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How To Bring About Lasting Structural Change in Policing — Remarks at the 2015 Data & Civil Rights Conference

Video | Conference Site | Transcript |

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve already had several conversations where we’re talking about innovations and bubbling excitement of new ideas of how to change our systems.

My role is to talk about how we make structural reforms. That is, if we were all to agree on what we want to see changed in policing, how could we bring that about, which is a much more challenging thing than the excitement of the bubbling new idea. Fortunately, we have a good history to draw on with respect to how change has been made in policing institutions. There’s a long trajectory that goes back to the 1920s.

There are five elements that I’ve identified for you to keep an eye on as you’re thinking about how technology influences all these things and then how they relate to each other.

The first is leadership and organizational management, and this was the trend that dominated from the 1920s to 1960s. Both having a chief with a vision and a view on accountability and then putting in the organizational structures to run a department. It’s still the case that poorly run organizations lead to bad practices.

Second is legal standards, both constitutional law and legislation. As you know in the 1950s and 1960s, we saw a proliferation of legal standards where the Supreme Court was saying you have to stop beating suspects into confessions. This was powerfully described recently in the Pulizer-prize winning book Devil in the Grove, which many of you may be familiar with. And this was especially true in the South where African-Americans who committed crimes or were alleged to commit crimes against white people were savagely beaten until they confessed falsely to crimes. The Court had to escalate and escalate the legal standards that applied to the police department to actually get police departments to adhere to them.

Department policies can’t go unnoticed. Though obviously not the most exciting area, they’ve had meaningful effects. It’s really departmental level policies that have led since the 1970s to a decrease in the use of lethal force and the avoiding of dangerous high-speed chases as just a few of many examples.

Though internal enforcement that goes with those policies proved inadequate and so in the 1970s you started to see new experiments in external oversight. As one example of a turning point, consider the 1966 move by New York City to change the New York City Complaint Review Board from one that was dominated by three police officers to one that added four civilians. And then you start to see further experimentation and changes in external oversight, to today when we have auditors, inspectors general, and monitors of court consent decrees. These are all very important to the ecosystem of changing policing culture.

And finally to technology, both in the hard form of less-than-lethal weapons, dash cams, and, as everyone’s talking about today, body-worn cameras. But I think importantly and missed often by reformers in the room here who really want to change policing, is the sort of internal software potential for things like early intervention systems. This was an innovation that came out of lawsuits by the Department of Justice against police departments that showed pattern and practice problems. It is a tool that collects data about individual officers that are warning signs in effect, or things to be aware of, which are then are aggregated, and with an algorithm, raise a red flag for an officer to receive more review or for the sergeant to check in on them to see what’s going on. The factors that go into the database can be number of absences, sick days, uses of force, citizen complaints, and other factors like that. These are systems that can be extraordinarily helpful if they’re done right and maintained. But if they’re done partially or abandoned, then they just become an expensive distraction.

I want to challenge particularly this group to think about how we could modernize and update these early intervention systems, which can be truly transformational. How can we make that that system as easy and convenient to use as your favorite car-sharing app?

All five of these elements have to be taken into consideration together, how they relate to each other, how they relate to all the other factors that influenced the ecosystem of policing.

There are of course many organic developments and external forces that also impact that ecosystem from trends in policing to crises like 911 or Ferguson to institutional factors like police unions and federal funding. Those developments in the ecosystem can either support and encourage your reform efforts or they can utterly destroy them and cause them to be forgotten, leading to a continuation of all the same policing problems that we’re here today to try to improve.

I’ll leave you with one hopeful example, which is largely viewed by folks in this field as the most fertile period of police reform. It reflects the coming together of these five different elements. In 1992 Rodney King is beaten. In response to that videotape beating and the riots that ensued, Congress passed a law in 1994 allowing pattern and practice lawsuits by the Department of Justice against police departments. A number of lawsuits followed. They were settled in court-ordered consent decrees. This was around the time that we were still seeing a great deal of attention to police abuse because of high-profile incidents like the killing of Amadou Diallou and the savage beating of Abner Louima. These consent decrees brought in new policies but also the policy development and the internal training that goes with it. So they were improving organizational management as well as changing policies. It brought in the technology of the early intervention systems that we talked about. The law itself changed a legal standard and it brought in court appointed monitors to provide that external oversight.

So as you’re today brainstorming and thinking about creative new ways to improve the criminal justice system and policing, please consider all these elements, how they relate to each other, and how we can build toward a common understanding of how to improve policing systems.

Thank you.

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