all you do.  Weekend Clips are below.