Incarceration and the strong emphasis on “law and order” have torn a hole in the lives of more than two million Americans, their families and neighborhoods. People released from jails and prisons find it difficult to reintegrate into the community. They are virtually unemployable, find it difficult to secure adequate housing, and often suffer from the lack of medical, mental health, and drug treatment services.
Many young men and women, especially those living in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, believe their lives will end in prison or violently on the street.
It’s not surprising that, as calls for criminal justice reform dominate local and national news, police have been among the primary targets for change. In May 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing challenged the nation’s police departments to make broad reforms, renew their commitment to community policing, and to replace a “warrior” approach with a “guardian” mindset.
The transformation won’t be easy.
The “warrior” mindset is rooted in the rhetoric accompanying the tough-on-crime policies that influenced politicians, legislators and the public for decades. Only now have we begun to realize that the indiscriminate use of aggressive police tactics was counter-productive. Not only did they often fail to bring peace and stability to neighborhoods in crisis; they disenfranchised residents living in the neighborhoods the police were trying to protect.
And as we all know from the headlines, already-strained community-police relations have been damaged further by incidents in which police officers used excessive force or took the lives of persons in unwarranted circumstances.
These incidents have energized calls for reform. But how do we get there?
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the nation faces serious criminal justice challenges. Violent crime still threatens many of our communities, despite the fact that overall crime rates have plunged dramatically. In some of our major cities, there was an alarming spike in homicides last year, and in the first months of 2016, there have already been more than 40 mass shootings. Deadly attacks continue to claim the lives of police officers.
Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism is real, as demonstrated by the brutal attack in San Bernardino, Ca., which claimed the lives of 14 public health officials.
Criminal justice reform demands strong, tenacious and visionary leadership—not only by individual law enforcement agencies, but on the part of politicians. We cannot relax in our targeting of individuals who present a real threat to community safety, or who refuse to disengage from criminal activity.
Traditional, data-driven enforcement strategies focused on prolific and violent offenders, their activities, and crime hot spots, are crucial.
But there should be room for developing alternatives to incarceration. Juveniles, low-level, and non-violent offenders can be diverted to community supervision and services. Current concerns about crime increases should not derail reform efforts now underway, such as the proposals currently pending in Congress for overhauling our federal sentencing and corrections system, such as the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
“Smart” criminal justice reform must be based on the effective integration of “hard” and “soft power” in ways that are mutually reinforcing.
Police reform should follow a similar course of action.
Police chiefs, with the support of elected officials, must develop and implement policies, programs and training that take into account the dangers of the world in which they operate. Officers must be trained and equipped to protect their communities, as well as themselves, from those who seek to commit acts of violence and terrorism.
At the same time, “the country’s 18,000 police departments need to rethink their strategies for responding to situations that do not involve guns … If officers are properly trained and equipped, they and the people they encounter can walk away unharmed from many situations that now end in police shootings.”
This argument, made by Camden (NJ) Police Chief Scott Thomson, president of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director, in a recent New York Times Op-ed makes sense.
The police must be strong guardians of the communities they serve. But they must also be innovative. And that means using their “hard power” to protect their communities and themselves from harm, while using their “soft” power to prevent crime, restore trust and build legitimacy.
Frank Straub, a Senior Law Enforcement Project Manager with the Police Foundation, has spent 31 years in federal, state and local law enforcement and public safety. He holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, and is recognized nationally for his work in the areas of community policing, juvenile justice, mental health and police reform. He welcomes comments from readers.