Cop Drama

Police shouldn’t fear policing reforms. Accountability and community outreach makes their jobs easier and safer.

NYPD officers patrol in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn on March 13, 2013.

Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

On social media and other forums, there’s a vast gulf—and a lot of shouting—between critics of police departments (“Black Lives Matter”) and police defenders (“Blue Lives Matter”). But this ideological divide belies the fears and worries they have in common.

“They don’t go out every day saying, ‘I’m going to take a life today,’ ” said Mary Jo Graves, referring to police officers after she organized a pro-police march in Cleveland last month. “They go out saying, ‘I want to come home.’ They want to come home to their families.”

This sympathy—police officers just want to do their work without fear of death—isn’t too different from what police critics have to say about their friends and family. “I am tired of being scared that my son is not going to make it home from work,” said Dinetta Gilmore, who participated in the Justice for All march in Washington in December. “It’s time that this stops,” she said. “When are we going to be able to stop marching?”

All of this fear is understandable—but it’s not equal. High-profile cases aside, policing has never been safer. The rate of officer assaults has been on the decline since the 1990s, and the rate of officer deaths is at its lowest point in a century. “You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer,” writes journalist Radley Balko.

And while black Americans are at greater risk of criminal victimization than they are police violence, it is also true that compared with other Americans, they are more likely to be shot or killed by police, regardless of circumstances. There’s also the fact of power. Police officers are empowered by the state to use lethal force, and when that doesn’t come with accountability—and in the case of wrongdoing, punishment—it appears arbitrary and frightening. Put differently, most Americans who kill other Americans—including blacks who kill blacks—will face justice. Most cops who kill will not.

With that said, fear isn’t always a bad thing. In the case of the “black lives matter” protests, it’s been constructive, prompting new calls for police reform and other efforts to improve minority communities. The problem is on the other side, the police side, where fear is an impediment to embracing beneficial reform. In New York City, mild criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio—following the Eric Garner grand jury decision—sparked a bona fide police rebellion with work stoppages and aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric. At funerals for slain officers—killed by a criminal who claimed Garner and Michael Brown as a cause to commit violence—cops turned their backs on the mayor, shunning his leadership and the city he represents. The problem, besides the illiberalism inherent in the rejection of civil authority, is that de Blasio is on their side. The goal of police reform isn’t to punish cops; it’s to better connect them to the communities they serve, which makes it easier to fight crime and more likely they’ll come home at the end of each day.

The best example of this is Los Angeles, which completed a major experiment in police reform a few years ago. If the 1992 Los Angeles riots revealed deep tensions and anger toward the LAPD, then the 1999 Rampart scandal—named so after the division in question—unveiled the astounding amount of corruption in the department. An investigation uncovered countless acts of police misconduct involving dozens of officers, from beatings and unprovoked shootings to stealing, drug dealing, evidence planting, and bank robbery. In 2000, the Department of Justice announced it had enough evidence to sue the LAPD for pervasive misconduct, and later that year, the city government entered into a “consent decree,” where it agreed to reform the department under supervision from federal courts.

This was a huge task. As researchers for Harvard University note in a study of the LAPD reforms, “The fact of federal oversight itself … can erode morale in a police department, sapping the confidence and spirit that effective policing requires.” In the first years of the consent decree, officials resisted any changes to their approach. But the result wasn’t a more confident police department; it was higher crime and lower morale.

This changed after Los Angeles brought in new leadership—including current NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—who embraced the decree. Over the next decade, the LAPD would work to comply with the decree while also reducing crime and improving morale. It was a success. Not only did crime decline over the period of the consent decree, but officer morale rose. The Harvard researchers, for instance, found a marked drop in crime and a decrease in the number of officers who were afraid of being “punished for an honest mistake” or having their career “negatively affected by civilian complaints.”

What’s important is that this improvement happened under a policing regime that discouraged the use of force, even as it ramped up enforcement. Under the consent decree, “The total number of … force incidents declined by almost 30 percent.” By 2009, there were fewer officer-involved shootings, chokeholds, head strikes, and suspect hospitalizations than at any point in the previous decade. And while minorities still experience police force out of proportion to their numbers, fewer blacks and Latinos have been subject to force than ever before.

Other, less flashy changes have also been essential to the LAPD’s effectiveness. Supervisors and senior officials have been tasked with devising stronger oversight procedures to increase accountability. And critically, there’s greater engagement with minority communities, through forums; active recruitment of black, Latino, and Asian officers; and regular activities with schools and other community institutions. The result is a marked increase in the number of Los Angeles residents who say that the police “treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly,” from under 40 percent in 2005 to roughly 50 percent in 2009.

The LAPD is not perfect, but it has improved, and that has made policing better for ordinary citizens and safer for officers themselves. Indeed, for a sense of what happens when police neglect communities, you only have to look east from L.A. to Missouri.

One of the reasons Ferguson was such a flashpoint was the pre-existing relationship between residents and police. For decades, the citizens of Ferguson and nearby towns were subject to unfair treatment, from targeted stops—used to collect revenue for individual municipalities—to unjustified violence. In 2000, for example, two unarmed men were killed by plainclothes detectives, who later escaped indictment by a grand jury.

That mistrust doesn’t dissipate—it builds. And when an event like the Michael Brown shooting occurs, it can explode into anger and disorder. It almost doesn’t matter that the details of Brown’s shooting were murky or that key parts of the early narrative were incomplete, impossible to verify, or false—Brown’s death was traumatic enough to prompt a huge response from Ferguson residents. At a time when local police needed the trust of the community, they didn’t have it.

The NYPD and so many other police departments are gripped by a fear of criticism and what could happen if it has to bend to change. But there’s no reason for fear; reform improved the NYPD in the 1990s, it turned around the LAPD in the 2000s, and it could strengthen New York cops for the next decade. Greater accountability and community contact doesn’t harm policing; it makes it better.

If you’re skeptical, consider this: At the same time that Los Angeles burned amid the Rodney King riots, San Diego—just a few hours away—was calm. It’s not that there weren’t racial tensions or episodes of police brutality, but that for several years—in the wake of San Diego’s own King-esque event and the killing of an officer—police had worked with city and community leaders to build bridges and improve policing. When turmoil came, notes Balko, “those goodwill gestures and the relationships they built paid off,” and police officials “could build a strategy around empathy, not antagonism.”

The NYPD can continue its strike, and its allies can continue their attacks on reformers. But they’re only hurting themselves and the city they serve.