A Reformation: Restructuring Law Enforcement is Just One Element of a Complex Problem

The wailing, crying, and calls for defunding or eliminating police forces is about as idiotic an idea as ever was conceived. It is comparable to saying we should abandon medicine because a few doctors engage in malpractice or eliminate all lawyers because some innocent people are convicted.

You don’t fix a problem by irrational acts. Nor do you ignore a problem because it is complicated and does not lend itself to simple solutions. If we are serious about addressing racial disparity—within Law Enforcement and society as a whole—we must address all the factors contributing to the issue.

Incidents of black (primarily) men being killed by police officers does not automatically show racial bias. There is a host of studies—https://www.pnas.org/content/116/32/15877,  https://www.nber.org/papers/w22399— that contradict the premise of bias in use of lethal force against blacks by law enforcement.

And there are studies which show there is a bias in use of force—both lethal and non-lethal— by the police against blacks. (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141854)

What do these contradictions tell us? They tells us we don’t track the data in any meaningfully significant way to draw reasonable conclusions. This leads us to form anecdotal inferences based on personal experience—either positive or negative encounters with the Police—on traditional media reports of incidents, or from social media information.

Using such varied, unreliable, and unconfirmed sources, coupled with our implicit biases, lends itself to forming powerful, but not necessarily accurate, assumptions. The tendency to confirmation bias is inevitable. By ignoring information which contradicts our own perspective, we handicap our ability to understand the full scope of the problem.

Racially motivated use of lethal force by law enforcement—if a full and impartial analysis of the data shows that to be true —is just one aspect of a much bigger problem.

Yet, if the perception among minorities is a systemic racial bias by law enforcement, and a propensity to use lethal force against such groups by police officers, it is critically important we both capture and analyze the data and address the perception as if it were reality.

Arguing the data shows no bias—absent comprehensive and thorough analysis–only fuels mistrust. Ignoring the possibility the data is insufficient to understand the problem is equally dangerous. It is assumptions—blacks are more likely to be involved in violent crimes by nature, cops are inclined to shoot blacks—that have created the problem.

Cultural misconceptions about groups we do not belong to i.e., minorities, cops, etc. all add to the problem. Education is the key to solving such false beliefs, but the process will not be easy or swift.

While we can strive for the ideal, we must face the realities of life.  There are bad people in the world who will assault, rob, attack, and murder their fellow humans. One of the primary functions of Law Enforcement is preventing such crimes and apprehending those who would commit them.

That will not change for the foreseeable future. Using force when necessary to perform such responsibilities will always be an element of policing. Improving the process of hiring officers, eliminating the often political nature of such practices, is critical. Better training in the use of minimum force necessary to accomplish the goal is paramount to reducing unlawful or excessive use of force.

For example, the RI Municipal Police Training Academy training syllabus lists 106 hours of firearms training, 154 hours of Traffic Enforcement, and 57 hours of Police Community Interaction and Dealing with Special Populations.

I suspect the training regimen for most law enforcement agencies would reflect the same allocation of training time.

While I am not suggesting a reduction in firearms training, the emphasis in the initial training phase is on weapons and tactics. Such programs set a tone for priorities. We miss an opportunity to equip officers with skills to de-escalate violent situations and reduce the need for lethal force. This is the best time to give officers confidence in their ability to communicate and interact with the community.

Such skills are as critical as the ability to know how and when to use lethal force in the complex fog of situations officers find themselves in on a daily basis.

The factors which lead most to commit crimes—poverty, lack of education, unemployment, drug addiction—are outside the control of the police.  These must be addressed by our society before we can hope to change the nature of police agencies.

“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”

Aristotle “Politics”

Awareness of the factors that contribute to crime is important. But causality is not a defense to criminal behavior, it is a mitigating factor we must take into consideration when applying appropriate means of correcting such acts.

Three major reformations need to occur before any meaningful restructuring impacts police interaction with the public. Until these matters are addressed, law enforcement will be the agency of last resort for dealing with the problems of society. Under the current structure, they are ill-equipped, ill-trained, and improperly organized to address these problems without these changes.

The three urgent elements requiring change are these.

  1. Judicial reform
  2. Prison reform
  3. Educational reform

If Justice is not equal under the law. If access to Constitutional rights is limited by one’s financial resources. The inevitable results are what we see happening across America.

Blacks account for 13.4% of the U.S. population, yet make up 37.5% of the prison population. We need to understand the reason behind this. There is no race-based propensity for crime, poverty is the primary driving factor regardless of the race of the offender. There are a host of contributory reasons and an unfair Judicial System tipped against poor defendants is one of them.

Coupled with Judicial Reform is Prison Reform.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons budget for 2019 was $7.1 BILLION.  The Federal recidivism rate—those who are released from prison and re-offend—is 49.3%. Almost half of the people we put into the prison “Corrections” system return to prison.  (https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2016/recidivism_overview.pdf)

In Rhode Island, the recidivism rate is 50%. (https://worldpopulationreview.com/states/recidivism-rates-by-state/)

Does funding a program with a 50% failure rate sound like a wise investment? Couple that with the Federal government embracing private prisons—facilities that need prisoners to be profitable—and you have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Annual spending in 2018 on just prisons in the United States:  $182 billion

If one measures success by our rates of incarceration—we have the largest prison population and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world—we wildly succeed in imprisoning people and are terrible at corrections and rehabilitation.

Unless the goal is to fill these private prisons, we are good at that. But the cost to society for our policy of mass incarceration is enormous and of questionable benefit. https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-what-incarceration-costs-taxpayers

This leads to the key element, the lynchpin of the problem—flawed and unequal public education. Here’s a stark fact of how we set our priorities from a study by the US Department of Education.

“Between 1979 and 2012, state and local government expenditures grew by 107 percent to $534 billion from $258 billion for elementary and secondary education, while corrections spending rose by 324 percent to $71 billion from $17 billion.”

In the 2021 budget, the President has proposed a 10% reduction in spending for the US Department of Education. The same budget calls for a 1.6% decrease in spending for the Bureau of Prisons.

There are myriad related issues—lack of addiction treatment, mental health care, housing, employment opportunities—which all compound the crime problem. Focusing exclusively on the police masks the real problem, and will do nothing to solve the long-term issues.

It is unfair to target law enforcement alone when considering ways to eliminate racial bias in public safety.  Police officers reflect society. The implicit biases we all carry inevitably affect our interaction with others if we are not cognizant and continuously alert to the problem.

Education is the key to better understanding.

Yet absent complete studies clarifying the level of racial bias in applying force by Law Enforcement, it would be wise to err on the side of caution and focus on the issue.  More attention within agencies to the possibility of prejudice will inevitably lead to better policies and controls over the use of force.

The very nature of humans precludes the elimination of all force by the police in many circumstances. There are bad people in the world who will commit violent crimes and resist efforts to stop them. While some level of force will always be an element of being a police officer, we must remember the root causes behind criminal behavior. Lawful application of necessary force is not the problem, brutality is.

Improving trust between the police and the minority community is a two-way street. Refusing to report information of criminal activity, particularly involving firearms and gang activity, because of a perception the police will either over-react or not show up at all just perpetuates the mistrust.

Minority communities rightfully expect police departments to change their behavior and treat everyone fairly. These same communities bear a responsibility to cooperate with the police to eliminate the criminal element which casts a shadow on these communities.

Trust requires both sides to move toward middle ground. Failing to act is not an option. Understanding the causes behind most criminal activity—and the shared responsibility to act to change things—rests with all of us.

Except for the rare sociopath, most crimes result from societal conditions often outside the control of the person committing the crime. Poor educations, inadequate employment opportunities, drug addiction, and mental health issues all contribute to causation.

There is little doubt about the prevalence of racial disparity within America. There is also little doubt things have improved. But until we eliminate as much as humanly possible the unfair treatment of others because of the color of their skin, the lofty goal of all men being equal will remain an illusion.

Until we address these issues, nothing will change. Not within police agencies or society at large. America is a country with a promise of equality unmet by reality. 

We all bear a responsibility to face it and change things.

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed — Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Langston Hughes

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