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21st Century Policing

I have watched the events unfolding across the country over the past two weeks with a mixture of horror and regret; horror based on the unnecessary death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and regret that the police having not taken to heart recommendations for reform from the 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

My perspective is probably more informed than most. I spend more than 32 years as a police officer, the last half as a police chief. I researched police officers as part of my doctoral research while at Portland State University. I spent more than a decade training police officers in Oregon, including five years as the Leadership Training Coordinator in the Center for Policing Excellence at the Public Safety Academy in Salem, Oregon. As a result of my training responsibilities and efforts of the Center for Policing Excellence at the Academy, I was invited to provide testimony to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015.

It is the report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that provides a blueprint for a way forward. Four members of the Task Force, Charles H. Ramsey, Ronald L. Davis, Roberto Villaseñor and Sean Smoot, in an opinion piece in the New York Times on June 4, 2020, set forth why the Task Force Report provides a “playbook for police reform.” The Report and recommendations are organized into six major topic areas, identified as “six pillars:” Building Trust and Legitimacy, Policy and Oversight, Technology and Social Media, Community Policing and Crime Reduction, Training and Education, and Officer Wellness and Safety. The Report identified specific actions that should be taken to implement the recommendations.

About six months after the final Report was released, in October of 2016, the Department of Justice published an implementation guidebook for police agencies, again identifying specific steps that police agencies should take to implement the recommendations. The Implementation Guidebook identified five actions local governments can do, five actions police can take, and five things that communities can do, to successfully the implementation of the Task Force recommendations. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in collaboration with researchers from George Mason University, identified the actions that, based on the research in policing, have the potential to make the most impact. The Task Force Report identified what experts in the field of policing argued needed to do to reform the police for the 21st Century, the follow up documents showed police agencies how to make those changes.

So what happened? Did anything change?

The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training operates the only police academy in the State. Through the Center for Policing Excellence, which was established by the Oregon Legislature in 2013, the police academy in Oregon made efforts to implement recommendations from the Task Force Report, particularly the recommendations regarding training of police officers. Many of the recommendations in the Task Force Report were already incorporated into the academy curriculum prior to 2015, and additional changes were in progress at the time the Task Force Report was released. About a year after the Task Force Report was issued, curriculum taught at the Public Safety Academy addressed seven of the twelve recommendations or actions items that were applicable to the training provided at the Academy.

Unfortunately, that did not mean that all police agencies in the state were making progress on the recommendations included in the Task Force Report. Dr. Cody Telep at Arizona State University, in collaboration with The Center for Policing Excellence, surveyed supervisors from police agencies in Oregon. He found the biggest obstacles to implementing innovation and reform in policing were budgetary limitations, the police culture, a general resistance to change, or a lack of leadership. The issues will need to be addressed as we move to implement necessary changes in policing.

The playbook for police reform identifies the first steps that need to be taken, but the effort will not be easy. Police agencies, elected officials, and community members will need to commit to the effort. Police leaders will need to commit to working with and listening to members of their community. But the police need to go beyond just listening. The police need to adopt a “growth mindset” as identified by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford; the growth mindset is characterized by the belief of “not yet” – meaning that if we don’t succeed we need to keep learning and trying as we are just “not yet” where we want to be.

In Oregon there are approximately 180 police agencies, nearly all of which are city or county level agencies. Local government officials, both elected and appointed, play an essential role in police reform. In collaboration with the community and the police, local government officials can facilitate the input from all stakeholders. They can allocate resources to reform efforts, and hold appointed police leaders accountable for results. Equally as important, they are in a position to address some of the underlying quality of life issues and encourage community cohesion.

Communities, including individual citizens, as well as local religious, civic and non-profit groups, play a critical role in police reform. They need to engage in community meetings and problem-solving efforts in collaboration with the police. People are busy with their daily lives, working, raising families, and related activities, but if there is going to be true police reform communities need to commit to and engage in a sustained effort. The community and the police need to be cautious and not get caught up advocating for change that will not be effective. There is solid research on what works in policing; that information can help focus on changes that will have the most impact. The community needs to not just advocate for change but also seek to understand the challenges facing the police in their community.

Reforming the police will not be easy, but it is necessary. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing provides a blueprint for the way forward. The task for communities, local governments, and police agencies will be to tackle the tough challenges ahead and commit to change; this effort will require leadership from all three. Communities will have to work to help identify and implement the changes; governments will have to be responsive and provide the resources, and police officers and police leaders will have to open their minds to the need for change. The changes in policing are only part of the work that needs to be done. Broader societal issues also need to be considered, including education, employment, drug abuse treatment, mental health resources, alternatives to incarceration, to name a few. This will not be a short-term effort; we are looking at structural change - it will take years. But if we don’t start now, and make the commitment to carry through, nothing will change.

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