Police Reform – Bottom Up and Top Down

If somebody were to tell me that there is a kind of a universal blueprint which must be used for successful reform of police, I would be very suspicious. My experiences, good and bad, relate to addressing corruption and crime in medium size police precincts, warrior mentality in a police station under constant mental siege in a hostile environment, establishing community-oriented policing primacy in a large and diverse, yet national police organization, harmonising a joint understanding of service-oriented and accountable policing in extremely complex and diverse international executive policing environments, and in countless ways assisting jurisdictions ermerging and recovering from conflict in coming to terms with policing allowing to contribute to societal healing, and representing the communities they serve.

Nothing would allow me to refer to experiences how to alter policing in a setup where people estimate that a country has approximately 18.000 agencies responsible for policing. That is the situation in the United States of America, and that is the scope of the challenge over there. But I continue to stress that this is not about “Us and Them”. Rather, a critical examination of reform needs requires to take a self-critical look. It simply is a gargantuan task. Here just one from countless examples.

People take the streets all over the U.S. and globally in large numbers. Polls in the U.S. show that there is majority support for a profound change.

Not undertaking reform is not an option. Compared to the needs to change global bias and selfishness which expresses itself in so many forms, like racism and religious hatred, xenophobia, discriminating minorities, leaving impoverished societies to their own devices, or is depriving women or members of the LGBTQ community from equality in all its aspects, the task of reforming policing appears minuscule, though gargantuan in itself. I don’t want to ramble, but just the other day Greta Thunberg is reminding us, again, about tackling climate change being equal to tackling the Covid-19-pandemic.

We’ve got to shoulder this, otherwise we will be helpless and complicit bystanders: Anger never is a good adviser, but people are angry for many reasons these days, and on a profound level. Some actors follow the principle “If I can make you angry, I have already won over you.” If reactionary forces prevail in “weathering the storm”, muting the discussion and controlling it again, chances are that we may see chaos, rather than evolutionary development from which we collectively benefit. “Us and Them”-thinking will lead to a lot of collateral damage and we may wake up in a world one day which none of us wanted.

To find a meaningful entry point into a contribution, I suggest to look at a recent article “What happened when a city disbanded its Police”:

Two factors came together in Minneapolis which allowed for a sweeping reform of policing:

  1. Top Down: The commitment from highest leadership levels to embark on an undertaking with many risks, including risks for reputation and own job security;
  2. Bottom Up: A deep desire on a grass-root-level for change: Communities were fed up with the way how they were policed.

In my previous articles, I have reiterated where I stand on “how to police”. I have referred to a common denominator of policing: The United Nations’ “Strategic Guidance Framework” is incorporating principles such as the principle of community-orientend policing. I see the same principles at the heart of the re-design of policing which has been the result of a reform effort in Minneapolis.

The question how to design a police organization which is following such principles can lead to an evolutionary development of an existing organization, or, like here, to disbanding an existing police and to build a new one from scratch.

Both scenarios lead to disappointment amongst those who may feel that they have fallen victim to such a reform, like police officers who have lost their jobs, or police chiefs and leaders all the way down to first-line-supervisers who have been reassigned in course of the reform. The higher their numbers, the more difficult it will be to get the dissatisfaction voiced by them being absorbed within the discourse in a larger community, or society. One of the biggest mistakes of the Coalition Provisional Authority following the 2003 invasion of Iraq was “Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2″: It disbanded the Iraqi military, security, and intelligence infrastructure of President Saddam Hussein. Many of those who lost their jobs ended up becoming members of insurgency groups and terrorist organizations and networks which brought chaos and death over Iraq and the wider region.

Painful decisions which will always leave some feeling being on the side of those who have lost from reform require a thorough process of thinking before springing into “less-than-thought-through-action”. Of course, Iraq is not the U.S., or Europe, and American police is lightyears away from forces which have been instrumental in a brutal dictator’s oppression of his own population, but this is universal psychology and it is a classic example of a toll which can be directly tracked to decisions which have not been based on a carefully synchronised discourse “top down” and “bottom up”. In any large scale reform, antagonization must be mitigated, without loosing sight of the dedication to achieve a fundamental change. Otherwise, reform will be watered down into mediocrity at best, or will lead to cosmetic reform with no chances for sustainability of efforts, or being entirely outrun by reactionary forces resisting change.

That is why real reformers will be measured by 

  1. Whether, including the top-levels, they mean what they say, and put action to where their mouth is;
  2. Whether they lead an inclusive discourse, from the top down, rather than following the path of antagonization and radicalisation of an “Us-and-Them”-rhethoric;
  3. Whether they listen to communities on the ground, including permanent and more than symbolic engagement by top leaders, and base their reform decisions entirely on including communities on the ground into shaping a joint vision of the future;
  4.  Whether they are ready to rely on the participation of communities on the ground in all aspects of implementing a reform effort, holding themselves accountable to those communities which shape the form of policing which these communities want, for themselves.

 

In following blog entries, I will touch upon two other elements which I see for successful police reform: A reform of insufficient training, and representative policing, which needs to focus on the role of persons and communities of color, on minorities, and the role of women as agents of transformational change.

 

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