Real police reform requires an increase in officers
As more and more cities call for defunding the police, large police departments continue to face worsening staff shortages. Defunding the police is meant to be a reform effort, but paradoxically, in many ways it may limit police from doing their jobs well. A recent article in Manhattan Institute’s City Journal describes alternative options for police reform other than defunding, citing community policing, foot patrols, or defensive tactics training — but all of these take time, staff, and money. For example, conflict resolution may be an effective method for resolving problems without resorting to arrest, but it takes longer.
The author describes a time when he resolved a conflict between a business owner and a woman who vandalized his property: the officer, business owner, and offender all agreed that she would return the next day to clean up the vandalism, and the officer would pursue charges if she did not show up. In other words, the officer was able to use conflict mediation to end the encounter in a peaceful way. However, it also took time to engage with parties and develop a mutually acceptable arrangement, while arresting someone and taking them to jail would have been a quicker solution. This brings us to the next big problem: time is becoming increasingly scarce as budgets decrease. Simultaneously, demands for reform and training have been increasing, putting even more strain and pressure on police departments to perform better and commit to change.
Hiring and Staffing
Shrinking budgets, increased demands for training, and low morale among officers all contribute to staffing shortages, especially in large departments. Lack of funds means that departments cannot hire as many officers, and increased demands for training mean that employed officers would be pulled away from their duties more often. Further, low morale seems to contribute to fewer officers entering the force.
A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum in June 2021 provided some insight into the staffing problem. Among the 194 agencies responding, there was a small decrease in the hiring of new officers (-5%, dropping from 8.67 to 8.21 per 100 officers), a moderate increase in resignations (+18%, from 4.15 to 4.91 per 100 officers), and a large increase in retirements (+45%, from 2.85 to 4.14 per 100 officers). Importantly though, these results varied by agency size. Part of the reason for this is because small departments with only a handful of officers see large percent changes due to only minor differences in staffing levels. When considering the largest agencies (those with 500+ officers), the authors saw a decrease of -36% in hiring, in contrast to the overall estimate of -5%. Further, the smallest agencies actually saw an increase in hiring. The largest agencies also saw an increase of +27% in retirements, in contrast to the overall estimate of +45%. These results are consistent with a 2021 study by Scott Mourtgos, Ian Adams, and Justice Nix that examined a large department — they found that resignations increased by 279% relative to a synthetic control group; however, there didn’t appear to be an impact on retirements.
The differences by agency size might also correlate with other organizational characteristics, such as leadership/supervisor characteristics, low morale, or whether the agency values officers’ personal health and wellness. Regarding hiring, it is possible that small departments were more likely to receive government funds that allowed them to hire more officers. Recently, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) awarded even more grants for the hiring of police officers as part of the COPS Hiring Program (CHP). The funds were awarded to 183 agencies, all of which had 50 or fewer officers. The funds are to be dedicated to the hiring of additional full-time law enforcement professionals and the advancement of community policing efforts.
If done right, hiring more officers can: 1) improve the overall quality of policing; 2) possibly lead to reductions in the use of force; 3) prevent misconduct and mistakes; and 4) reduce crime. Unfortunately though, if trends in recruitment and retention continue, big cities will be stuck with chronically understaffed police departments. When departments are understaffed, more officers are required to work overtime, meaning that the police force is riddled with tired, poorly trained officers—which increases both crime and police misconduct.
Decreasing budgets, staffing shortages, and low morale also contribute to reductions in police proactivity. Proactive policing refers to activities that focus on preventing crime rather than responding to crime, typically using data-driven strategies. There are a few different police strategies under this umbrella that have been found to be effective, however, they do take a fair amount of time and training. For example, analyzing crime data and intelligence on certain people and places can inform where resources should be targeted, but it also requires specialized staff and technology to analyze and interpret patterns.
Hot spots policing is a place-based, data-driven strategy that uses geographical crime data to predict where and when certain crimes occur. Then, resources (e.g. patrol) can be allocated to areas where violent crime is highly concentrated. The effectiveness of hot-spots policing in reducing violent and property crime is supported in research, including a recent meta-analysis in 2019. Third-party policing is another place-based strategy that draws upon social control mechanisms of community actors in particular establishments (such as hotels, bars) that are known for certain types of crimes. These community actors can then act as “eyes and ears” for the police and also impose their own legal levers to help control crime. Third-party policing strategies seem to be particularly effective in reducing drug trafficking and production, per a 2006 meta-analysis, as well as studies from 2016 and 2018. The research on third-party policing’s impact on violent crime is still emerging, but the results are promising so far.
Rather than simply responding to crimes once they have been committed, community policing concentrates on preventing crime through a problem-solving approach that addresses social disorder and other antecedents to crime. To help achieve this goal, community policing includes partnerships with community organizations (e.g., nonprofits, private businesses, other government agencies) and focuses on improving relationships with the community. Reviews of the research on community policing more generally has found it to be effective in improving trust with the community and increasing perceptions of police legitimacy. Community policing efforts are likely more successful if they are coupled with data-driven strategies, such as hot spots policing.
Related to community policing is the subject of foot patrols, which have also been found to reduce crime and enhance relationships with the community. Foot patrols increase police visibility in busy areas and are meant to enhance citizens’ feelings of safety and build bridges between citizens and police. Foot patrol officers are expected to visit businesses along their beat, interact with citizens, and respond to calls for service. Studies on directed foot patrols have also found them to be effective in reducing crime, including a 2011 study in Philadelphia and a 2018 study in New Jersey. Contention remains though as to whether foot patrol reduces just property crime or if it reduces both violent and property crime. This is evidenced in a 2020 study in New York City and a 2018 study in Dayton, OH, which both showed reductions in property crime but not violent crime. Foot patrols appear to be particularly successful if approaches are coupled with data-driven strategies, such as hot spots policing.
Inadequate training is one reason why there are so many preventable police shootings. If officers had stronger defensive-tactics skills or greater proficiency with using firearms under stress, many “lawful but awful” encounters may have ended without fatalities. Advocates for police reform do not disagree with this idea, however, many of them fail to realize the time, staff, and money that would be required for such an endeavor. To do the job that the public expects, cops would need many more hours of in-service training to practice necessary physical and tactical skills.
Importantly, training needs to be done continuously over time, and not just during the academy. While police academies tend to provide training on defensive tactics, this needs to be done repetitively over longer durations of time for officers to accurately, confidently, and consistently apply the tactics even when in a high-stress setting. Providing police with the physical and tactical training needed to do the job in the manner the public expects would mean sending cops to many more hours of in-service training; the flipside is that this would take police off the street, increase staffing shortages, increase the number of officers working overtime.
Nonetheless, demands for more training tend to focus on de-escalation. These techniques can be verbal or physical, but they always focus on slowing down potentially volatile situations, ideally resolving them either without using force or with a reduction in the severity of force used. However, de-escalation trainings per se may be superfluous for departments that have already incorporated these types of skills into other areas of training. For example, communication skills (e.g. interpersonal effectiveness, conflict resolution) are a major component of de-escalation, yet they are also covered in procedural justice and social interaction trainings. Further, many officers receive Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which is a well-known knowledge- and scenario-based training for officers that teaches them how to recognize and respond to people in crisis. Arguably, police could benefit from some additional types of training, but perhaps it should be more broad than communicative de-escalation skills.
When it comes to de-escalation, most people think about communication skills. However, arguably, the training that police really need is physical: operational de-escalation tactics, defensive tactics, firearms training, and exercise-based training. De-escalation trainings that include operational and defensive tactics coupled with communications and critical decision-making skills seem promising in reducing use of force and citizen/officer injuries, per studies conducted in Camden, NJ and Louisville, Kentucky.
Operational tactics include things like using distance and cover to create time, tactical positioning/repositioning, and potentially calling additional resources to the scene. For example, in a rapidly evolving scenario involving a person with a knife, an officer can use an operational skill such as tactical positioning to tactically “pause” the situation and create distance between himself and the subject, which may allow for another verbal de-escalation attempt. Sometimes, this option will not be safe and an officer will still need to apply force. However, they can still opt for less-lethal force, particularly if the subject does not appear to have a firearm. This is where defensive tactics and exercise-based training become more important, so that the officer can confidently and successfully defend himself and others on the scene without using lethal force.
Defensive tactics are an area where police could use more training. Defensive techniques are those that officers use to protect themselves or others from injury when facing an active threat. Defensive tactics are typically reserved for dangerous encounters, and thus, they are not practiced very often. These often include some type of force, however, more training could help officers handle these incidents with less-than-lethal force. For example, defensive tactics can be taught through martial arts training, where officers could learn how to do takedowns and control holds to subdue dangerous individuals without causing serious harm. Many academies offer some defensive tactics or martial arts training, but it is usually not done for extensive durations, limiting its efficacy. Continued exposure to these types of trainings is needed for officers to develop their skills, reaction time, and their confidence in applying the skills.
Martial arts training also incorporates mindfulness techniques that can help officers with the hypervigilance they may experience in a dangerous event. While hypervigilance is a normal physiological reaction to threatening situations, it can affect one’s performance and decision-making abilities. Better physical training for police has already shown promising results. For example, a 2015 study found that officers receiving more martial arts training performed better under stress, and a 2021 study found it to be associated with various positive mental health outcomes, such as increased mindfulness, empathy, and self-confidence.
Officer Health and Wellness
Officers also need skills, tools, and coping strategies to build resilience and maintain their mental and physical wellness on the job. The health and wellness of police officers, particularly their basic human need to sleep, is often overlooked in police organizations. A police officer’s job requires carrying a gun and driving an emergency vehicle, neither of which should be done without adequate sleep. It is well known that sleep deprivation impairs critical skills performance in a manner comparable with alcohol intoxication. For this reason, other occupations (e.g., truck driving, rideshares) regulate how long employees can work without taking a break to sleep. Unfortunately though, police officers are not subject to requirements like these — and due to staffing shortages, many police officers are encouraged or mandated to work overtime, leaving them sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can also affect temperament and one’s ability to handle situations effectively. For example, a sleep-deprived officer may speak unnecessarily harshly to someone, prompting a complaint.
Issues related to sleep deprivation and quality of sleep can also be exacerbated be work-related stress. When looking at the research on stress and performance, long-term stress can decrease police performance. For one, constant exposure to stress might increase an officer’s hypervigilance and perception of threat, which might lead to inappropriate force decisions. Heightened stress response is often seen after exposure (or repeated exposure) to high-stress scenarios, but also may occur on a case-by-case basis. For example, short-term high-stress events can evoke a certain type of biological response that can impact performance of motor skills. Relatedly, if an officer anticipates danger based on the location, type of call, or information received from dispatch, this can also increase stress response before even arriving to the event, which can subconsciously affect an officer’s decision to use force. However, research shows that training, when done consistently enough, can override this effect. A closely related problem is officer burnout and mental health issues such as PTSD and depression, which are somewhat more prevalent in policing due to the nature of the work. Further, psychological distress can also be negatively impacted by sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition, constant exposure to traumatic stressors, and lack of work-life balance, many of which are faced by officers.
Overall, department cultures need to place greater value on employee health and wellness. For example, officers could be given compensatory time to exercise several times per week to help manage stress levels. Supervisors could also be encouraged to regularly check in with their officers regarding their health and wellness, intervening when necessary to ensure that officers receive proper support, resources, and referrals for their health and wellness, particularly after stressful experiences (e.g., officer-involved shootings). This would likely take time, commitment, and money, but it would be worth it for the benefits. Considering the positive impact supervisors can have on officer motivation, performance, and morale, strengthening leadership behaviors of supervisors may be an effective and feasible avenue for improving policing. Unfortunately though, all of these tasks would also take time that is likely not available amidst staffing shortages.
Many proponents of defunding the police claim that crime would decrease if funds were diverted from police budgets to other evidence-based community-based initiatives. Despite the fact that Americans are mixed on whether they support the idea, the slogan “defund the police” has become increasingly popular. While the argument that America’s police departments are in need of reform is not without merit, that does not mean that defunding the police is the answer. In other words, defunding might not be the greatest idea because law enforcement does need funding to engage in effective, evidence-based policing strategies. True change requires a significant increase in police staffing so that departments can hire more officers, which allows for more training opportunities as well as increased work-life balance. This would likely be more expensive than paying cops to work overtime, but it would also reduce exhaustion, burnout, and misconduct. Similarly, a shift in police culture that promotes officer health and wellness is warranted so that officers can perform their jobs effectively.