18 Mar 2013

Evolution of Policing-The Reform Era Of Policing America

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After the corruption and chaos resulting from the Political Era of policing exemplified by “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Hall machinery; pressure rose to reform the administration of policing, along with the mission focus within policing. Technological advances such as cars, radios and telephones dramatically influenced how policing was performed and changed the relationship between police and the citizens being served.

Reform Era Of Policing America – Just the Facts, Ma’am

The reform era of policing America was heavily influenced by the Progressive political movement which emphasized government reform and regulation of society to improve the living conditions of citizens. In policing, this was reflected in removing police from political control to a more centralized and standardized, non-partisan bureaucratic agency. Standards for police qualifications and education, an impartial and independent civil service board to oversee hiring, firing and disciplinary review were established in many jurisdictions with an emphasis on scientific inquiry and methodology to measure performance and efficiency. This era is best exemplified by the character “Joe Friday” on Dragnet (a 1950’s and 1960’s Police show) saying: “All we want are the facts,” which is more popularly remembered as

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

While the Political Era of policing emphasized close relationships and contact between police and the communities they served on foot patrol with very little oversight from command structure, the Reform era put police officers in patrol cars, with much closer supervision by their chain of command. The emphasis moved from resolving community problems and political influence to the more narrow focus on fighting crime and “impartially” enforcing laws through autonomous police science. Measurement of officer activity, such as traffic tickets issued, number of calls answered and number of arrests made became the driving force behind policing, often to the exclusion of the quality of community relationships or the impact of police methods on solving problems faced by the community being served.

The emphasis on statistics increased pressure on officers to minimize time spent on calls. It also minimized contact and interaction between law abiding citizens to focus on apprehension of criminals, patrolling in cars to deter and detect criminal activity and led to the development of specialized units to address problem areas not being addressed through patrol methodology, such as vice, narcotics and SWAT. The emphasis on efficiency, specialization and measurable performance detached policing from a holistic approach involving community partnership to a narrow, more bureaucratic, “take a number” approach. It also changed citizen response to policing; more responsibility was handed over for issues normally handled through family and community intervention. Rather than a partnership, for citizens, policing became autonomous experts to rely on to solve even relatively minor problems, relieving them of previous levels of involvement and responsibility of community oversight.

Reform Era Policing-Field Experiences

During my tenure as a Sheriff’s deputy, I observed both positive and negative aspects to the influences of the Reform Era. The positive aspects were the increased emphasis on policing being a profession with standards of competence, education, training and performance. In spite of some political influence in selection for hiring, firing or promotion, the civil service board or union provided checks and balances which ensured some measure of recourse for individual officers, as well as the community, in the event of unfair treatment.

The negative aspects of the Reform Era was the emphasis on defining policing as enforcing the law with insufficient regard for the impact of police methodology on the citizenry. Often, the institutional attitude became an adversarial “us versus them” including law abiding citizens, justified by the idea that “citizens just don’t understand”.

While the increased level of training improved competency, it also tended to create the view that citizens could not make rational decisions about police activity or their own safety because they didn’t have the specialized training that the police had. In addition, citizens were often discouraged from being involved in any aspect of dealing with criminal activity, ostensibly due to fears of “vigilantism” or the citizens themselves being injured. This also led to the very ignorance of policing that reinforced the view that citizens could not effectively review police decisions.

While on patrol, I often heard comments like: “I’m not a social worker” as justification for poor people skills with victims and citizens on the margins of society. Those officers frequently resented having to deal with calls for service that didn’t fit neatly into the “crime fighter” mode of policing, such as dealing with runaway children, the mentally ill or family disputes.

There was often a disconnect between a sense of accountability with citizens over laws being enforced justified by the attitude that police didn’t make the laws, they just enforced them. Waco, Ruby Ridge and the disarming of citizens in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina are among many disturbing and uncomfortable incidents of enforcing laws without regard to the impact of that enforcement on citizens and the community. To be fair, this is not just a problem to lie at the door of policing. There is plenty of blame to pass onto both the citizenry and those they elect, some with dubious competence and character, making the laws police are enforcing.

Reform Era Policing-What Can Be Learned?

Reforms from the Political Era significantly helped reduce the level of corruption and provided improved measures to deal with police abuses, even though imperfectly. That said, too often, the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater during attempts to reform. In my professional opinion, while reforms improved many aspects of policing, it overlooked and de-emphasized the fundamental pillars of policing attributed to an early icon of police, Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police in England. He was attributed with “The Nine Principles of Policing” which presciently captured the best of each era of policing. Perhaps returning to fundamentals will restore balance needed in the complex world of policing.

Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles:

1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionally to the necessity of the use of physical force.
5. Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police: the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

What impacts of the reform era have on the focus of policing? Did an important connection with the public and police get lost during the Reform Era of policing? Do you think it’s of value to rethink the crime fighter versus social worker aspects of policing? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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