Disputes over policing are of course not new. Andrea M. Headley and James E. Wright, II, look at "National Police Reform Commissions: Evidence-Based Practices or Unfulfilled Promises?" (Review of Black Political Economy, 2019, 46:4, pp. 277–305). As they point out, the 1931 National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement “the Wickersham Commission” was focused on problems like excessive police use of force, how the police should focus more on prevention of crime, and improvement of personnel standards for policy hiring.
Headley and Wright look at later police commissions, including the Kerner Commission report in the aftermath of the 1968 riots, the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the 2018 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a detailed report entitled “Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices.” As they note, later commissions often revisit the topics from the 1931 commission, while adding some additional concerns like improving police-community relations, accountability, transparency, and diversity.
In short, the current controversies surrounding police departments are not new, which of course is part of what makes them frustrating. Headley and Wright call it a "wicked problem," and write: Wicked problems are characterized by their complex nature, changing circumstances, lasting impact as well as the incomplete information regarding the issue—all of which pose difficulties for solving such problems."
Of course, commissions are often willing to write up a wish list of what the members think should be done. But does the existing research offer useful guidance about what might work? Lack of data has been a severe problem. For example, as the 2018 report of the US Civil Rights Commission notes, starting on the first page of the "Executive Summary":
While allegations that some police force is excessive, unjustified, and discriminatory continue and proliferate, current data regarding police use of force is insufficient to determine if instances are occurring more frequently. The public continues to hear competing narratives by law enforcement and community members, and the hard reality is that available national and local data is flawed and inadequate. A central contributing factor is the absence of mandatory federal reporting and standardized reporting guidelines. ... [M]oreoer, the data that are available is most frequently compiled by grassroots organizations, nonprofits, or media sources. Data are not only lacking regarding fatal police shootings, but data regarding all use of force are scant and incomplete.
The report then quotes Roland Fryer: "Data on lower level uses of force, which happen more frequently than officer-involved shootings, are virtually non-existent. This is due, in part, to the fact that most police precincts don’t explicitly collect data on use of force, and in part, to the fact that even when the data is hidden in plain view within police narrative accounts of interactions with civilians, it is exceedingly difficult to extract."
In a similar vein, Headley and Wright note:
Despite the breadth of studies surrounding police use of force, there are still questions that merit more attention. First, scholarship would be enhanced if we could identify why disparities in use of force exist and for which type of officers? For instance, are disparities present due to biases and discrimination on part of the officer? Are they present due to institutionalized racism or biases that are implicitly embedded in department practices, policies, or protocols? Or, are they present due to differences in the quantity and quality of civilian interactions with, and treatment toward, officers? Second, the literature on police use of force tells us very little about when force is not used. Thus, to be able to understand police use of force decision making more broadly, we need to also assess the interactions where force could have been used but was not. Getting at these nuances is key to enhancing the knowledge base on police use of force. To aid in addressing these questions, a national and comprehensive database of police–civilian interactions is warranted.Headley and Wright also cite an array of evidence about"community-oriented policing" (COP), a broad term that usually includes "the provision of victim services, counseling, community organizing, and education; and the establishment of foot patrols, neighborhood teams/offices, and precinct stations." They note: "The research has generally shown COP positively affects community perceptions and attitudes and thus builds relations, whereas such strategies have very limited, if any, effects on reducing crime." Given that improving police-community relations is a goal in itself, COP policies may be worth pursuing, but perhaps with limited expectations about how they will reduce crime.
They describe a knot of potential conflicts that can arise between goals of increasing diversity and the hiring standards that have in some cases limited hiring a more diverse workforce. Headley and Wright comment:
Police departments across the country are realizing the need to expand their hiring pool while also acknowledging some of the harms that have been done to keep people of color and women out of policing (whether intentionally or not), which provides a fruitful area for future research to assess. For instance, Madison Police Department in Wisconsin has restructured its physical agility test and has increased the number of women police officers hired, whereas St. Paul Police Department (Minnesota) changed its written test requirements (which had disproportionately adverse impacts on applicants of color) to focus more on personal history and community engagement rather than situational testing. Going a step further, Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board allows officers who have been arrested for criminal convictions to still be considered for law enforcement positions under certain criteria, whereas other police departments, such as the Burlington Police Department in Vermont, only require legal permanent residency or work authorizations instead of U.S. citizenship. These advances occurring in the police profession open a new door for researchers to conduct pre- and post-evaluations of recruitment and hiring initiatives particularly as it relates to long-term organizational culture and employee performance.One of the go-to suggestions for any police reform is "better training." They pour a little chilled (if not quite cold) water on this suggestion:
Training has been one of the most commonly used ways to respond to crises in the policing profession in hopes to affect police behavior. Unfortunately, with the lack of consistency in training across police departments, scholarship has not rigorously or systematically been able to examine the impacts of various types of trainings. This is a huge gap in the existing scholarship that needs to be filled to move the practice of policing forward and improve outcomes.Headley and Wright are not trying to provide a full overview of the literature. As they point out, many of the problems of policing fall under the heading of "culture"--whatever explicit rules exist, they are filtered through the culture of police departments. They do not discuss the issue of police unions, which may in some cases be a substantial barrier to accountability, transparency, and shifts in culture. Katherine J. Bies makes this case in a 2017 essay in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, where she writes: "Let the Sunshine In: Illuminating the Powerful Role Police Unions Play in Shielding Office Misconduct.'' She writes:
[D]uring the rise of police unions to political power in the 1970s, police unions lobbied for legislation that shrouded personnel files in secrecy and blocked public access to employee records of excessive force or other officer misconduct. Today, these officer misconduct confidentiality statutes continue to prohibit public disclosure of disciplinary records related to police shootings and other instances of excessive force. Moreover, as the failure of recent sunshine legislation demonstrates, police unions continue to challenge and deter today’s progressive reform efforts that would replace secrecy with accountability and transparency. This Note also argues that police unions are unparalleled in their ability to successfully advocate for policy proposals that conflict with traditional democratic values of accountability and transparency.
The problem of police reform of course involves a desire to minimize grievous abuses or excessive violence, but it's much more than that. The terrible cases in the headlines are the 10% of the iceberg that is showing above the waterline. The police need to be able to operate within their communities with some basic level of community support, but in many cities, police in their day-to-day interactions have already lost the trust of a substantial share of the public, and are in danger of losing the trust of many more.