Post-Ferguson: Bridging the Gap Between Protector and Protected


Having followed policing issues professionally and personally for more than two decades, the events of recent weeks frustrated me deeply. I’ve experienced more than 35 ride-alongs with departments across Southern California and covered hundreds of criminal investigations. I’ve seen many of the strengths, weaknesses and changes of modern policing and developed a sense for the dissonance between public expectations and the realities of safely capturing miscreants.

The solution was revealed in something I jokingly suggested to a frustrated LAPD friend as he fumed that the local Ferguson protesters he dealt with “have no idea how this job works.” “You’re right,” I said, “you ought to hand out (police) recruiting flyers to them. Just say ‘you can be the solution.’”

While a farce at that moment, this may finally develop public trust in a necessarily confrontational, unpleasant and occasionally violent service. Harsh nuances cannot be appreciated by outsiders who don’t worry about the number of ways cops can die. Thus, outside change is exceedingly difficult to implement. So, let’s let people who don’t trust cops become trustworthy police.

The mechanism to do this is already in place: Reserve policing.

Almost every law enforcement agency has reserve or auxiliary officers. These are, essentially, part-time cops — often volunteers — working roughly two shifts per month. Reserve officers are either fully trained and certified or less trained but with commensurately restricted duties and supervision. Often, they ride along with a full-time officer. In California, the average citizen has no idea if the cop who answers their 911 call is a career officer, or if he just came from his “real” job as an accountant or musician. Many career cops start as reserves, including my local police chief.

But, reserves are a small fraction of law enforcement. In 2008 there were 765,000 state and local sworn officers (those with powers of arrest), but just 44,000 reservists. By contrast, the U.S. Army’s approximately one million soldiers are roughly equally split between the active duty (full time) and reservists. The wars of the last decade could not have been fought without those reserve components.

By significantly expanding the ranks of reserve officers, I believe we can bring a sea change to America’s relationship with its policing by developing trust and what I call ‘organic external scrutiny.’

Simply put: it’s a lot easier to trust cops when you know them — or are one. And it’s also a lot easier to bring about change. The more cops are in neighborhoods, offices, factories, churches and schools — the more people will relate to them.

The next great national policing controversy could be diffused or galvanized at water coolers far away from police stations. “Street stories” provide circumspect counter to Al Sharpton’s serial indignation. Shared disgust engenders faith that injustices won’t stand.

“Organic external scrutiny” is the ability of reservists to reliably evaluate crime suppression, tactics and community sensitivities in appropriate balance. As the ranks of reserve officers swell, they will gain influence in the cultures of police agencies. It’s hard to imagine that the Ferguson Police Department would roll out an MRAP to a protest with a neighbor of the protesters behind the wheel – unless it was truly needed.

To be sure, I have seen firsthand that cops can be very flawed. I once went on a ride-along with an officer who made several potentially life-saving arrests during the night. But, he also repeatedly littered from his patrol car, despite having a reporter present. Another time, I spent hours with a female officer who described everyone using a colorful expletive. I could not flee fast enough.

Such behavior would be intolerable with community observation. Thus, if the ranks of police departments largely consist of the community, cops who don’t respect communities won’t be tolerated in those ranks. Reservists’ desire to live through their shifts and protect their neighborhoods will ensure that safe and effective tactics prevail. But they will quickly tire of explaining away inappropriate experiences to friends and co-workers.

This is vastly more effective than the oversight boards that police critics predictably demand. Those boards often feature untrained political appointees who garner little respect. Of the dozens of current and former LAPD officers I’ve known, not one took the pontifications of the LAPD Board of Police Commissioners at all seriously, beyond concerns of their own administrative self-preservation (vice crime suppression).

When people who have to live with all aspects of policies organically shape an agency’s culture, that culture will be fair and balanced.

My LAPD friend was right. Americans are ignorant on topics like probable cause, use of force law and the capabilities of an officer and his equipment. A massive expansion of reserve ranks will provide a meaningful outlet for the frustrations of those who demand change and a retort for those who think such demands are baseless.

None of this will detract from professional law enforcement. Career officers must form the professional foundation of policing and it would be foolish to base staffing decisions on volunteers. Still, the opportunity to increase staffing with minimal cost would provide obvious, practical benefits.

This is not without risk or challenge. The Oakley, Mich. Police Department and the sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles and Orange Counties all proved reserve programs can go awry absent ethical supervision. So can any human endeavor. Many police unions quietly disprove of reserves, in part because no-cost cops give city councils leverage in negotiating compensation with career cops.

But with vision, dedication and a little money, Americans can forge a new relationship with their protectors by becoming them, if only part time. Low-cost, widespread community self-policing is a concept that should appeal to the most ardent civil rights activists, libertarians and fiscal conservatives alike.

If protestors of police tactics really want to change policing, the only way they will accomplish anything is within the realities of safe policing. And who better to do it than themselves?

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There are 14 comments.

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  1. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu

    This seems like a good idea. Would it be hard to recruit more reserves?

    • #1
  2. Robert Parry Contributor
    Robert Parry

    I think that is where the determination and financial investment come to play. If the Army can staff half its ranks with part timers, I don’t see why policing should be different. If all police recruitment was focused on this goal for a year, it would gain enough traction to succeed.

    • #2
  3. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty

    “To be sure, I have seen firsthand that cops can be very flawed. I once went on a ride-along with an officer who made several potentially life-saving arrests during the night. But, he also repeatedly littered from his patrol car, despite having a reporter present. Another time, I spent hours with a female officer who described everyone using a colorful expletive. I could not flee fast enough.”

    The horror!

    • #3
  4. WI Con Member
    WI Con

    Robert Parry,

    I agree with Miss Lu. This seems like a really good idea. Do you think members of the black Clergy and Civil Rights establishment could be enticed/shamed into this kind of duty? Do you think they’d be honest brokers/observers?

    • #4
  5. Petty Boozswha Inactive
    Petty Boozswha

    Cops would consider it babysitting to have to protect a volunteer part-timer as well as perform the rest of their job. And Groucho Marx’ old adage might be applicable: any club that would have me for a member I wouldn’t want to join. Most of the folks that would be attracted to this kind of duty you would not want given that kind of responsibility.

    • #5
  6. Robert Parry Contributor
    Robert Parry

    It does not matter if the establishment does. This is about the grass roots. The Ferguson protests would have never gotten off the ground if 10 folks from the neighborhood came down and said “I know and work with Darren Wilson and I trust him. He would never shoot a kid in the back.”

    • #6
  7. Robert Parry Contributor
    Robert Parry

    @Betty: Most people who apply to be cops are rejected. This is no different. And there already are wide spread programs in place for this. There’s no baby sitting involved.

    • #7
  8. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum

    Excellent idea; my mother remembers the police in her town growing up as neighbors, friends you saw at church on Sunday, who helped to ‘mentor’ – though the term wasn’t used then – her older brothers, resolutely steering them away from trouble, to ease burdens for her widowed mother (my grandmother).  Bring back the ‘beat patrolman/woman’.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    This is a promising idea.

    I wonder if it would also work in government, where (for example) reserve IRS non-profit-approval officers would work part-time alongside the regulars.  Seems vaguely, Soviet, though, like the Housing committee seen in the film, Heart of a Dog (based on M. Bulgakov’s story).

    • #9
  10. user_645 Editor

    I don’t have anything like the expertise meaningfully to comment on this, but I thought your reflections were interesting, informed, thought-provoking, and–rarely, given the topic–calm. I thus posted a link to it on Twitter, resulting in this exchange:

     @ClaireBerlinski A useful, helpful, and non-hysterical post about US police, #Ferguson and all it implies. Such things are rare. 

     ‏@HKK_G  You think that a post that doesn’t once mention race is useful and can provide solutions for US-Police ? Delusional

     ‏@ClaireBerlinski Okay, so what I mean when I say “non-hysterical” is, “avoids use of words like “‘delusional.'” Light, not heat, you know?

    @HKK_G Calling people who react to  a blatantly patronising article “hysterical” just shows how passive aggresive you are.  

     ‏@ClaireBerlinski Not “passive-agressive,” honey, just aggressive. Keep pushing and you’ll find out. I wouldn’t.

    What can I say. Twitter. That’s why Ricochet had to be invented.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post and for reminding me why Ricochet exists.

    • #10
  11. user_517406 Inactive

    Very interesting idea.  My first thought about all of this has been that police departments should reflect the communities they work in.  In addition to full time policemen and women, this is a great idea.  Investment, ownership, being on the team–people in that position will not be rioting and looting.

    • #11
  12. derek Inactive

    I like this idea. The police are serving the community, and for the most part serving it well. A story.

    I was doing some work in an RCMP detachment in a small town in the interior of BC. This was when there were active protests against logging, where a cut block was allocated through the provincial processes, all the environmental stuff was done, but the local environmentalists didn’t want it to happen. There would be blockades, equipment vandalized, etc. No violence, or rarely, but the tempers were pretty raw. The local member was called upon to enforce court orders and injunctions. He told me how he had gotten to know people in the community and used them to make his job easy; if something was happening, he would know about it. He socialized with his neighbors, his kids went to the same schools, etc. When the time came to show up at a blockade and protest, where there were some hotheads and lots of minds made up, he was able by personal relationships diffuse the situations, allow the protesters to make their point all the while enforcing the court orders. The feelings were still high, but he was respected for his fairness and simple competence.

    He used reservists to help out. The people in the town were his friends and neighbors. His authority was available to deal with circumstances that got out of hand or to protect.

    He got no help from outside. He was doing the job of three, the demands of an increasing complexity of the court proceedings came from other needed things. Ultimately the community became what it wanted to be, and he was there to assist and keep people from hurting themselves.

    I have deep respect for men like him, and there are many throughout police forces in Canada and the US.

    The town he was in is in some way the center of marijuana production in BC. He also chose battles he could win.

    • #12
  13. Asquared Inactive

    It is a fine idea, but it seems VERY unlikely that the type of people who are likely to loot will sign up to be a police reservist. The real problem is huge portions of the AA community see the police force as the “enemy” and the problem, not the solution. Yes, joining the reserves could help change their attitude, but you need to change their attitude before they are willing to join.

    • #13
  14. Robert Parry Contributor
    Robert Parry


    Having spent a fair amount of time in LA’s Crenshaw neighborhood, I can attest that there are a lot of people who see the police in the light they should be held, but also are wary of past negative interactions.  Inviting them to be part of the problem (vice simply having a reserve program they “could” join) would be significant.

    • #14
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