As you can see, from the graphic above, Police departments perform a wide variety of functions. Not surprisingly, different people want the police to focus on different tasks. On the conservative side, there is a demand for Order. Keep it quiet, keep the streets clean, keep teens from hanging out on the streets. On the liberal side, the demand is for Justice. Understand the history of each neighborhood, but ensure that all requests and complaints are addressed respectfully… regardless of race or sex.
Balancing both sides is quite a task. San Francisco, known for seeking social justice, unintentionally created “tent cities” with thousands of homeless living on the streets. Some towns that believe in strict order, can have police departments that kill a disturbingly large number of their citizens. Often those killed are minorities. And almost no police are sent to jail or even lose their jobs.
Both sides believe that police departments are broken. Unfortunately, police departments… good or bad… are caught in the middle. But police will not be able to solve these problems until WE (the citizens) decide what we want from the police. For example…
HISTORY: WHAT a police force does depends on WHEN they do it. After the Civil War, millions of southerners became economic refugees, migrating to the industrial North seeking work. In the 1930s the combination of the Dust Bowl and the Depression created more economic refugees. Early 20th Century police spent a great deal of time making sure that these migrants… moved on. Enforcing vagrancy laws became very important in those dangerous and violent times.
Overlapping with all of the problems above, was the rise of organized crime. The 18th Amendment (the Prohibition) banned the sale of alcohol, but as alcohol became harder to obtain prices skyrocketed, making bootlegging highly profitable. Police militarized, creating special “anti-Mafia” units, but the newly rich Mafia fought back. In 1971, the “War on Drugs” followed the same plan the price of drugs rose, providing vast profits to international drug cartels. Violent cartels now had the money to go to war with drug enforcement agencies. Drug dealers soon became a common sight in major cities.
21st century America is different. We still have homeless individuals and families, it is domestic violence and mental illness are the usual reasons. Violent crimes and robberies have almost disappeared. Cybercrimes are on the rise, but these crimes are rarely handled by local police. In many cities, police deployment is no longer aligned with the needs of the community. Consider…
STANDARDS: America has nearly 18,000 separate police departments. There are no national standards for training, job performance, or pay. On average, police spend 500 hours in training. Smaller and poorer police departments often receive MUCH less training. The most common form of training is on how (and when) to use a gun. While gun training averages 60 hours, compare that to de-escalation (how to deal with a tense or potentially violent situation) which gets just 8 hours of training… IF they receive any of this training at all.
For this discussion, the most important part of gun training is WHEN to use a gun. How aggressively should force be used? It’s hard to compare training, but it’s much easier to compare results.
New York City is generally considered a difficult city to police. Yet, NYC’s police kill only 1.2 out of every 1 million citizens. Compare this to 16.9 in St Louis. Or 10.4 in Oklahoma City. In one study, 100 US cities had higher rates of killings by police than New York. Why would so many cities have police that kill so many citizens? Could it be…
TRAINING: American police have far less training than counterparts in other developed nations. Basic training in England lasts 2,500 hours. Australia and Germany spend 3,000 to 4,000 hours, and Finland requires over 5,000 hours of training. That makes our 500 hours of training look pretty inadequate.
But more training doesn’t always mean better results. In America, about 1,000 citizens are killed annually by the police, and tens of thousands more are shot or injured. That’s 35 of every 10 million US citizens. The comparable number for Australia is just 12. In Germany it is 2, and in England it is less than 1.
Better training and management would save some of these lives. Why don’t US police departments adopt the training used in every other developed nation? Well, in the US we often say that we’re different because we have a special problem with…
VIOLENCE: The height of violent crime in the US was in the 1990s. New York City was called, justifiably, “Crime City”. In 1990 NYC had 2,262 homicides. But by 2020 homicides dropped to just 468. Robberies fell from 100,280 to 13,108. That’s a drop of 85%. Burglaries fell from 122,055 to 15,478. These are unprecedented declines in crime! Most American cities saw similar declines in violent crime. But most police departments still act (and train, and staff) as if violent crime is still a major issue.
Let’s go back to the graphic at the beginning of this article. If we combine assaults, burglary, homicides, even rape it’s just a small part of the total police workload. As violent crimes go away, how should cities adjust the way police are trained and armed? However, there is another type of violent crime that deserves special notice…
DRUGS: In 1971 President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. This war has raged for 50 years, costing $50 billion every year. Yet, after 50 years, Americans consume more drugs, of higher potency, and greater addictiveness, resulting in far more deaths from overdoses than before the “war” began. Since just 1999, deaths from opioids are up 600%, deaths from heroin are up 750%, and deaths from Amphetamines are up 3,000%.
But this flood of drugs did not start in Columbia or Mexico. Instead, it originated in the boardrooms of some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. After nearly 30 years, the FBI finally charged these firms (especially Purdue Pharma, Insys), and courts have issued multi-billion dollar fines (alas, the US rarely imprisons executives when they commit the same crimes as drug cartels or the Mafia).
These crimes are pursued by the DEA, the FBI, and federal law enforcement agencies. There is little if any room for participation by local police. As street drugs decline, how are police redeploying these resources? What are drug and vice units doing now that these crimes are leaving the streets? Perhaps, police should spend more time on…
SAFETY: Police always had a responsibility for citizen safety. Paramedics have more medical equipment and training, but some police departments are trained in CPR or wound care. It makes a big difference, especially because police are highly visible and well distributed throughout the community. Simply keeping an individual alive until they can receive medical care would make a big difference.
By one estimate, 100,000 to 200,000 lives could be saved every year if more people were trained to deliver CPR. In other developed nations, police already save the lives of overdose victims by using Narcan. This nasal spray disrupts overdosing and prevents the often fatal side-effects of an overdose. If the police were trained and equipped with Narcan, some of the 71,000 deaths from overdose could be avoided.
CYBERCRIME: According to the Harvard Business Review, America (and the world) are going cashless. Most Americans have credit or debit cards, and many also own BitCoins or other e-cash. Paper money is the least secure form of payment and the most vulnerable to crime. Less cash means less robbery, fraud, pickpocketing, and bank robberies.
Technology eliminates many crimes. Cameras are everywhere. They document crimes and track criminals to their hiding places. Databases and DNA tests provide conclusive identification of criminals. Electronic ignitions, security systems, and GPS tracking make it more difficult for criminals to steal a car, and easier for police to find car thieves. It may soon be common for police to remotely take over a stolen car. Traditional crimes no longer pay.
Of course, new crimes arise all the time. Individuals and major corporations are the targets of e-criminals. Ransomware, stolen identities, and password thefts have become common. Cyberextortion is probably more common than we think, since corporations that admits to failed security, will almost surely see their stock prices plunge.
HOMELESS: Big cities will always have homeless individuals, or people who are just “passing through”, but have no money. Migrations from the Dust Bowl and the Depression created something like today’s homeless crisis, especially if your city had railroads or one of the few highways of that time. Even in the 1920s and 1930s there were “tent cities”, but today’s homeless are very different.
Today there are as many as 500,000 log-term homeless in America. Nearly a third of these individuals are families, and half of the homeless are fleeing domestic violence. 45% have mental illnesses. Telling the homeless to move along, or waiting for the economy to improve doesn’t have much impact. Solving these issues requires specific skills and training, that few police departments possess. Yet, police are often held responsible for “controlling” homelessness.
For police to be EFFECTIVE, and to avoid potentially deadly altercations, police, shelters, and hospitals must be trained together and work together in teams. A true team requires significant training… for months or even years. That team would including police, housing, shelter, and hospital members. They would perform daily patrols, and track homeless individuals over time. It might make sense for this to be a separate unit dedicated to this issue, but it could be managed in any number of ways.
CONCLUSION: As you can see, police departments have many duties, which constantly change. While many 20th Century crimes have faded away, few police departments have updated their mandates and training. This has created a mismatch between the actions of the police and needs of the community.
Police departments can become less dependent on guns. The number of citizens killed by the police every year can be reduced. It all comes down to what we, America’s citizens, want and what we are willing to pay for it.
What do you think? Should America’s police follow the same plan as England, Germany, Scandinavia and other developed nations and create national policing standards and a police training curriculum? Should police shift their work to match new forms of crime? How responsible should the police be for maintaining public safety? Tell us what you think!