Building a new narrative around policing
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On February 21, 2018, Officer Mujahid Ramzziddin was killed while helping a woman escape domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband.
That morning, a neighbor asked Officer Ramzziddin to watch over her while she removed her belongings from her home. Though Officer Ramzziddin was off-duty at the time, he obliged. The neighbor’s husband, armed with a shotgun, ambushed Officer Ramzziddin and killed him.
The incident offers further proof that, every day, police officers go above and beyond what is required of them – and make tremendous sacrifices – to fulfill their duty “to protect and to serve.” Yet to many – particularly those within communities of color – a different narrative dominates the public image of police. This narrative points to instances in which the police have neglected their duty to protect – in places like Ferguson, Sacramento and Baltimore. It is supplemented by the associated images of police wearing military gear and armament while driving vehicles originally meant for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most importantly, the narrative points to a fractured trust in our police forces today.
Most police officers serve with the courage and dedication of Officer Ramzziddin: putting their lives on the line day-in and day-out to ensure the safety of those they serve. And like Officer Ramzziddin, many – such as Baltimore County Officer Amy Caprio – make the ultimate sacrifice while performing their sworn duty. Yet the militarization of police forces has increased opportunities for the misuse and abuse of police power, thus making our police officers’ jobs more difficult and, according to research, putting civilian lives at risk.
American society is not ill-fated to continue this policy or hopeless to change it. We can reverse some of the adverse consequences of police militarization and craft a new, more positive community narrative built on police heroism and trust in the following three ways:
First, we can create a resource-sharing policy that is thorough and judicious. The U.S. federal government’s 1033 Program currently allows law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment “for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission.” And although President Obama issued an executive order mandating the restriction of 1033 sales, it was merely window dressing, not a comprehensive policy change.
In fact, the new policy didn’t really restrict the use of such equipment; it only limited the ability of local police departments to use equitable sharing proceeds to purchase several categories of military equipment. On the heels of a perceived policy victory, advocates for restricted sales cheered – yet, in reality, the total value of equipment distributed through the 1033 Program grew the year after the order was signed.
In addition to improving police resource-sharing policy, policymakers should identify the needs and threats that the community applying for military resources faces. It might be appropriate for highly trained police in jurisdictions with larger populaces, such as New York City, to have some military-grade equipment, since they are more likely to deal with terrorist threats. However, small cities like Granite City, Illinois, with populations more akin to that of a college campus, doubtfully have the need for a military armored vehicle or more than 25 fully-automatic assault rifles. Newly formulated policy must make a clear distinction between the mission and duties attributed to police “blues,” notably meant “to protect and to serve” the community, and those attributed to military “greens,” traditionally meant to “engage and destroy” the enemy. Moreover, policy must note how conflating these two missions negatively impacts an officer’s ability to carry out his policing duty.
Second, police forces should enact comprehensive hiring strategies to select candidates that are attracted to the values of duty and sacrifice rather than to the power accorded to those who wield a weapon. While many observers have pointed out how the lack of females and minorities in local police forces hurts police effectiveness, few have noticed that some police departments also filter out candidates with higher intelligence scores.
Recent research, however, suggests that general intelligence can predict emotional intelligence – one’s “set of abilities for perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions.” Researchers have found that low levels of emotional intelligence are associated with higher levels of aggression and bullying, whereas high levels of emotional intelligence are associated with lower levels of aggression.
In light of these findings, the practice of filtering out high-IQ candidates presents police forces with a critical predicament: namely, that at the same time police militarization requires higher levels of emotional intelligence to assess the best point of action, some police forces are limiting their applicant pool with “intelligence caps.” This is a practice that must end.
Third, police forces should increase professional development opportunities for officers. Most police training focuses on technical development – for example, becoming an accurate shot or learning how to handle new equipment. Even senior leaders may have few opportunities to learn more about how to manage people, from fostering relationships with their community to promoting force buy-in and compliance with policy.
The further professionalization of policing would help officers see military equipment more responsibly as a tool rather than as a “weapon system.” In fact, a 2007 study found that police officers with any level of higher education were less likely than those with only a high school education to use verbal force in their interactions with citizens. Officers with a four-year degree were also less likely to use physical force as a method of coercion. Later findings suggest that officers with higher levels of education are less likely to demonstrate attitudes that support the abuse of police authority.
The sacrifice of our police officers should not go unnoticed. The woman saved by Officer Ramzzaddin certainly will never forget his sacrifice. “I pray for the Ramzziddiw’s [sic] family,” she noted on her Facebook page after the attack, “and thank Cpl. Ramzziddiw [sic] for saving my life and allowing me to see my children again.”
But neither should we ignore the tragedy suffered by the families and communities of Michael Brown, Daniel Shaver and Stephon Clark. Judicious policy, strategic recruiting and the further professionalization of policing all present critical opportunities to repair the fractures between the police and the communities they serve – and to restore public trust in law enforcement.
Some localities have already embarked on this mission. In 2015, Montana passed a law that banned police purchase or acquisition of several types of military equipment, including armored vehicles and combat-configured aircraft. A New Jersey law requires the public to agree that a 1033 acquisition is necessary before a locality receives military equipment. It also increases program transparency by mandating that local governing bodies approve of acquisitions.
These instances of change show that a new narrative can be created. But the choice is up to citizens at home.
Arthur Rizer is a DPhil student at the Centre for Criminology. Arthur is also the criminal justice policy director at the R Street Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank (@arthurrizer). Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a justice policy associate at the R Street Institute.