Here’s how we can build better police departments

Their primary mission must be harm prevention

PROTEST MARCHES AND disturbing headlines on officer practices have cast a harsh spotlight on US police departments. As painful as recent events have been, this is also an opportunity for community residents, police, elected officials, and other stakeholders to talk with one another candidly about the fundamental principles of policing itself. One ideal we must hold close is this: If we are to create a new standard of racial equity, fairness, and justice, police must be willing to hold themselves to an even higher one. Police cannot allow crimes like the murder of George Floyd to be committed in their names, by people debasing the badge and hiding behind it.

Guided by the core values of fairness, justice, and protection of life, we need to ask ourselves, what is it we want our police service to do? Why do we want police to do it? How do we want policing to be practiced? Whom do we want practicing it?

At the heart of that reassessment should be a reframing in which policing is premised on a fundamentally new question: How do we keep the next bad thing from happening? That’s a very different question from the one that has prevailed for decades: How do we enforce the law? I come to this deliberation from a 30-plus year career as a civilian strategist and administrator in the office of the Boston police commissioner and as a developer of leadership training for some 2,000 officers from police and sheriffs’ departments across Massachusetts and New England.

Law enforcement is a core tactic for policing, not its mission. Law enforcement can be an instrument in a larger strategy of preventing harm. It would put protection of life – including the lives of the police – as the primary core value.

When we reframe the premise of policing to be asking how we keep the next bad thing from happening, everything changes. When the question shifts, the orientation shifts from police-oriented solutions to solutions that arise from knowledge contributed by community and police. It’s the fulfillment of the problem- and community-oriented policing model developed by the late criminal justice expert Herman Goldstein, whose ideas have been embraced by progressive police leaders.

To do prevention, police and other actors in the justice system and community must have each others’ backs. As a result of working together on serious problems, trust becomes unavoidable. Community confers moral legitimacy on police. Police confer professional legitimacy on community, acknowledging them as operational partners in creating community safety and peace, as protectors and guardians.

Police do not do a great deal of what we would imagine as “law enforcement” on a typical shift. When not patrolling in a motor vehicle, police are addressing problems and helping people — in danger, need, confusion, hunger, fear, rage, psychosis, despair, desperation. They are sorting out one drama or another. An officer is more likely in the course of a career to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a choking elder, staunch a wound, or even help deliver a baby than he or she is to be involved in a shootout. It’s past time to match the strategy with the realities of the work.

Making the question of how to prevent the next bad thing from happening the overriding principle of policing requires reshaping the profession at three critical points: whom we select to do this work, how we train them to do it, and how we help them stay true to this approach throughout very demanding years of service.


We want people of character who are willing and able to handle the emotional, mental, and physical complexity of police service. However, we do not articulate these character traits in any organized way. Generally speaking, departments wait to see who shows up. They engage applicants in a comparatively rigorous testing and vetting process once they apply. But the vetting looks for potential deviance and checkered past conduct. It doesn’t test for suitability to the emotionally and mentally challenging work of policing.

Procedures for hiring police officers impede good recruiting. Right now, we have a hodgepodge of procedures with priorities representative of the age in which they were adopted, not best practice. Boston and most Massachusetts municipalities hire from the state civil service test and the list of eligible candidates the test generates. Absolute preferences for veterans are also a factor in hiring, as are preferences in some municipalities to hire residents.

Despite the obstacles we put in the path of recruiting and hiring, over the years we have been served for the most part by great people. However, if we want to improve and prepare for the future, we have to make the procedure predictable. Only the most worthy should earn the right to swear an oath and wear a badge.

We should seek candidates in new places. For example, in my career I participated in meetings with a wide set of cross-sector partners. It struck me that many staffers in the Department of Children and Families and the Division of Youth Services had the traits to be effective police officers.

How we describe the work is important. In general, policing should be looking actively for candidates who:

  • Are tough enough to keep going with a cool head and their core values out front after a subject bloodies their noses.
  • Are mature enough and brave enough to manage the fear that is endemic in a universe of potential risk. Are grown-ups of sufficient character to take the steps necessary to protect themselves and family from the effects of hypervigilance.
  • Have the courage to examine themselves honestly and work on reducing the effects of bias on their judgment.
  • Are courageous enough to respond to a call without really knowing what’s on the other side of the door. Have the breadth of character to de-escalate fear and rage while staying alert for danger.
  • Have the strength of character to remain semper fidelis to professed values when the situation goes full “fubar.”
  • Can make the moral judgment to kill in the rare moments in which one must and to refrain from shooting whenever one can.


We must make formative police education and training emotionally, physically, intellectually, and morally rigorous. But police academies should no longer model themselves after military boot camps.

Policing shares some aspects of soldiering the same way a US Navy ship commander and a freighter captain roughly share some aspects of their occupations. The differences greatly outstrip the similarities. We want people who want to be peacemakers in situations in which everyone else in the room wants to make chaos. We have many such men and women wearing badges now. Make their example the dominant archetype.

Here are examples for a curriculum. Start with teaching personnel about the most important technology they will ever deploy: their brains. Everything that matters takes place there.

Intellectual and Mental Development

  • Teach decision-making and judgment science. Teach the impact of cognitive bias on judgment. Research shows that in stressful situations, cognitive bias can cause people to replace core values with situational values.
  • Teach open and honest US social history since World War II, focused on demographic and social change and the story of the evolving police role. Our failures as a society directly impact police work and the lives of police officers. Be honest about it.
  • Teach the origins of racial prejudice. Teach about the devastation of slavery, the sabotaging of Reconstruction and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the terrible consequences of the codifying in state laws the savagery of Jim Crow. The ideas, conceits, and contradictions of the “Progressive Era” influence who we are today. We remain ignorant at our peril.
  • Teach the history of policing communities of color back to the beginning. This history matters. It affects what is going on as you read this.
  • Teach constitutional history and procedural justice.
  • Teach human communication and emotional intelligence (EI) skills.
  • Establish internships with community organizations.
  • Simulate chaos exercises using virtual reality and simulation.
  • Continue “shoot-don’t shoot” simulation exercises.

Physical Development

  • Boxing and self-defense. Teach people how to respond to a punch in the nose. These days, many young people come into the academy never having been in a fistfight. Make sure their first sight of stars is not in a dangerous setting like a barroom full of drunks.
  • Short-burst (lots of sprints) running and obstacle course running (e.g., a simulated block of urban backyards). Include running up and down steps, up and down hill.
  • Cardio health for life, including education and activities like walking, jogging, swimming, yoga, and meditation.
  • Practice shooting and cover from all the crazy angles and positions from which officers actually shoot.

Emotional Development

  • Teach people how to manage fear. No mentally healthy human is fearless. Courage is managing fear and preserving life, not pretending to be fearless.
  • Teach people about how the police job affects health and well-being. Teach skills for managing its effects.


Kevin Gilmartin, a behavioral scientist and author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families, has taught for 40 years that constant alertness and readiness to act is a hallmark of the effective officer. That alertness is achieved by the body maintaining a state of hypervigilance. Over the long term, though, it exerts unhealthy biological and neurological effects on practitioners; it profoundly impacts officers and their families as careers progress. The biological effects produce behavior effects.

I once had a young sergeant in my class who told us he had a codeword safety protocol that he had trained his children to use in the supermarket. They were trained to be alert for the signal and then to run to designated locations. The officer was concerned about an ambush by a bad guy and saving his children. But what was really going on is that 12 years of hypervigilance had produced paranoid-like behavior in that poor young guy (I can’t think of a reported incident of a police officer killed or injured by a bad guy while shopping for groceries) and with the best of intentions he’d passed the trauma to his children.

My sergeant is a tragic and extreme case, but many officers exhibit some effects of long-term hypervigilance. The negative feelings they have at 10 years on the job are natural. It’s not them. It’s the effects of the job. The police job makes people angry. It can make them feel like victims. Victims characteristically act on situational values. Unmanaged hypervigilance can turn good people into bad cops. Teach the skills to manage the physiological and emotional stress so people can live longer, healthier, and more contented lives. Teach emotional survival as well as street survival.

The constant whitewater of hormones charging through an officer’s cardiovascular system for 30 years wears him or her out. We have rules about accountability for vehicle maintenance that go on for pages. Let’s design one for humans that is at least as comprehensive. Let’s require that departments develop a program for maintaining humans over the course of a career. Wash away the stigmas.

The evidence supporting this approach is all around us. On June 28, 2019, the New York Police Department experienced its fourth suicide in three weeks. The New York Times listened to police officers and drew this observation:

“[F]or many officers, emotional vulnerability is incompatible with their desire to be seen as heroes, according to researchers who study police stress. Many officers who need counseling swallow their feelings, fearing that their careers or their rapport with other officers will suffer if they seek counseling.”

Meet the Author
Like no other profession, the police workplace is the community where the contradictions in our history play out night and day; the consequences of inequity and systemic racism are often the everyday stuff of the job. We owe it to our communities and our police officers to create a strategy of harm prevention that can achieve justice and safety for all.

 Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership, a leadership training organization.