How cities can reimagine their police forces and still fight crime

Police in Washington during protests on May 30.
Police in Washington during protests on May 30.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Over the weekend, a veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Council members said they would vote to dismantle the city’s police department. “When we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together,” councilman Jeremiah Ellison tweeted on June 4. “We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response. It’s really past due.”

For now, council members are looking at studies and other examples to figure out what’s next. And they’re unlikely to be alone. At US protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, “defund the police” has become a rallying cry.

As a call to action, defund the police can have a variety of meanings.”Dismantle, disinvest, defund, redirect, abolish—there may be some subtle differences between these… [but] there are some themes underneath them,” says Wesley Skogan, professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern University. “You’d be hard pressed to find an abolitionist position,” Skogan says. (Camden, New Jersey is one of very few locales that has disbanded and restarted its police force from scratch.) “So it’s all really a question of the adjustments that need to be made.”

Those adjustments can have a major impact. Past examples show that reimagining the police—in particular the organization’s scope and function—can make them more effective at fighting crime, and at earning the trust of their communities.

Focus the force

Over the past 40 years, the scope of policing in the US has continued to expand. “Policing is now happening in our schools,” Alex S. Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, told NPR. “It’s happening in relation to the problems of homelessness, untreated mental illness, youth violence, and some things that we historically associate police with. But the policing has become more intensive, more invasive, more aggressive.”

A different approach could refocus officers from broad social ills to meeting actual needs. Problem-oriented policing (POP), for example, asks police to identify specific problems in the community, think creatively about how to resolve them, and then assess whether the solution worked in order to iterate on it. The approach was first attempted in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1980s. In one experiment, Madison Police identified drunk drivers as a problem, and resolved to increase the number of police stops with these drivers, intervening when needed but not necessarily increasing arrests. They also increased training for such encounters, among other measures.

Since then, police departments in the US (Boston; Cincinnati; Chula Vista, California) and around the world (London; Lancashire, UK; Tønseberg, Norway) have tried versions of the POP model.

“This model… remains a dramatic innovation for most police agencies,” says Michael S. Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University. “The approach, although not explicitly about reducing racial bias and excessive force in policing, is very much designed to reduce the likelihood of both.”

Engage the community

It’s hard for people to trust the police when they don’t feel officers treat them fairly. A tactic called procedural justice is intended to change that. There are four main principles: treating people with dignity and respect, giving citizens a voice during encounters, being neutral in decision-making, and conveying trustworthy motives. Researchers have studied the psychology of procedural justice since the 1970s and found that it leaves communities happier and more trusting of law enforcement.

One small example: In a 2012 study in Queensland, Australia, officers at random checkpoints would either read from a specially designed script that invoked the principles of procedural justice (asking the citizen for input, meeting them at eye level, thanking them for their time), while other officers conducted themselves as usual. Citizens who encountered script-reading officers were more compliant and more satisfied with the interaction.

Researchers have found similar outcomes applying procedural justice to domestic violence (pdf), criminal justice (pdf), and juvenile justice, among others.

Demilitarize the crime-fighters

Due to legislation changes starting in the early 2000s, US police forces regularly acquire expensive equipment that goes beyond what their daily jobs require. “In some communities, the friendly neighborhood beat cop—community guardian—has been replaced with the urban warrior, trained for battle and equipped with the accouterments and weaponry of modern warfare,” write law enforcement officer Sue Rahr and criminal justice professor Stephen K. Rice in a 2015 paper (pdf). According to a study conducted in 2017, police decked out with military-grade weapons have more militaristic attitudes, resulting in more deaths of civilians and of police. Technologies intended to defuse these situations, such as body cameras, are not always effective.

Many other countries have lower rates of civilian deaths from police encounters than the US, in part because of what their officers don’t carry. Police in New Zealand and the UK, among other countries, don’t carry guns at all. In countries like Canada and Germany, some police carry pistols, but are trained to use them only as a last resort. This is also in part because of how police departments are funded—much of their funding comes from the federal government and can be tied to certain requirements for training or accountability.

Hold police accountable

In 1993, a gang of white men attacked Black teenager Stephen Lawrence as he waited for a bus in southeast London. Lawrence was stabbed to death, but successive police investigations failed to secure convictions. After a long, arduous campaign driven by Lawrence’s parents, a government-ordered judicial inquiry described London’s police as “institutionally racist” and recommended a series of reforms. Some of these reforms included: tracking the ethnicity of people who are stopped and searched, increasing the number of Black and minority ethnic (BAME) officers, and improving training on racially sensitive issues.

Those changes have made it less likely for police in London to stop or arrest Black people (though Black people are still disproportionately stopped and arrested). But the biggest change was in residents’ perception of the police: Citizens trust them enough to report race-driven hate crimes with greater frequency.

In the US, changes to accountability could work a few different ways. “First is the relationship between the police department, the mayor, and the city council, and through them the public,” Skogan says. Many police chiefs receive a lifetime appointment, so mayors looking for change can only cut budgets to realize it, which isn’t always ideal.

The second type of accountability is between individual officers and police department higher-ups; this one means a shared understanding that if an officer does something wrong, they will be disciplined accordingly.

Still one more approach can establish accountability between police and civilians directly, where the latter reviews and monitors police activity. Seattle is one US city that has experimented with civilian oversight.

Fund social services

One in four Americans with a mental disorder has a history of arrest, according to a 2016 review study. What if those patients engaged with psychiatrists or other mental health professionals instead of the police?

That’s the idea behind Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS)(pdf), a program that started in Eugene, Oregon in 1989. The program is not intended to replace police, but to take the burden off law enforcement of responding to calls regarding people who are mentally ill, homeless, or addicted to drugs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, CAHOOTS handled 17% of more than 96,000 calls made to police in Eugene in 2017. The model has since spread to Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; and Oakland and Los Angeles in California. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, psychiatrists work on the front lines alongside police.

But cities need to commit serious funding to these initiatives. “The reason why the police do a lot of things is because we gave it to them. They didn’t want it,” Skogan says. “We gave it to them because they are open 24/7 and they make house calls. Cops are only ones left who will actually come.”

Other cities are reducing the amount they spend on police to fund initiatives that alleviate poverty, improve education, and support youth—in other words, fighting some of the circumstances that can lead to crime instead of the crime itself.

Additional reporting by Hasit Shah