By Lou Reiter, LLRMI Co-Director and Director of the Public Safety Internal Affairs InstituteLou Reiter

The Ferguson incident in 2014 focused renewed attention on local police practices.  As I have written and trained over the last several years, policing has experienced this same type of scrutiny and introspection every 25-30 years.  Unfortunately, this time it took only 6 years and the George Floyd death in Minneapolis.

In my opinion, however, law enforcement doesn’t learn.  We listen, nod our heads, attend study conferences and commission meetings, lean a little bit away from business as usual, and then bounce back eager to continue on as if nothing has happened.

Let’s go back to 1931 and the Wickersham Commission.  President Hoover employed this commission to address public and police corruption coming out of the Prohibition Era.  Local police were in bed with local mobsters.  Yet by 1933 there emerged a push to bring local law enforcement together for a “war on an armed underworld.”  This was accompanied by the redirection of the FBI.

Following the urban riots of the late 1960s the Kerner Commission published in 1967 its report, “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.”  It covered all the societal pressures responsible for the riots, but it was also a scathing indictment of local policing.  This study reported that to “some Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression.  And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes.  The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection – one for Negroes and one for whites.”  It further pointed out that the police involved in these riot controls were in cities “whose police are among the best led, best organized, best trained and most professional in the country.”  I was a street cop in Los Angeles during the 1960s and, contrary to Cheech and Chong, I remember the 60s. Doesn’t this rhetoric from the 1967 report sound like today’s chants?

The Kerner Commission study and the initial President Johnson study had some good ideas for transforming local policing.  During 1971-1972, I was one of 9 researchers for police agencies throughout the country who worked to put together standards and goals for policing that was published by the Department of Justice in 1973 as the ­Report on Police of the National Advisory Commission for Criminal Justice Standards and Goals.

This report incorporated many of the suggestions from the Kerner Commission as well as programs that seemed to be working in many local jurisdictions during this period.  Many of these recommendations were folded into the eventual standards of the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies begun in 1983.

Some of these suggestions were tried.  Other were not.  In retrospect those that have remained after all these years have been regionalization of some police functions, creation of POST entities and expanded basic training curriculum, and the birth of police collective bargaining.

All of this was seriously eroded by President Nixon’s war on drugs.  He announced that “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.  In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”  Every president since has expanded that war of drugs.  In reality it is our longest war eclipsing all of our wars in the Middle East.  It is a war we have not won.  Local police feed the appetite of the drug enforcement machine that was developed in prosecution, courts, parole and probation and jails and prisons.

Along the way we had the Rodney King incident in 1991.  There were numerous local study commissions empaneled (Christopher, Koltz and St. Clair as examples) that again reiterated the suggestions of all of the previous study groups.  Law enforcement did, however, begin to quantify use of force incidents.  Yet today it’s estimated that 40 percent of local agencies don’t supply that information to the FBI.

In 2014 the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson again set off the clamor to study and reimagine local law enforcement.  President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing produced reports and recommendations that again mirrored what previous study groups had concluded. Among the more interesting revelations was the power of the militaristic model versus the guardian model of policing, the invasiveness of the ‘cash register justice’ problem, and our industry miscalculation of the numbers of persons who actually die during police encounters.  Probably the most evident development resulting from this incident was the almost universal acceptance of and implementation of body worn cameras by police officers.

While President Obama pulled back on local police agencies being able to acquire military equipment, that was rescinded in 2017 by President Trump.

Today there are movements nationally, in Congress, state legislatures and local city and county government all proposing, making and arguing changes to local law enforcement.  Some are necessary, some are worthy of study, some are simply knee-jerk reactions, and other are potentially scary.  What is disturbing is that law enforcement knows most of these issues and has already made conscious choices to pretty much maintain the status quo.  Let’s look at some of the more common ones:

  • The issue of rogue cops or officers who are one-step away from being fired move on to another agency and then another. They have been referred to as ‘gypsy cops.’  Law enforcement has known about these cops since the 1980s.  POST units were supposed to eliminate them but didn’t.  There have been pressures to create some sort of national index to abate this problem but we haven’t.  Why do we have to look for someone else to do what we know we should do?
  • Qualified Immunity for police officers has nothing to do with their criminal conduct. It can limit whether a civil claim can get to the jury for some degree of compensation to the victim of police misconduct.  But there are many claims that are decided in court or are settled by the government.  One study indicated that between 2006 and 2011, 44 jurisdictions paid out over $735 million in civil cases.  The officers in those cases were required to pay only 0.02 percent or about $160,000. Now the movement is to have officers have insurance like doctors, lawyers, nurses and any licensed contractor you hire to do work on your home.  Shouldn’t officers have some ‘skin’ in these encounters?
  • Another common issue is reimagining, defund, disband or defend the local police agency. Any reasonable law enforcement professional should know that what we’re doing today isn’t working.  Police salaries and fringe costs are close to bankrupting some jurisdictions.  We know what the flashpoints of community unrest are within the minority sections of our jurisdictions – citations for revenue, stops for minor equipment issues to develop probable cause, field interview stops and enforcement of minor infractions or ‘quality of life’ issues.  So, do we really need someone else to tell us to do something about this policing directions.
  • A recent study by the LA Times disclosed that only 8 percent of the LAPD calls for service were associated with some form of violence. This is probably true for most jurisdictions.  Do we need the same level of police employee to handle the vast majority of service calls that are non-violent or civil in nature?  We’ve known this, but we haven’t done anything about it for years.  Does it take someone other than law enforcement professionals to tell us what we should or could do?

So, what can we learn from this historical discussion?

  • Local police are a resilient group and can wait out the immediacy of the public clamor
  • New programs and directions last only if they have a cheerleader in the agency and when that person leaves the program fades away quickly
  • Street level policework will not change unless the police culture can be changed
  • Police training still reflects what we’ve done in the past and emphasizes attributes that buttress our past beliefs
  • Money is not an answer
  • This history shows us that the ‘police reform’ movement can be quickly eroded by a perceived ‘law and order’ issue
  • Street cops have the ability to do the right thing for the right reason, but only if the field supervisor is on board with the program, present went necessary and strong enough to command adherence
  • Change won’t occur from the top down and the reform chief or sheriff usually has limited tenure that street cops and deputies can out wait
  • Change is scary!


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