Police Reform: What Can Be Done About It?

                            

The recent conviction of police officer Darin Chauvin for his reckless act of killing George Floyd has led many of all colors and races to question current police techniques.  Given what was seen over and over again in the news, the jury’s decision appeared to reflect a popular bipartisan view that appropriate justice had been meted out. 

The reaction to Floyd’s death on the political far left was to defund the police.  I don’t believe punishing the police via defunding will serve society in a beneficial way.  In fact, what has been noticeable but, in my opinion, somewhat muted by news reporting, has been an increase in homicides and other crimes in the past year. 

In my last blog, I reviewed both the audience and public reaction to the movie:  Death Wish.  This picture came out in 1974 when, as I pointed out, the level of crime was much higher in New York City than it is presently.  A film released a year earlier than Death Wish was Magnum Force starring Clint Eastwood as the officer, Dirty Harry.  This movie is totally antithetical to most public opinion of today.  The plot revolves around San Francisco cops executing criminals because they believe the latter never get apprehended.  When Eastwood becomes aware of the rogue actions of his fellow cops, he refuses to join them in their murderous pursuits.

I cannot imagine Magnum Force being made in the current political climate.  Since that movie was made, crime in urban areas has been reduced significantly.  But let me be clear here, I am not arguing that the policing in this country has been without blemish.  When an officer commits a major mishap, the police blue code of silence is not a noble one.  Another movie, Serpico, made about the same time as Magnum Force pointed out the many travails a New York City cop faced because he did not follow the blue code. 

I am in full agreement with many of today’s critics when they plead for more transparency in police departments.  Moreover, whether or not police departments should have immunity from their acts is certainly an area that needs further investigation.  Clearly, however, such tactics as strangle or choke holds that police have been known to use for those resisting arrest, also need further review.

Rather than reducing the monies for policing, wouldn’t it make more sense to add more training to what officers currently receive?  Although this may not be cost efficient, I have thought that one prerequisite in becoming a police officer is a college degree or some form of advanced training in criminal justice.  In any event, either more training in police departments or accepting applicants that have college degrees, would necessitate more, not less funds, for police.  Hiring young males who have the authority to carry a deadly weapon, no matter what race, color or creed they may be, with only a short-term police academy training after a high school diploma, is a questionable policy.  A job for psychologists, like myself, would be to employ screening devices that would better evaluate racial attitudes of incoming police officers. 

Awhile back, I read an article in the New York Times that indicated most people simply do not want to interact with unsavory types necessary in what police do as part of their daily work.  Even with my training as a psychologist, I would not want to be answering calls where there is suspected domestic violence.  Therapeutic interventions do not work when individuals are in a state of uncontrollable rage, as is often the case when spouses are involved.  We discover that Serpico, in the movie that actually happened in real life, was shot when answering some such dispute. 

I do think that mental health professionals could help police departments understand how to deal more effectively with the mentally ill.  A colleague of mine told me that she has little trust in the police because she has known of some cases in her hometown where police were called out to calm a situation involving a mentally disturbed patient.  The result of summoning the police led to the death by the hands of whichever officer had responded to the call.  If the individual is not carrying a dangerous weapon but is resistant to being arrested or apprehended by the police, officers need to know how to deal with these situations without using lethal force.  In settings where a person with a mental illness is causing a disturbance, officers skilled in crisis management might be dispatched.  Once more, this would require specialized training and more funding to police departments for this to be a viable solution.

Let us not forget that most homicides are intra-racial where the police are not involved.  Thus, the F.B.I. recently reported that 89% of Blacks killed Blacks and 81% of Whites killed Whites.  Despite mass media reportage, deaths caused by police do not represent anywhere near the majority of homicides with Blacks.  To quote Marshall McLuhan:  The message is the media.  This is not to say that police should not be questioned when they use lethal force inappropriately.  But the media does a tremendous job at dramatizing sensation as a means of increasing its viewers or readership.  What goes viral often causes alarm without subsequent supporting evidence.  With all the guns out on the streets, contemporary policing that is skillful is by no means an easy task.  Police are not pigs.  The reality is that if police fail to do what is necessary to protect the public, the crime rate will undoubtedly continue to rise.  

Critics of policing in this country have argued that police killings are higher here than in other developed countries.  True, but gun ownership is much higher here than in other wealthy nations, along with a social system that is not as tight as those same nations.

The journalist, Jason Riley, in reviewing the Washington Post database, pointed out the following: “Police shot and killed 999 people in 2019, Including 424 Whites and 252 Blacks.  Twelve of the Black victims were unarmed versus 26 of the White victims.”  Given the fact that over 10 million people are arrested each year in America, the number of total deaths by police does not appear that high. Like most people, I believe that every life is important.  That is why, rather than undermine the work of police departments, I believe we need to underpin their structure by adding training and community resources cited in this article.  I would much prefer the police handling criminal offenders rather than vigilantes taking the law into their own hands as portrayed in Death Wish and Magnum Force.  The latter state of affairs could lead to anarchy.