It’s happened too many times to be a coincidence. Some sort of policing incident will go viral—sometimes an abuse of power, sometimes a justified shooting that looks bad to the untrained eye—provoking intense protests or even riots. Cops will pull back from the discretionary, proactive police work proven to reduce violence. And shootings and homicides will go up. This oft-repeated sequence of events has sparked debate over how officers should be trained to use force, when officers should be prosecuted, and what the precise role of “de-policing” has been in the subsequent crime increases. But relatively little has been said about what we can do about de-policing when it happens. When police stop policing, how do you get them to start again?
In a new Manhattan Institute issue brief, I take up the question. By consulting the academic literature and by interviewing criminal-justice experts, police leaders, and working officers, I compiled suggestions on how to fight this problem. Provided that leaders have the will and the necessary political support, the actions available to them fall into three broad categories. Leaders can avoid making de-policing official policy, credibly assure officers that they will be treated fairly—not supported no matter what—in the event they need to use force, and take concrete steps to promote healthy, proactive policing.
The first point is the simplest. If policymakers want proactive policing, they shouldn’t deliberately make such policing harder. Throughout the country, numerous policy changes have intentionally discouraged active police work: Washington State made civilian stops and vehicle chases more difficult, Chicago limited foot chases, and a Baltimore consent decree discouraged proactive stops, for example.
In the more immediate context of de-policing after a specific viral incident, however, different considerations come into play. Aware of the possibility of backlash, officers want to avoid becoming the next viral video—a fear that lies outside the reach of public policy. But they also worry that even if they follow their training and use force appropriately, their superiors and public officials can’t be counted on to “have their backs.”
Sometimes these fears are justified. Examples abound of prominent politicians and local leaders who, responding to public pressure, denounced cops without proper consideration of the circumstances. In one recent case, the Washington, D.C., police chief quickly said that he was “embarrassed and ashamed” to see a video in which an officer punched a suspect numerous times, even though the suspect was illegally armed with a “ghost gun” and resisting arrest. It fell to the chairman of the police union to defend the officer in the pages of the Washington Post. And in a Columbus, Ohio, case, an officer shot a teenager who was in the process of attacking another girl with a knife—a textbook example of a justified, if tragic, shooting—but Ohio senator Sherrod Brown rushed to express his outrage, pointing out that it had occurred while the Derek Chauvin verdict was being read and insisting the teen “should be alive right now.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki used that same incident as a jumping-off point to talk about “police violence” that “disproportionately impacts black and Latino people,” and to discuss the Biden administration’s priorities of addressing “systemic racism and implicit bias” while putting “much-needed reforms into place at police departments around the country.”
The common-sense solution to this problem is for officials at all levels to adhere to fair processes in these matters—or, in the academic jargon, to maintain “organizational” and “procedural” justice. Numerous studies suggest that, when officers feel confident that their superiors will treat them fairly, they are less sensitive to de-policing pressures, more likely to obey their superiors, and generally more effective. This doesn’t mean letting cops do whatever they want without consequence; it means making the rules clear in advance, enforcing them fairly when something happens, and giving accused officers a chance to tell their side of the story before they’ve been thrown under the bus in public. It means defending cops when they did nothing wrong, and, if necessary, explaining to the public why police are trained the way they are.
But if police are public employees, why can officers simply stop doing an important part of their jobs, with immense ramifications for public safety, while escaping disciplinary consequence? (I briefly raised this issue in a National Review column earlier this year, provoking an explanation from the Graham Factor blog—and a call from my retired-cop dad.) Leaders can prod officers to keep up their discretionary activity, but only within certain limits. Going back decades, many states have banned outright quotas for police activity, on the belief that these policies encouraged dubious and illegal stops as cops rushed to hit their numbers before the deadline. Quotas certainly persist today in watered-down form. In a January 2017 Pew study, nearly 40 percent of cops said that they were subject to a quota. Though these were mostly informal targets, they remain controversial and unpopular. Anything that even vaguely resembles a formal quota, especially in a city on edge in the wake of a viral incident, is probably a non-starter.
But realistic options exist, especially once leaders have taken steps to assure officers of fair treatment. Police officials and mayors can communicate that they don’t want to see a decline in policing activity. Discretionary activity can play a role in promotions, performance reviews, and assignments to special units. Street-level police leaders, such as sergeants, can talk to and motivate individual officers whose work has dropped off. Even simply letting it be known that superiors are keeping close tabs on the quantity and quality of work that’s being done can have an effect.
If we can reduce de-policing on the margins, it’s worth doing—especially considering the number of lives being lost to rising crime in cities. But these solutions alone won’t resolve the issue. In a free country, citizens are rightly permitted to share videos and take part in protests. As long as our cultural climate remains broadly anti-police, the intense scrutiny and opprobrium directed at cops will likely continue to cause them to pull back.
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