While things may have calmed down after the 2020 U.S. elections, the COVID-19 virus still rages through our country, as does a plague of unrest, uncertainty, and contention. Among the viruses causing the latter plague are fears–and in some cases, outright denial–that our police force is not the protective shield we wish it were. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of police brutality or police reform, whether you believe police departments across the country should be defunded and disbanded or that police officers are always heroes, it can’t hurt to educate yourself about what “police reform” actually means, and how it actually affects you.
Protests definitely have their place in any modern democracy, but, the question is, how often do they actually cause change? Might arming ourselves with knowledge about the issue and any obstacles that exist to accomplishing the desired changes also be helpful, especially if we take even a little bit of action to see how our local police departments are doing in certain important respects?
Here, then, are some books and other readings on the subject of police reform. Most of the books are pretty academic and out of the price range and reading patience level of the Average Joe or Jane General Public Reader. Some are self-published or published by small presses and based more on personal opinions than any kind of data. I’ve taken care to exclude those that aren’t easily available. They’re all focused on police dynamics in the U.S. and published fairly recently. Here’s information about them in case you want to inform yourself about what’s been done in the area of police reform, and what suggestions already exist:
I mentioned this book a while ago on Instagram
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I think it’s interesting because it’s 13 key reforms written about it in thirteen pairs of chapters: the first by an academician who says, basically, “this is what research says would work best,” and the second by a police chief or executive who says, “Here’s what I think of what the scholar says and whether or not what they recommend would actually work.” While it doesn’t get as “real life” as I would like, meaning I don’t think some of the practitioners are giving us the full scoop about why particular recommendations would or wouldn’t work, it’s still very interesting to note what has already been tried and what hasn’t (more than you think), and thought-provoking to think that our police force, as a whole, is still very much a work in progress. Police reform has been and will continue to be a complicated, nuanced, society-wide process.
Some of the reforms the authors suggest are:
- Adopt evidence-based policing: meaning, I think, that more police departments should rely more on what data shows works in terms of curbing crime instead of relying on their own intuition..
- Institute more civilian oversight: which is civilian groups “watching the police” to increase their transparency and accountability. It would provide these representative groups with a direct mechanism for discussing areas of concern. But there’s not much data or research about the impact of civilian oversight on civilians’ perceptions of police in general, which seems to me to defeat their purpose, at least in part.
- Make more police officers wear body cameras at all times: which seems to be a no-brainer to me.
For an ebook, $14.15 through Google Books.
Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training by Jack L. Colwell and Charles Huth
This book is intriguing because it seems to me that if there is any institution that cannot demand unconditional respect from the public, it’s the police. They need to earn our respect through ethical and respectful treatment, even if we’ve broken the law. I’m sure that’s hard for them to consistently apply IRL, though, because some people aren’t going to respect authority holders of any kind no matter what, and consistent breakers-of-the-law tend to hate the police.
I’m reading this book solely because of what one reviewer, Ross Kirkpatrick, said about it, which leads me to believe that this book is more about how police can have unconditional respect for members of the public:
Whenever a law enforcement issue is discussed on the news, it is easy to distill it down to the core issues discussed in this book. Even use of force issues that cause community outrage are often fueled by a wider community feeling of having been treated either poorly or without respect in a wider sense.
This book provides a true north for officers confronted by difficult situations, and [helps them gain] the ability to find their way to a professional response even when decisive and forceful paths need to be taken.
An organization can’t offer the public unconditional respect unless it’s treating each other with the same respect first. Much the internal conflict and millions in lost productivity can be traced back to lack of respect shown internally and the divisions and infighting that results.
I think if all departments were steeped in a culture of unconditional respect the problems encountered would be far few and community trust and co-operation much higher.
Anyone concerned about public safety and law enforcement could do much worse than spending some time reading this.
Sounds to me like another potential reform, or least, point to address is
- organizational culture within police departments
The Mirage of Police Reform: Procedural Justice and Police Legitimacy by Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean
The term “procedural justice” comes up a lot in many of these books on police reform, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with police reform? It’s basically the fairness with which police treat people. Worden and McLean explain:
Their argument isn’t that police reform is really a “mirage,” or something impossible to achieve, but something far more nuanced than people think, and that involves not just police reforming but people rethinking how they perceive the police, something they’re pessimistic about.
Police Reform from the Bottom Up: Officers and their Unions as Agents of Change by Monique Marks, David Sklansky
|This book’s main contention is that police department managerial styles have been primarily hierarchical and authoritarian, and that any truly sustainable police reform has to involve rank-and-file officers in the process of driving and shaping it.|
The least expensive copy that I could find was $47.16 through Google Books, so I suggest getting this one from the library, if you can find it.
This fascinating book explores the role of civilian spectators and social media in influencing opinions about and thus the credibility of the police. It doesn’t have many recommendations for reforming police, however, but it does hint at the fact that our perception of the police, especially when it’s amplified by social media, plays a role in how police do their job. Thus, we, collectively, have some responsibility in the police reform process. What that responsibility is, though, is hard to say.
The least expensive price for this book is $49.95, so again, better to get from the library.
When Police Kill by Franklin E. Zimring
Goodreads says it best:
When Police Kill is a groundbreaking analysis of the use of lethal force by police in the United States and how its death toll can be reduced.
Franklin Zimring compiles data from federal records, crowdsourced research, and investigative journalism to provide a comprehensive, fact-based picture of how, when, where, and why police resort to deadly force. Of the 1,100 killings by police in the United States in 2015, he shows, 85 percent were fatal shootings and 95 percent of victims were male. The death rates for African Americans and Native Americans are twice their share of the population.
Civilian deaths from shootings and other police actions are vastly higher in the United States than in other developed nations, but American police also confront an unusually high risk of fatal assault. Zimring offers policy prescriptions for how federal, state, and local governments can reduce killings by police without risking the lives of officers. Criminal prosecution of police officers involved in killings is rare and only necessary in extreme cases. But clear administrative rules could save hundreds of lives without endangering police officers.
So Zinring’s recommendation?
- more federal government oversight
- more civilian- and police-carried “camera devices” to collect more data and more accurate data on police killings.
Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence by Patrick Sharkey
Published in 2019, this book says that overall crime in America has decreased greatly in the last two decades. This has had a widespread effect on everything from school test scores to the life expectancy of African American men. But, it says, there is still pervasive inequality that needs to be resolved to keep us from descending back into crime and chaos. Interesting.
We as a country have relied on aggressive policing to an extent, says this book’s author, maybe unknowingly, but that reliance has taken a heavy toll. One could say the same about the widespread realization that those aggressive methods are no longer acceptable, even if they only happen occasionally and tend to primarily involve only black men.
The question is: how do we backtrack from here without losing the ground we’ve gained over the last two decades? No easy answers there, but it’s worth a read.
If you search Time.com for “police reform,” you’ll get more than 7,500 results. Here’s one I like because it focuses on possible solutions rather than continually rehashing the problem:
This article by Josiah Bates and Karl Vick, with photographs by Widline Cadet and Rahim Fortune revisits a little bit of the history and evolution of our police force, as do many of these readings, to trace the source of the problems. It also talks about how the Minneapolis City Council, in charge of the police department that produced the cop who killed George Floyd, completely dismantled that department and embarked on a quest to assemble not only a new one but a new model of policing. Key stakeholders in that quest are the black citizens of Minneapolis, the very citizens who’ve suffered disproportionately at the hands of that city’s police force. They’re still very much searching for solutions, but what they’ve decided as a community group so far is:
In that [new] world, the core mission of public safety is not enforcement but care, and a call to 911 is more likely to produce a specialist in the problem at hand than a police officer carrying a gun, 15 lb. of gear and the additional weight of three centuries of racialized law enforcement. The new system would look for solutions from the very communities that the old system regarded as the sources of problems and guide investment accordingly. Law enforcement would not disappear, not in a country with more guns than people. But the officers who remained would be highly professional and trained in an ethos of valuing life. They would be focused on solving people’s problems rather than locking people up and would work alongside those they serve.
A “police reform” search of the Scientific American magazine’s website ” yields far fewer results than it does on Time.com, since it’s more about the biological and physical sciences than it is about the social sciences, but what it does provide is some very interesting, data-backed possibilities. This article on “Three Ways to Fix Toxic Policing” suggests:
- more accountability
- demilitarization, and
- transfer of some responsibilities to social workers
This is, as I’ve mentioned, an incomplete list of everything that’s ever been written on the subject of police reform, and really, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how much has been written if nobody takes that knowledge and decides to do something about it in a way that builds community instead of tears it down. Stronger communities, of all things, seem like one of the best crime deterrents; the stronger a community is, the less likely its citizens would be to attack or hurt each other, don’t you think? So maybe a good starting point, after reading any of the sources I listed above, is
- reading this post I wrote about the need for civil dialogue (as opposed to holing up in our opinion silos) and this one too about how to actually carry on a civil dialogue,
- continuing the conversation on social media with the hashtag #police form, and
- calling your local and state police departments and getting informed about what they do and how open they are to change.
- striking up a conversation with your neighbor, socially distant, of course. Extra points if it’s a neighbor you disagree with on any subject. Extra, extra points if you can talk about an issue you disagree on in an amicable way, not to convince them of the error of their ways, but to understand them better and find out what you have in common.