With identity crisis in police, more Fergusons inevitable

Does this look like community policing? Flikr/Jamelle Bouie , CC BY-SA

Recent social unrest across the country protesting the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the police chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York has reopened wounds and revealed deeply rooted tensions between citizens and police, especially in ethnic minority communities.

These incidents of real or perceived police misconduct followed by social unrest and riots are not new. In the 1960s there were the Watts Riots. In the early 1990s there were five days of rioting in reaction to the videotaped Rodney King beating.

An examination of the history of policing shows that this cyclical pattern can be explained by fundamental changes in policing over the past century.

The first century: the political era of policing

In fact, the relationship between police and citizens in the US was not always contentious: it was quite the opposite.

Prior to the mid 19th century in cities like New York and Boston, a rag tag group of loosely formed community members, known as “night watchmen,” patrolled the streets. These men were very different from the police officers we see today. They were men who had other occupations and volunteered their services – often at night.

With no training or weapons, these watchmen’s primary role was to keep the peace. This mandate was perfectly fine with early Americans, who were wary of a standing army. Moreover, since the watchmen were from the community and relied on community members for backup, they ended up simply enforcing community norms regardless of them being legal or illegal.

By the early 20th century, the night watchman model had been replaced by an independent 24-hour organization that looked to prevent crime - not just react to incidents. But the subsequent intertwining of police and politics, such as the (established in 1845) New York Police Department’s association with Tammany Hall, was being criticized for corruption. This ushered in an era of professionalism by police.

Professionalization and a change in attitude towards civilians

A handful of police reformers, who included Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, and an early President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Richard Sylvester, spearheaded the changes designed to establish standards similar to those in prestigious and respected professions like medicine.

According to these police reformers, the new officer was to be highly trained, uniformed, armed, and most importantly, incorruptible. By design, the new officer was guided by bureaucratic policy and procedures. Instead of relying on community members for backup during the night watchman model, the professional officer, aided by the implementation of patrol vehicles, call boxes, and eventually two-way radios, were to rely on each other during emergencies. Their performance was to be based on crime-control measures, such as the arrest rates found in the FBI’s ubiquitous Uniform Crime Reports that date from the 1930s.

These structural changes had an immediate impact on how police viewed citizens. To the reactive crime fighter who responded to calls for service from patrol cars, citizens were no longer generally considered friends and neighbors but potential liars and criminals who are often out to get the police in trouble. This perspective was documented in particularly vivid fashion by MIT professor John Van Maanen’s 1978 article about the meaning of the “asshole” among police officers:

“I guess what our job really boils down to is not letting the assholes take over the city. Now I’m not talking about your regular crooks. They’re bound to end up in the joint anyway…What I’m talking about are those shitheads out to prove they can push everybody around…They’re the ones that make it tough on the decent people out there. You take the majority of what we do and it’s nothing more than asshole control.” A veteran patrolman

An “us versus them” mentality began to develop, where police saw themselves as the moral order that is under constant attack by politicians, criminals, and ungrateful citizens.

Given the ever present potential for danger in their work, police officers drew closer to each other and developed an informal code of conduct that includes the so-called “blue wall of silence,” whereby police misconduct is tacitly accepted. It is never acceptable to snitch. For example, when a female Florida State Trooper pulled over and arrested a Miami Police Officer (fully uniformed in a police car) for driving approximately 120 mph (193 kmh), she was harassed and threatened by over 100 other officers around the country.

The beating Rodney King on primetime TV news.

Manifestations of this group mentality and its attendant cover-ups have been documented and revealed through a number of high-profile cases. The 1991 Rodney King case is perhaps the best example. Official reports and recorded audio recordings implicated the involved officers as covering up for each other. One radio transmission from one officer stated, “Oops…I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time”; an admission not indicated in any initial report (See Christopher Commission Report).

The Christopher Commission Report that came in the wake of the case cited the police subculture as a major contributing factor to a pattern of brutality and cover ups and also included racial bias, sexism, and homophobia. An examination of Mobile Display Terminals (MDT) data by the Christopher Commission showed patterns of open racism, such as “Sounds like monkey slapping time” (See Christopher Commission Report).

The call for community policing

All these factors are part of the urban African-American experience.They have contributed to deep-rooted mistrust of the police. No surprise then that calls for reforming the police have been focused on restoring community-police trust and relations. What’s happened over the past few decades have – ironically – focused on reestablishing some version of the early night watchmen model.

Virtually all police departments today claim that they are implementing some form of community policing, an approach based on community-police partnerships that includes open information sharing, community-directed issues, and other proactive collaborations focused on disorder, fear of crime, and crime prevention. More officers in large departments today are placed on walking and bicycle patrols. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 95% of departments in large populations utilized some form of walking or bike patrol in 2007.

Look at almost any police recruitment brochure in the past few decades and you will see women and minority officers, a move that better reflects increasingly diverse communities. In 2007 one in eight officers were women compared with 1 in 13 in 1987 and one in four officers were from racial minorities compared to one in six in 1987. Despite these efforts, incidents like the ones in Ferguson and New York remind us that this is not enough.

A 21st century identity crisis

Police today have an identity crisis. Despite efforts in community policing and the hiring of a more representative force, the future of policing is one that is based on information gathering. Instead of working with the public to collect and share information, much of the time police are gathering information about the public.

In order to better manage risk and minimize the danger, the police must gather, process, and interpret as much information as possible. One could say that they are like soldiers gathering intelligence about the enemy.

Take this scenario: An officer stops a vehicle based on an automated license plate scanning. Before he or she gets out of his patrol car, the driver’s full history with law enforcement and personal information appears on the car’s computer screen. The officer then approaches the driver based on this information while dash-mounted cameras, body cameras and so on collect more information for future use.

Moreover, police have sought to access information from smartphones and other private data sources. For example, it was recently exposed that Virginia Police have been secretly collecting phone data. In contrast, Apple and Google drew criticism from law enforcement around the country when their latest software updates essentially made it technically impossible to extract user data by law enforcement.

Today’s and tomorrow’s officers have advantages over suspects with the latest crime control technology, often adapted from the military. Officers responding to dangerous situations are dressed in military tactical gear carrying military-grade weapons while riding in military vehicles with helicopters and drones circling overhead, as was evident from the massive response to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 (minus the drones).

In Texas, one sheriff’s office purchased the controversial ‘Shadowhawk’ drone, which can perform surveillance but can also be armed with impact rounds, chemical munitions, and tasers.

These tactics and images makes one wonder who the typical policeman of tomorrow will be: the minority officer sensitive to the needs of the community (for the sake of restoring community trust) or the oppressive fully-armed standing army (for the sake of officer safety)? Until the police resolve this bipolar identity, future Fergusons are, I would argue, inevitable.