Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union Speakers

11 Keys to Make Policing Work


chief department avail

Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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When considering the requirements for effective policing I am reminded of two of my experiences.

First, I served on a commission to review the operations of the Philadelphia Police Department after the departure of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a man whose approach both in that office and in his prior role as Police Commissioner could be fairly thought of as racist. Among the core findings of that commission was that the Police Department had consistently devoted insufficient resources to policing minority communities, and instead focused on the safety of the business district and other neighborhoods.

Then in the early 1990s I was working with communities of color in the area surrounding the northern part of New York City’s Central Park on public safety issues by, among other things, organizing meetings between local residents and local police officials. At one of these meetings a woman got up and in a strong voice made two points: she first complained about local patrol officers spending too much time in the safest places (eg, in front of churches) rather than actively patrolling higher risk areas, and second she complained about the police harassing her teenage son.

She was right — everyone is entitled to a police department that both works to provide them with the benefits of living in a safe neighborhood and, as the Black Lives Matter movement so justifiably demands, neither abuses nor discriminates against anyone. And public policy needs to advance both goals by promoting reform without sacrificing safety.

There have been numerous studies of policing, but without the need for still more commissions there are certain things that plainly are necessary components of effective policing, including the following;

1. Have clear standards of conduct. When the rules are clear it benefits police officers and the public. Those rules, however, must reflect the realities that good police officers may confront. Thus, for example, there should be a ban on chokeholds, but there also should be an exception for when the officer would be entitled to fire his weapon under a use of force standard. Putting a knee on someone’s throat as a means of restraint, as was done to George Floyd, is plainly wrong, but briefly putting one’s knee on someone’s throat in a struggle over a gun is very different.

2. Ban arrest and summons quotas. Quotas are unfair to officers and incentivize questionable police actions.

3. Monitor problem officers. It is important to monitor officers with large numbers of complaints, even where they all do not produce adjudicated findings of wrongdoing. While a large number of complaints may be made against an officer in retaliation for an officer simply effectively doing his or her job, the opposite may also be true. Thus, requiring that the conduct of officers with a defined number of complaints be reviewed in a non-disciplinary context could lead to retraining, reassignment, a pointed conversation with a precinct commander, or no action at all.

4. Training is essential. Not only does there generally need to be effective in-service training, but, as some police departments are doing, there needs to be extensive de-escalation training. Police officers generally are taught that they need to maintain control of all situations; they need to learn how sometimes the right answer is de-escalating, particularly when dealing with non-serious offenses or with people exhibiting signs of mental illness. Rookies also should not be assigned to training officers who have been the recipients of large numbers of complaints, which was what happened with the new officers in the George Floyd case.

5. An effective disciplinary system improves the force. Disciplinary systems need to be fair to the officers but also transparent to the public, so that how a department is addressing wrongdoing is not a secret. They also need to be timely. In serious cases police departments often agree to requests from prosecutors to await the conclusion of criminal proceedings before acting. But when, as in the Eric Garner case that produced a five-year delay, the process moves slowly, confidence in the police department is undermined. Reasonable time limits thus need to be put on these agreements to delay.

6. Pursue diversity. It is important that police forces reflect the communities they serve so they do not have the appearance of an occupying army.

7. Community engagement helps. As discussed in the Obama Administration’s report on Policing in the 21st Century, police officers and the community should interact outside the enforcement context. Activities could include youth police academies, a structure to include police and community leaders in the development of approaches to local crime problems, youth programs, and more.

8. Encourage restorative justice. Non-arrest approaches should be used to deal with minor offenses, particularly involving young people .

9. Use technology. Expanding the use of body cameras not only can protect against police abuses, but can help defeat wrongful complaints against officers.

10. Limit qualified immunity. Police officers should only have the ability to avoid having to defend the appropriateness of their conduct under the qualified immunity doctrine if they comply with all applicable standards of conduct.

11. Carefully evaluate police funding. Putting aside the political wisdom of using “defund the police” as a slogan, it is not the way to address police funding from a policy perspective. While police departments cannot be immune from budget cuts during a fiscal crisis, in general we need to decide what we want the police to do and fund them accordingly. More police officers on the streets, for example, was one of the reasons crime was reduced in New York City in the 1990s.

If we want enhanced training, better supervision, enough officers out in the community, protection against terrorist attacks, and more, we need to provide appropriate levels of funding. The real answer is not just reducing police budgets, but making sure we adequately fund mental health and drug treatment programs, jobs programs, homeless prevention programs, and the like. Making more people feel that their needs are being addressed and that they have a stake in society means fewer people will resort to crime.

Having police forces that both protect residents’ safety and their other rights is not easy. It is, however, essential. Indeed, having a criminal justice system that is commonly believed to be fair is critical if we want the public to accept the outcomes of that system as legitimate.

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Richard J. Davis served Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement and Operations (1977-81) and Chair of the New York Commission to Combat Police Corruption (1996-2001).

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This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


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