In early July 2016, police officers killed black men in two separate, high-profile incidents. First, Alton Sterling was shot at point blank range in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And in Minnesota, during a minor traffic stop, a police officer shot Philando Castile as he reached for his license.
Within two weeks, two black gunmen had ambushed and shot dead eight police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, Texas.
Police-involved shootings in the United States have resulted in 591 deaths so far in 2016. Approximately 25% of these victims were black, and over half were minorities. In the same period, 37 police officers were killed in firearms-related incidents, a 67% rise from last year. Alarmingly, 14 of the shooting deaths this year have been ambush-style, retaliatory attacks on unsuspecting officers, compared with three in the same period last year.
These events have left many in despair, wondering why the violence keeps happening and whether anyone knows what to do about it. In fact, there is remarkable unanimity about the solutions as documented in countless reports, panels, and investigations of police brutality, stretching back nearly 100 years to the groundbreaking Wickersham Commission. As police expert and criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert recently said, “We know what needs to happen next but we just keep studying the question instead of doing something about the answers we’ve arrived at.”
The best way to stop police brutality is not, as is sometimes assumed, lawsuits or criminal prosecutions against aggressive officers. Such individual actions may make the public feel as though injustices are being addressed – and in some sense they are — but these strategies do not produce lasting reform. Aside from the fact that police are immune from punishment for “reasonable” conduct, jury bias in favor of police makes damages suits difficult to win. Even when successful, lawsuits are resolved many years after the incidents occurred and police officers are indemnified by states or localities. Evidence of these suits may not become part of officers’ personnel files and may not prevent their promotion. And then nothing changes.
The only effective mechanism for addressing police brutality is top-down, systemic reform of the police organization itself. This includes introducing community policing; training officers in de-escalation skills and the use of non-lethal tactics; increasing the diversity of departments; improving data collection and public transparency; and enhancing the screening of police recruits. So why have most police departments failed to embrace these reforms?
Departments blame “rogue cops,” not organizational culture. Often, you will hear police chiefs or other spokespeople referring to a small number of “rogue cops” in cases of brutality. In reality, these claims are nearly always false. While claims of police abuse do tend to cluster around a relatively small group of police officers, those officers tend to repeat their abusive behavior with impunity. Repeated brutality that is not addressed by higher-ups is a systemic problem, not a problem of rogue individuals. It means that the organizational message being conveyed, whether or not explicit, is that some level of abusive behavior is okay.
Reining in this behavior requires a change in police culture. Beginning with James Q. Wilson’s seminal study on police behavior, police scholars have agreed that the organizational culture of policing — the set of informal, cultural norms that are unique to the occupation of law enforcement — is the most important determinant of police behavior. This includes both the culture of policing writ large and the micro-cultures of individual departments.
For example, no police leader would instruct his or her officers to brutalize suspects. But certain features of police culture reward aggressive behavior or send a subliminal message that a certain amount of brutality is permitted or even necessary. Sometimes this starts at the police academy, where cops are taught that “complacency kills.” According to Seth Stoughton, professor of law at the University of South Carolina Law School and a former police officer, heavy emphasis on police safety and the dangers of inattention or hesitation trains officers to shoot before a threat is fully recognized.
But even when academy training is better (for example, including instruction in de-escalation techniques), new recruits soon buy into the older model of aggressive, authoritative policing exhibited by old-timers on the force.
On top of all of this is the way departments emphasize quantitative performance: metrics that place more value on crimes solved, arrests made, and tickets written than on harder-to-measure accomplishments, such as dangerous situations diffused or avoided. By rewarding aggressive actions — which may even be dubbed heroic — this system undergirds a style of policing that can escalate police citizen confrontations. It also undermines the deterrent effects of citizen complaints or lawsuits, which are deemed “necessary evils” for effective crime fighting.
Legal rules impede police learning from deadly errors. There’s no question that police officers routinely face threatening situations requiring split-second, life-or-death decisions that affect their own safety. According to FBI data, an average of 51 officers have been killed in the line of duty every year for the past 10 years. And yet at the same time, police brutality resists reform because police assume a certain level of violence will be necessary in the situations they face, and the law gives them the benefit of the doubt when applying force. The way officers interpret and employ violence is structured around these notions, which impedes their ability to appreciate and correct errors in their use of force.
To understand how this works, it’s important to understand how the legal rules operate. Police officers are not judged with 20-20 hindsight. They are permitted to apply a level of force that is “justified” (i.e. “reasonable”) under the circumstancesas they appeared at the time of the confrontation. Moreover, force will be deemed justified even if the officer’s reasonable-at-the-time judgment turns out to have been mistaken. This explains the heartbreaking instances in which force is found to be legally justified when police officers mistakenly shoot dead an unarmed suspect who only appeared to be reaching for a gun.
Importantly, that force was legally justified does not mean that it was actually necessary. The justification inquiry looks only at the circumstances immediately surrounding the violent encounter. It does not consider whether the confrontation could have been avoided entirely or de-escalated earlier in the encounter without the need for force. When police departments fail to look beyond the narrow time frame required by justification analysis, they miss systemic problems such as over-aggressive policing that pave the way for violent encounters. And ignoring the broader context also eliminates any reflection on whether an officer complied with police best practices
So what might happen if departments did more closely analyze violent incidents? The Washington Post recently askedseveral police experts to examine five dramatic videos of police shootings, including those of Castile and Sterling. One of the experts’ repeated criticisms was that officers ignored standard police tactics intended to diffuse conflict, control suspects, and promote their own safety. They moved in too fast and too close to armed suspects; declined to apply non-lethal force; and failed to establish effective communication with suspects, bystanders, and other law enforcement officers. Significantly, the reviewers deemed the moments leading up to the shootings as “crucial” to understanding whether the shootings could have been avoided by the application of better policing techniques.
This kind of analysis rarely occurs in police departments today (though the rapidly increasing use of police body cameras to record police citizen encounters could change this).
Institutional racism is rarely addressed. There is an additional, systemic factor that has played into this summer’s violence, as evidenced by the recent Department of Justice reports on Ferguson and Baltimore: widespread patterns of systemic racial bias affect police officers’ conduct, including their use of force. African Americans are more likely to be stopped, frisked, and arrested, and are two-and-one-half times more likely to be shot by police than whites, differences that have not been adequately explained by crime rates, level of threat, or bad neighborhoods.
While some part of this disparity may result from intentional discrimination, it also results from deeply entrenched, unconscious racism affecting the way police officers perceive potentially dangerous circumstances. Studies have consistently found that police view black suspects as more threatening than white suspects, they are more likely to expect blacks to be criminals, and they expect violence when patrolling black or minority neighborhoods. These kinds of stereotypes may affect the speed and/or accuracy of officers’ judgements whether suspects are armed or pose a threat.
Research also suggests that racial stereotypes can be self-fulfilling: Black suspects who worry that they might appear threatening or suspicious often adopt behaviors that police interpret as dangerous or suspicious-looking, such as showing anxiety.
There is hopeful evidence that clear non-discrimination policies, sophisticated training, and good leadership can, over time, begin to correct for these kinds of unconscious racial biases. In addition, good data collection and transparency can document the nature, circumstances, and demographics of police enforcement patterns, and shift the debate about racial profiling from anecdotal reports to informed discussion.
Changing the culture of an organization is hard; law enforcement no exception. Addressing racial bias — an intractable result of years of structural and societal racism — is especially difficult. But other systemic recommendations urged by policing experts are more straightforward and actionable. Many departments have made progress over the years, including — in a tragic irony — the Dallas Police Department. There is also hope for Baltimore, which like other police departments around the country is now subject to federal oversight requiring systemic change.
In order for reforms to stick, however, police departments need to understand and address the underlying issues that stand in the way of learning and change. By stepping up to focus on what the organization can do, police departments have a better chance of saving more lives — both black and blue ones.