Amid widespread protests against police violence against African Americans, calls for reform from ending neck restraints to “defunding” police departments have monopolized TV newscasts and newspaper headlines. Social media traffic prompted by smartphone videos of incidents between police officers and blacks have gone viral. State and city officials across the nation are generating to-do lists of reforms aimed at solving the problem of police officers using lethal force to arrest minority suspects (see here and here).
White people over the age of 18 might be surprised that such cries for police reform have occurred before. But their grandparents wouldn’t.
The decade between 1965-1975 when urban “riots” (or “rebellions,” depending upon your political stance) occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and other cities killing both blacks and whites including police officers. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, to chair a commission to investigate the racial violence. The Kerner Commission’s report (1968) condemned white racism in housing, employment, and criminal justice while offering many recommendations for police reform (see here and here).
Subsequent calls for reforming police departments to reduce excessive force against people of color have occurred after killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014. Then consider Minneapolis police officers have shot dead Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), and choked to death George Floyd (2020). Inexorably, the uproar over such killings produces a list of must-do reforms including the resignation or dismissal of police chiefs, new laws curbing police methods being passed, and transforming the Us vs. Them organizational culture .
Consider turnover of police chiefs over the past half-century. Depending how one counts years served as police chief, tenure in big city police departments is short. For example, take New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 2020, a half-century marked by rising and falling tensions between minority communities and mainly white police forces, NYPD had 16 commissioners since 1970 (mean: 3.1 years). Chicago, 13 (mean 3.8), and Los Angeles, 11 (mean 4.5). Other cities had even higher turnover such as Oakland (nine over the past decade) and Baltimore (five in the past four years as of 2019). Only in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions does tenure of police chiefs last longer. No reader needs a Ph.D. to figure out that such turnover creates low morale among those who do the daily work on streets and in the community. Moreover, turnstile police chiefs lead to organizational instability and major difficulties of continuing reforms launched by a predecessor that seem to be working.
Mayors and city councils are currently under the triple threat of high-profile incidents of racist policing triggering marches, a pandemic that began in mid-March and continues for the foreseeable future, and impending cuts to city budgets as a result of economic recession following the plague. This convergence of events puts even more pressure on police leaders. Not only do new police chiefs have to reduce crime rates, build trust with the community, and gain respect of sworn police officers, they also have to erase racial and ethnic biases among supervisors and rank-and-file and insure adequate funding from city officials. Given this agenda for change brimming with conflicts, dumping current chiefs and hiring new ones to transform departments occur frequently.
But hiring or firing the police commissioner is only the beginning. State and city legislatures adopt laws seeking to fundamentally alter the mission of police departments and their daily practices. Some small cities such as Camden (NJ) to root out corruption in the force disbanded its police department and started a new one; cities such as Eugene (OR) have reduced the mission of police organizations through allocating budget funds to other agencies to work with, for example, the homeless, family disturbances, school discipline. Such efforts aim at making clear that the single most important goal is to insure community safety and, where possible, reduce crime. Such reform talk is rampant now.
What happened in the past is that as police chief turnover increased, fundamental reforms initially legislated by legislatures and city councils were down-sized into incremental changes (e.g., banning choke-holds, required re-training sessions on how to de-escalate conflicts in detaining citizens and arresting suspects). The culture of Us vs. Them, however, remained intact.
Whether that will occur again, I cannot say for sure but my informed guess, based upon a half-century of experience with school reform, is that it will. Shoving community institutions hard to make deep changes in their goals and practices is unenviable work and much political action, savvy, and patience are required.
Political? Yes. There are many stakeholders involved in funding police departments, shaping policies, and insuring that middle managers–captains and sergeants–put those policies into practice after precinct roll calls. After all, police chiefs secure sufficient funds from elected bodies, buffer the organization from external threats, keep bureaucrats in line, and monitor police union moves. If that isn’t enough, chiefs are responsible for building trust with the patrolmen walking beats and cruising neighborhoods. Talk about organizational conflict and politics. It is in the DNA of of being a police chief.
And this is where school reform and superintendents come into play as a comparison to the causes and solutions for problems in schooling. I take that up in Part 2.