Commentary

A strategy to make policing work for all of us | Opinion

June 22, 2021 6:00 am

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

A year after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, we’d hoped to see Minneapolis as the place that’s finally getting public safety right. Instead, spasms of senseless violence continue to shake our city.

George Floyd. Daunte Wright. Winston Smith. Three children under the age of 10 shot in the head, two of whom have died. Ten people shot during an argument outside the Monarch night club. The headlines that keep putting us at the top of the national news alternate between cascading criminal violence and inexplicable police violence. We will not solve either without addressing both. 

It’s led to a weighty sense of futility. The past year has seen a multitude of proposals for reform at the city, state and national level. States — including Minnesota — have enacted more than 140 police oversight laws. And yet, tragedy and injustice continue. One often-overlooked reason is the approach to date has been piecemeal. It misses the depth of the problem.

At the Center for Policy Design, our study of large system architecture has taught us to look for deep systemic problems, and address them with well-thought-out systemic change. We believe that is the answer to the current impasse over public safety. The Minneapolis Police Department is in need of systemic transformation if it is going to accomplish the twin goals of ensuring just law enforcement for all citizens, and restoring a real sense of public safety in our neighborhoods and downtown.

When any large system chronically fails to achieve the goals that society expects of it, we have found the underlying reason is almost always that the system has a flawed structure that enables and rewards the undesired behavior, and obstructs and punishes the desired behavior. 

This describes how the current approach to policing — termed the “warrior approach” by many of its advocates in law enforcement — has infected the relationship between our officers and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. Warrior policing is designed to fight a war on crime and is heavily used by police departments around the country. It is aggressive, adversarial and militaristic. It trains police to stop any citizen on any pretext who — in the officer’s opinion — appears suspicious. This opens the door wide to racial bias. It drills police in the idea that the community is full of enemies gunning for them, so officers must be ready to shoot first at any perceived false move – the “split second decision” we hear about so often as a justification when policing goes horribly wrong. 

In short, warrior-style policing makes enemies of all of us. It is too deeply rooted in the MPD culture to be simply legislated away or disciplined into good behavior by civilian review boards. It must be replaced with something better. 

The most promising alternative is often referred to as procedural justice policing. This puts the emphasis on de-escalation, respect and making sure citizens and police officers alike get home safely at the end of the day. Its techniques change the deadly force mindset, and lengthen that split-second timeframe so better decisions can be made. It gets the rewards and incentives right to give policing a chance to work for everyone. Including the officers who’ve dedicated their lives to the job.

The methods of procedural justice are well-studied and have supporters in Minneapolis, in particular Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. Embracing it systemwide as a new police culture is step one in a strategy to transform policing in Minneapolis. 

But it will only work if we take a step two – a makeover of personnel. This means retaining and hiring only officers who are deeply committed to the new approach. Equally important, in cases where retraining and discipline fail it must be possible to remove warrior-minded officers who deliberately seek to undermine the new culture.

Both steps are necessary, one will not work without the other. That’s a reason reform has failed so often. In the few places where both steps have been taken — notably Camden, N.J., since 2012 — the procedural justice approach has empirically proven effective at delivering the goals we ask of our police: Significant reductions in police violence and racial bias as well as in crime and criminal violence. Community trust has increased. 

The approach may be even more effective when combined with a collaborative system of first-responders, counselors who work with officers in non-violent situations like mental health, drug and domestic dispute calls. This fits with recommendations recently made in St. Paul by the Citizens League’s Community-First Public Safety Commission. 

Our strategy can be simply stated as two big steps: 1. Makeover the policing approach, and 2. makeover the officer personnel. But we are not mistaking simplicity for easy. We understand the complexity and political challenges that come with implementing, not least working through the realities of arbitration, union rules and labor law. 

We’re convinced having a concrete, focused and understandable strategy will help bring together community, business and political leaders in a way that finally meets these challenges. It’s why our work of the past year has been deliberate in looking for ideas that are clear-minded and practical enough to rise above political sloganeering.

We believe the vast majority of officers are heroes, and we need them in the game if we’re going to end the tragic violence plaguing our city. That means rebuilding trust between police and community. We hope having a concrete strategy to guide decision-making will finally make it possible.

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