Do the Police Need an Image Makeover?


Following up on Tom’s very interesting post, I thought I’d offer some thoughts of my own on law enforcement and police reform. Terrorists are as good a provocation as any to inspire reflections on what keeps the public safe.

Police departments around the country have been scrambling of late to do more and more with less and less. In addition to controlling ordinary street crime, we’re asking them to a thousand other things as well: catching terrorists and bank robbers, finding illegal immigrants and deadbeat dads, enforcing noise regulations and maintaining a “street presence” so that people feel safe. The list of objectives is long and diverse.

On top of this, pretty much every department in the country now claims to do “community policing,” meaning that officers are supposed to be in and around the neighborhood, where they can help ordinary people with ordinary problems. There is a logic here: when people have positive memories of the nice policemen who helped granny cross the street, or got the cat out of the tree, they’re more likely to be trusting when the uniformed officers come asking for information. Without that trust, solving homicides and other major crimes becomes prohibitively difficult. Somebody out there usually has the information you need to close the case, but if they won’t tell you, how can anything get done?

Another big topic in law enforcement (at least on the theoretical level) is “Problem-Oriented Policing” (POP). I think this is exciting stuff, and to explain how it works (but please feel free to critique this, because it’s just my own summary of a lot of reading) I like to say that there are three basic paradigms for thinking about crime control. POP shows the shift from a Model One or Two approach to a Model Three.

Model One assumes that there are bad people out there who are going to keep making trouble until you stop them. Our goal should be to apprehend them early in their criminal lives, and to ensure that they are locked up where they can’t do further damage.

Model Two supposes that criminals are free riders acting on rational self-interest. They’ll keep making trouble if they think they can get away with it, and if the potential penalties aren’t sufficient to deter them. Our goal on this model is to ensure (through some combination of good enforcement and tough penalties) that crime doesn’t pay.

Model Three supposes that people are habituated to see certain activities as “done” and others as forbidden. It will matter, certainly, if they think they can get away with something. But crime doesn’t necessarily reflect a rational calculation of self-interest so much as the criminal’s background and environment. If his peers do these things (and get away with them), he’ll follow suit.

Truthfully, all three of these models can be applicable to certain situations. Hardened terrorists probably fall into Model 1: they’re out there and they’re bad, and reform probably isn’t a realistic goal unless you are Sr. Helen Prejean. From the state perspective, our main goal is to foil them, catch them, and assess penalties requisite to their actual or (hopefully) intended crimes. Model 2 is likely applicable to white-collar crimes such as fraud or identity theft. These are committed by canny people looking for a big payoff, and if we do a good enough job of ensuring that the potential gain isn’t worth the risk, most people will probably stop trying.

Street crime has often been viewed through the lenses of Models 1 and 2. But the truth is, Model 3 is probably, on the whole, the most helpful. True, some murders are committed by Model 1-type psychopaths, and the occasional clever pickpocket might (in the spirit of Model 2) do well for himself financially without incurring much risk. But most run-of-the-mill criminals aren’t psychopaths. And most ordinary crime is already a pretty lousy gig on a level of rational-interest calculation. Very few thieves and gangsters are driving a Rolls or wearing a Patek Philippe, and that’s not because they’re squeamish about conspicuous consumption.

Your typical street criminal breaks laws because that’s what people around him do. He probably also has some sort of substance-abuse problem; most criminals do. Occasionally we do get a Lex Luthor, a Danny Ocean, or a Keyser Söze (okay, probably not Keyser Söze), but a lot more crimes are committed by druggies or gangsters whose life calculations may not look much further than 48 hours out. And the reason the police don’t catch them is because 1) there are too many crooks and not enough police, and 2) investigators can’t get people to tell them what they know.

The point of POP is to change the crime pattern by changing the environment in some specific way. That might mean heavy enforcement of a particular law in a particular place, until the problem is properly controlled (after which maintaining order becomes far easier). It might mean a systematic information-gathering operation, followed by a series of simultaneous arrests. Often the police might coordinate with other social services, in order to open more appealing options to certain petty criminals (such as prostitutes or corner-level drug dealers). But the general point is to use strategic planning and coordination to achieve specific crime-related goals. Ideally this is done cooperatively with community leaders, in pursuit of some end that the community prioritizes. And that in turn can do a lot to improve neighborhood relations. If the police heed the neighborhood’s request to deal with the local thieves or drug dealers, that probably buys more general goodwill than helping a few cats out of trees.

It all sounds really great, except for one thing. It takes sizable numbers of talented people to make these operations work, and many departments are struggling to find the manpower to maintain even fairly basic operations.

Good policing is in general a good investment. Crime is expensive, as is incarceration, and both of those things ruin lives and make life generally less pleasant. Good policing, on the other hand, inspires trust, solidarity and a general sense of well-being in the populace. If we could contrive a good way to divert money away from our corrections budget, or victim compensation funds, and towards better police work, that would likely be an excellent trade-off. But it isn’t easy to do, especially because the data indicates that fewer young people are viewing police work as attractive or interesting.

The obvious problems here are 1) too little money, and 2) too many risks, not only from criminals but also from the public and the press. I agree that we should address these, but sheer boosterism can only go so far, and it has negatives of its own (in that departments won’t feel much pressure to innovate if the public seems unambiguously delighted with their present performance). What we ideally want is for young people to see policing as difficult but honorable work, in which respect and prestige can be earned, through excellent performance.

It seems like that should be possible. Good law enforcement is both difficult, and honorable. For those with do-gooder impulses, it offers multiple opportunities to work with people and make their lives better. Detective work and POP also open opportunities for bright young problem-solvers to apply their brainpower for an eminently worthy endeavor. Nevertheless, until six months ago, when bright, idealistic young students came asking my opinion as to where they could apply their talents to make a difference in the world, it never occurred to me to suggest law enforcement. Why not? I myself don’t quite know; just not part of my egghead universe, I suppose (to my shame!).

How could we change that? Change the incentive structures within the force itself? New PR strategies? Perhaps a more obviously rarified departmental structure (that is, rarified in such a way that career-planners can recognize it from the outside), enabling people to appreciate how their talents are suited to a particular police-related job?

The life of a cop isn’t easy, but I’ve met quite a lot of young people who at least claim to want work that is 1) steady, 2) challenging, and 3) meaningful.  Shouldn’t this fit that bill?

Published in Policing
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  1. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell

    Working in law enforcement is also a great way to make a positive difference in the world without necessarily having to go to college and incurring tons of debt. One of my cousins is a state trooper; he didn’t need any college to get his foot in the door, and he has done very well.

    • #1
  2. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen

    There is a core image problem, exacerbated by some behaviors and the function o0f cops as most frequently seen representatives of the authority of the state.

    This is not helped by the image as overweight guys in the doughnut shop, but that is a cliche.

    • #2
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