Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Reimagine police as helping build strong, safe communities

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this essay, James Nolan expounds upon research he and his colleagues are doing on situational policing, as mentioned in The Dominion Post’s July 20 editorial, “Refocusing on ‘to serve and protect.’ ”

by James J. Nolan

Most people today recognize the serious problems in American policing, but there is little agreement on what to do about it. This is not surprising because social institutions, like the police, are very difficult to change. In their current forms, they appear natural and fixed. When they become counterproductive and harmful, “bad apples” are blamed, not the institution itself.

This is why any attempt at structural change to the police institution draws the familiar criticism, “that’s not what the police are supposed to do” — as if the police are naturally supposed to do something.

The good news is that institutions can change, and there is a good example of this in policing.

Although the police have always been used to protect the interests of the privileged and powerful, about 100 years ago, a social movement sought to professionalize the American police. In doing so, it shifted the role of the police from helping communities keep the peace to providing coercive control over those deemed deviant, threatening or undesirable via law enforcement.

This was a seismic shift in the institution. It turned police agencies into law enforcement agencies and separated the police from the community. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system was born in this era. It galvanized the new professional mandate by establishing crime-related metrics, which narrowed the focus of police practice. The “thin blue line” and “protect and serve” slogans are emblematic of this approach and, unfortunately, remain with us today.

The efficacy of the law enforcement approach for preventing crime is dubious. When crimes do occur, they are rarely solved. According to an FBI report in 2020, nearly 40% of murders, 70% of robberies and 86% of burglaries in the United States go unsolved. This pattern is observed in West Virginia as well.

Furthermore, the law enforcement approach leads to excessive and discriminatory violence. Since 2015, the police in the United States have shot and killed 8,617 people. Black Americans are killed at a rate nearly three times higher than white Americans. In West Virginia during this same time, 80 people were shot and killed by police. Racial disparities exist in all aspects of policing in West Virginia, including traffic stops, citations, arrests, searches and the use of deadly force. The ineffective, violent and discriminatory nature of the social control through law enforcement approach is what makes things worse for communities and the police — not bad apples.

The goal of our research has been to find more effective and less violent ways for the police to organize and use resources. We looked both for the conditions that make local places safer, stronger and healthier and for police practices that help achieve these ends.

We found that crime, violence, drug abuse, civil disorder and fear thrive in places where residents are at odds with the police or alienated from their neighbors. The opposite is true where residents are cohesive, willing to pitch in and trust the police to help.

With this in mind, we developed an approach called situational policing. It sets the strong, safe neighborhood ideal as the desired end for all police activity. The situational policing framework provides a roadmap, strategies and metrics for change. It requires less controlling, coercing, arresting and seizing and more organizing, mobilizing, coordinating and cooperating. The police can help communities change local conditions via a wide range of activities, including the enforcement of laws when needed.

The most recent spate of police violence leading to widespread civil unrest, legislative changes, greater transparency and civilian oversight has had little impact on police violence and discrimination. This is because the social control through law enforcement mandate remains intact. A thin blue line cannot separate what is inseparable, nor can the police alone protect us.

So, what should the police do instead?

Work in communities to make places safer and stronger. This is real police work and worthy of a new slogan: “safe and strong together.”

James J. Nolan is a former police officer who is now a professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at West Virginia University.