The tragic deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks follow other high-profile incidents of Black men dying at the hands of abusive police officers. The call for reform of American policing was especially strong six years ago following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Reforms of police culture, policy and training have, in fact, advanced since 2014; however, tragic episodes continue to consume the media’s attention and little in the way of context is provided in mainstream media coverage and what is shared in social media.
There are roughly 700,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The majority of them are responsible, hardworking, public servants — heroes in the eyes of most people.
Bad actors can be found in every profession, but few are subject to such high public scrutiny as the police. Today, the entire law enforcement profession is being demonized due to the actions of a few officers who clearly should not be wearing a badge.
Modern-day policing is encountering tough headwinds, as budgets are strained and nationwide interest in working in law enforcement has dropped significantly as the booming, pre-COVID-19 economy enticed potential recruits to take better paying, safer jobs.
The Police Executive Research Forum in a survey of nearly 400 police departments reports that 29% of those who left their police jobs voluntarily had been on the force less than a year, and an additional 40% had been on the job less than five years. Nearly 66% of the police departments surveyed reported fewer applicants and many departments noted they are functioning short-staffed.
The Nashville PD has seen job applications drop from 4,700 in 2010 to 1,900 last year. At the Seattle PD, where the starting salary is $79,000, applications have fallen by half. Even the FBI is struggling to find qualified people, with applications declining from 21,000 to 13,000 last year.
The difficulty of recruiting police officer candidates has gotten so bad that some police departments across the U.S. have been forced to lower their hiring standards just to provide a minimum level of public safety. Reduced standards will only elevate the possibility of hiring potentially abusive candidates.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, recently shared some of the progressive steps law enforcement agencies have taken since reforms initiated in 2016. Briefly stated, the “Guiding Principles of the Use of Force” outlines the changes that have taken root:
A sense of urgency. In the past, police chiefs often waited for a formal, often lengthy, investigation to conclude before addressing a questionable use-of-force incident. Today, chiefs understand that time makes a difference, and it is important to act.
Training. Many departments have re-engineered their use-of-force training. Beyond firearms proficiency, agencies are focusing on communications skills, decision making, how to recognize a person in crisis, and use of better and safer tactics.
Intervention with officers engaged in excessive force. Officers must be required to intervene with fellow cops who are engaged (or about to engage) in excessive force or other misconduct, something that did not happen in Minneapolis.
Holding rogue officers accountable. Some people just should not be police officers. But in too many places, police chiefs face enormous hurdles in removing them — and then preventing cops who have been fired from getting their jobs back.
We can take pride in our area law enforcement agencies for the responsible, professional, dedicated and all too often, thankless, job they do.