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Winter 1993
City Journal Winter 1993.
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Police Accountability—A Better Way
George L. Kelling
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The public debate over police reform in New York City has come to center on the idea of civilian review of police misconduct. This is unfortunate, for civilian review is a misguided proposal. As Tamar Jacoby points out elsewhere in this journal, it divided the city during the 1960s and is doing so again now. Even in cities where strong forms of civilian review have been tried, such as Milwaukee, there is no evidence that it is effective. Most importantly, it diverts politicians, policymakers, and police executives and unions from the hard work of pursuing meaningful reform.

This is not to say that police brutality is not a serious problem or that vigorous action should not be taken to hold police accountable for misbehavior. Indeed, most officers are indignant about abusive colleagues, and police union leaders complain off the record about having to waste union funds defending officers who should have been disciplined or dismissed long ago. The main problem in American policing, however, is that the dominant policing strategy of the past fifty years has failed—not just to control the small number of brutal officers, but also to maintain order, reduce fear, and control crime.

Civilian review cannot work because it attempts to control police by focusing on individual offenses rather than the factors that ultimately determine the character of police relations with citizens: recruitment policies, pre-service and in-service training, police and management culture, personnel policies, management practices, police tactics, and unrealistic public expectations of what police can accomplish—encouraged, for example, by politicians’ “wars” on crime and drugs.

Civilian review is not the cost-free gesture it is often made out to be: It has serious detrimental effects on police morale and effectiveness. Officers believe that if something goes awry and they are charged with misconduct, they will not receive the needed understanding, support, and defense from their departments in the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding civilian review. This fear is reasonable, because departmental hierarchies and rules have little to do with the realities of police work.

The job of a police officer is far more complex than is generally recognized. It consists largely in managing conflicts. Typically, someone feels aggrieved and seeks redress, perhaps violently; police either happen on the scene or are called in. By the time the police arrive, the flow of events has already obscured right and wrong, “good guys” and “bad guys,” aggressor and victim.

The officers must sort out what has happened. Each side presses its case on the officers; relatives, friends, and bystanders “know” what has happened and cheer or deride the disputants; other bystanders wander onto the scene and put in their two cents’ worth. Uncertainty, conflicting claims, and ambiguity are the standard fare of police work.

Thousands of such events occur each day in New York City. It is a testimony to the craft of policing that officers almost always resolve the disputes in ways that leave the aggrieved parties satisfied, or at least reconciled to the outcomes and prepared to live with them. Police usually settle disputes by persuading, cajoling, educating, counseling, or ordering. But on rare occasions something goes wrong: an officer either makes a well-intentioned mistake or simply bungles a situation, or an officer or group of officers abuse their authority, as in the Rodney King episode or in the more recent incident of alleged brutality in Detroit.

It is a common myth that police officers approach conflicts with a feeling of power—after all, they are armed, they represent the state, they are specially trained and backed by an “army.” In reality, an officer’s gun is almost always a liability (except if someone’s life is obviously threatened), because a suspect may grab it in a scuffle. Officers are usually at a disadvantage because they have to intervene in unfamiliar terrain, on someone else’s territory. They worry that bystanders might become involved, either by helping somebody the officer has to confront or, after the fact, by second-guessing an officer’s conduct and perhaps filing a complaint or falsely testifying against him. Civilian review heightens police officers’ fears that they will be exposed to trivial or malicious complaints. This worry cannot be characterized as paranoid, given, for example, the political storm recently raised in Washington Heights after an officer shot an armed drug dealer during a life-and-death struggle.

Officers also worry that their departments will not support them adequately if something goes wrong. Officers on the street tend to believe that managers are so preoccupied with their own careers that they will not stand behind officers in ambiguous situations, protect them if they make mistakes, or defend them adequately against false charges. These are not unrealistic concerns.

This distrust of management is a complicated matter, linked to the management philosophy that has dominated most U.S. police departments for most of the twentieth century. In brief, this philosophy holds that police officers, left to their own devices, will become indolent and corrupt. To control these tendencies, police departments have established elaborate bureaucratic and command-and-control systems with complex hierarchies and intricate rules and regulations. But police rules and management systems are preoccupied with the internal functioning of the department rather than the complicated, unpredictable work of individual police officers.

Because managers are so isolated from the work of officers on the street, departmental incentive structures reward internal functioning rather than actual police performance. For example, one large police department with which I have worked (not the NYPD) has a special rank of senior patrol officer, with increased pay and status, which is granted for outstanding performance. Department heads nominate officers for this rank, presenting their recommendations to the chief of police, who makes a limited number of appointments. Recently, the chief of this department asked me to observe the nomination process. Every patrol officer nominated for senior status was in a staff rather than a line position—that is, all nominees worked in administrative jobs. When I asked them about this, the well-intentioned but perplexed administrators acknowledged that they simply did not have enough day-to-day contact with line officers to be able to identify those who perform outstandingly.

Line officers are well aware of these incongruities and view them as tantamount to political corruption. The common attitude is, “It’s not what you do but who you know that gets you ahead in this department.” Officers feel they face the prospect of putting their lives on the line without the hope of being recognized and rewarded by the department. Thus, quite understandably, they try to stay out of trouble—and the easiest way to do this is to do as little as possible and strive for a desk job. Civilian review can only increase the incentive to “stay out of trouble”—with disastrous consequences for troubled American cities whose residents long for a restoration of order and public safety.

Fortunately, the dominant policing ethos is changing. Community policing, as it is developing in New York City and elsewhere, is not just about putting more cops on the beat, nor is it merely a new set of tactics. Rather, it is a serious attempt to make the organization’s structure and managerial processes responsive to the daily realities of police work. Most importantly, community policing is designed to improve the accountability of police departments by linking them, at all levels, far more closely with local neighborhoods. This new accountability is the key not only to preventing police brutality, but also to ensuring that police do a more effective job of protecting the community from crime and disorder.

 

 


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