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  • Robert J.Kane, PhD

To Reform the Police, We Need to Make Them Smart

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

(Note: A somewhat earlier version of this essay appeared as an Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 8, 2020)


Trying to make sense of what's happening right now in American policing means confronting some longstanding beliefs about who the police are and who they should become. Though I remain convinced that the police represent a vital public institution, the time has come to make them better. And in order to make them better, we must make them smarter.

The atrocity in Minneapolis, the subsequent acts of racialized violence, and the most recent brutality in Buffalo, have exposed a fundamental flaw in American policing. One that explains both the likes of Derek Chauvin and those who stood by and watched him take the life of George Floyd.

For generations, policing has been a club. One that represents a narrow slice of American society.

A person joins the club only after other applicants are "screened" out by some combination of the civil service test, the background investigation, and the oral board-interview—all of which are designed to exclude people who don’t fit the historic profile.

So who gets to join the club?

Mission-oriented people who are most comfortable following and enforcing rules, enjoy solidarity with their peers, and who are trained and socialized by the gatekeepers.

In hiring “themselves,” policing has created a self-perpetuating cycle that values control, enforcement, and authority — over the protection of life — as its primary mission. This recruitment paradigm and the mentality it promotes didn't create Derek Chauvin, but it brought him into policing. And in Minneapolis (as it does in other cities), the system fostered and protected his behaviors.

The same system encouraged at least three officers to stand by and watch as Chauvin drove his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. At the very least, those by-standing officers -- all of whom have since been criminally charged -- should have insisted that Chauvin turn Mr. Floyd off his stomach the moment he was hand-cuffed; and more to the point, they should have forced Chauvin to release the restraint hold. But they did nothing, despite Minneapolis Police Department's recently passed "peer intervention" policy.

This failure to intervene likely happened because policing is not kind to officers who break with the strong and long-standing cultural norm of not stopping their peers from engaging in bad behaviors on the street. Traditional police culture discourages individuality among officers, displays of "weakness" in the field, and even testifying against each other in criminal trials. It tends to be characterized by a set of "normative orders" that all but demand conformity to the rules. And the peer solidarity aspects of the culture explain why 57 Buffalo police officers quit a special unit after the BPDNY suspended the two officers who shoved a 75 year old peaceful protester to the ground (these officers have since been charged with assault).

While some aspects of police culture are therapeutic, allowing officers to cope with the stresses of the job, others are destructive. And to counter these destructive cultural elements, policing must become an institution whose members are recruited and valued precisely for their individuality. This can be done by emulating the “smart swarm,” a model largely based on the “difference” principle – which finds that groups are better at solving problems and making predictions when they are highly diverse.

A smart swarm flourishes and solves problems because of the non-overlapping differences between the individuals who make up the group. It does not succumb to groupthink because the independence of thought among its members does not allow for it.

By transitioning its recruitment paradigm from one that screens-out to one that screens-in and strives for inclusion, policing can become a smart swarm. This means hiring specifically for racial, ethnic, and gender diversity — all of which are crucial for improving policing. But it also means assembling a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and lived experiences, which will protect against groupthink.

Police forces should actively seek to hire people who can appreciate the tragedy of having to use force as part of an occupational mandate while empathizing with the people they may be called on to control. Such acknowledgement can reduce the possibility of “othering” and encourage police to recognize that they are the public they serve.

Police may tell us they need to screen-out undesirable applicants to protect against police misconduct. But how did the screening-out paradigm protect George Floyd, or Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray, or Michael Brown? And how has it protected the countless young black men subjected to illegal stop-and-frisk contacts?

It's time to change the culture of American policing. Changing the recruitment paradigm to a model that screens-in for diversity and independence is one step in the right direction.

Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: A 'New' Idea for a 21st Century Mandate (Wolters Kluwer), is due out in early 2022. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane

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