Shifting American Police From Warriors to Guardians

05/27/2015 09:23 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Last week President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its final report containing key recommendations on the future of policing in America. While we applaud the Task Force's conclusion that US policing culture must shift from a warrior model and toward a guardianship approach, we believe further clarity is required to move policing in this important new direction.

The entrenched police warrior model in many American police departments can operate in a manner similar to a domestic military service, where hard policing tactics like confrontation and use of force are primary tools relied upon to achieve desired crime control objectives. By contrast, the guardianship model views police in a manner more akin to social service providers in local communities, operating collaboratively and in partnership to achieve collective goals. We see three key areas where specific changes to police department operations can help facilitate the shift from a warrior to a guardian approach.

First, as recommended by the Task Force, procedural justice and community policing approaches must replace over-reliance on hard policing approaches. Procedural justice focuses on police treating community members with respect, utilizing clear communications, and increasing the transparency of police practices. While we emphatically agree with the Task Force that procedural justice must become a guiding principle in 21st century policing, the Task Force neither sets out clear federal funding nor a timetable for implementation of pilot procedural justice projects in major American cities, which have already demonstrated great promise in locales including New Orleans and Manchester, UK. Community policing similarly involves police departments working collaboratively with communities to identify and address local problems, which can involve establishing joint neighborhood task forces on issues like gang violence or drug crime, holding regular town hall meetings, and setting up Police Athletic Leagues. But much more is required. For example, increasing community policing should also include increased funding for police department youth cadet and citizen academy programs, which not only provide more transparency and accountability for policing practices, but also give local community members greater insights into the challenges of policing. Moreover, enhancing community policing should also include instituting requirements for police officers to reside within the city or town where they serve, a common practice for many local government jobs, and a practice which more deeply invests police officers as guardians of the communities where they both live and work.

Second, police departments must alter some of the ways they hire, train and assess police officers. One key factor is police departments must increase police diversity to more closely resemble the multifaceted communities they serve. The benefits of diversity at all levels of the policing structure including leadership are well documented, thus we applaud the Task Force for making diversity a key recommendation. But police diversity cannot stop at recruitment, and must also focus time and resources on the retention of police officers from diverse and traditionally underrepresented groups including ethnic minority, LGBT, and female officers. The federal government should also provide grants for police departments to bolster support services to help retain all police officers, but must particularly ensure that officers from traditionally underrepresented groups are properly mentored, included and supported.

Police departments must also change the way police are trained about the impact of implicit bias on split-second decisions to stop, question, frisk, arrest or use force. As observed by the Task Force, conscious and unconscious stereotypes often shape the decision-making of most people, including police. But given the high stakes involved in policing, comprehensive training is required to help recalibrate gut instincts away from reliance on stereotypes. And this is not easy to accomplish. We believe that implicit bias training for police officers should be compulsory and delivered annually, and should incorporate evidence-based methods drawn from the research of experts including Jennifer Eberhardt, Joshua Correll and others. The federal government must actively fund and help standardize rigorous implicit bias trainings that support shifting police culture norms away from the stereotyping.

Changing police culture also requires recalibrating metrics for assessing police officer performance for promotions and discipline, which are often too closely tied to warrior model indicators like numbers of summons, arrests, stops and frisks, and cases closed. A guardianship model approach to police metrics includes evaluating police officers based on the numbers of disputes resolved without summons or arrests, social service referrals, community meetings attended, and positive responses about individual officer performance from surveys of community members about their interactions, a metric implemented as part of recent reforms in the New Orleans Police Department. While some police officers may resist adopting the guardian model, the reality is that the majority of police officer time tends to be spent performing social service tasks like responding to neighborhood and business disputes, loitering calls, noise complaints, and vagrancy rather than chasing criminals. A guardianship approach to assessment more accurately reflects how police actually use their time.

Finally, adopting the guardian model requires changing the way police department data is collected, analyzed and made available to the public. While the Task Force correctly recommends incentivizing and standardizing the collection of data by police departments, we strongly believe that a key to policing reform is the compulsory collection of publicly available data on the numbers of summons, arrests, stops and frisks, use of force incidents, police shootings, and deaths in custody, and includes the race of the individuals subject to these police actions. Recent evidence shows that data collection in cities like New York, Newark and London has led to increased police accountability and changes in police practices where there is evidence of significant racial disproportionality. As observed by the Task Force, robust data collection practices by police departments positively impact trust in and legitimacy of police.

We recognize that policing is a tough job, and applaud law enforcement for striving to protect and serve communities in the best manner possible. But fundamental shifts in policing culture are required to move policing into the 21st century so police can be viewed with greater legitimacy and community members treated with greater respect. While this will not be easy to accomplish, the shift from a police warrior culture to the guardianship model must be prioritized.