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Maybe it’s time to reinvent the police

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | January 6, 2015

The astoundingly crude and arrogant response of NYPD rank and file to the tragic murder of two officers by an unstable young man last month (read the fascinating story by Kim Barker, Mosi Secret and Richard Fausset in the New York Times on the man who killed the officers) raises an interesting question: do we really need the police?

Angry at Mayor Bill DeBlasio for winning an election on reforming police practices, and speaking honestly about how people of color feel about the police in the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings, NYPD officers have undertaken a public campaign of not using their arrest powers unless the situation absolutely requires it, resulting in an unprecedented drop in both arrests and parking tickets.  Angered that citizens and their elected officials should ever question how the police behave, NY “finest” are saying in effect, “you’ll have it our way, or you won’t have it at all.”  Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to say “let’s not have it this way at all, and if you can’t change, we need a new alternative. ”

My criminological colleagues will be cringing. Cannonical doctrine suggests that while better policing may lead to better public safety results, even the worse police department is better than none at all. In a famous natural experiment in 1944, documented by criminologist Johannes Andeneas, the Nazis arrested the entire police force of occupied Copenhagen (fearing that they would aid an Allied effort to liberate the city). Despite the Nazis’ own credible threats to execute criminals on site, and what one might expect to be strong feelings of solidarity among the citizens of the occupied city, robberies and larcenies soared; similar results have emerged from police strikes (see a summary by Lawrence Sherman of some studies here).

But we need not consider replacing the police with nothing.  The real question is why, despite a century and a half of incredible urban and political change in industrial democracies, we still cling to the idea of the police invented in the early 19th century to contain the dangerous classes of London and New York?

I’m not ready to float a comprehensive proposal now, but a few thoughts to get our collective imagination going while we wait to see how NYPD’s Copenhagen experiment plays out.

  • Most criminologists acknowledge that individual willingness to obey the law (because it seems legitimate to do so), and collective efficacy at naming and blaming those who do not obey the law, are more important than formal efforts at social control carried out by police and courts.  Indeed the latter can do little without the former.
  • Arrogant, aggressive police tactics that cause individuals to lose their sense of the law’s legitimacy, and interrupt the communities capacity to enforce norms of civility, may encourage more crime than they deter.
  • Police departments are really conglomerations of services: traffic, detectives (homicide, robberies), narcotics/vice,  SWAT team, patrol.  In our current model, the generalist patrol officer who can wield a gun and a pair of handcuffs is the paradigm and all other variations have to come through this central paradigm. Perhaps we should take a lesson from our neoliberal corporate friends and think about breaking up this conglomerate, reshuffling the segments so they can develop training methods and cultures conducive to their greatest efficacy.
  • In reimagining the police, questions of level of governance are worth considering. Some functions, like detectives or SWAT teams, seem best organized and deployed from the center of the city with equal application to all neighborhoods. Patrol, in contrast, might well be organized very differently in different neighborhoods to achieve the optimal forms of police presence in the community.
  • In 1970, Berkeley voters considered a proposal, supported by radical members of UC Berkeley’s School of Criminology, to break up the police department into three neighborhood units and require police officers to live in the neighborhoods they policed.  The initiative was defeated overwhelmingly but that was at the height of the crime wave of the 1960s and at a time when middle class voters were becoming collectively traumatized by crime fear.

Do we really need the police? So far, crime has not gone up in New York City, but criminological doctrine suggests it is only a matter of time before the criminally inclined decide there is little price to be paid for acting on those impulses.

On the other hand, crime is highly situational, and responsive to  individual and collective sensibilities. Perhaps the same emotions that have led tens of thousands of New Yorkers to protest against aggressive policing (and earlier to vote for Bill DeBlasio) has led more individuals to feel a sense of legitimacy in the public order of the city and a sense of collective efficacy.

I would not want to rely on individual consent and collective efficacy to keep crime low on their own indefinitely. We need something like the police, but not “the police” as we’ve known them. Police are important, but they are not like air. We can live without them when that is necessary. And we can reinvent them.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “Maybe it’s time to reinvent the police

  1. Thank you Professor, I’m so glad to hear an approach that’s non-exclusive, but totally inclusive of our society and how we look at policing. I grew up in West Oakland during the 60’s and it was the same Police Officer that patrolled the area, we knew them by name; it made it much easier to identify officers who were not there to protect and serve.

    Much more to say, but not enough space or time here, I enjoyed the article and perhaps you should send it to President Obama for consideration.

  2. We lived in Japan for a year and policing in Japan may be worth emulating. There are local substations where the police in each location get to know the small local community being served. This establishes a non-adversarial relationship where the residents feel the police are there for their protection and safety and the police feel they are there to protect.

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