Boston police reform panel asked the wrong question

Proposed changes are good -- but miss the bigger picture 

LIKE MANY “blue ribbon” commissions that came before it, the recent Boston police reform panel took its job seriously and approached the important issues it was asked to address with integrity and the best of intentions. As with most such exercises, however, the panel landed on recommendations that seem unlikely to deliver the type of sweeping change many would like to see because it set out by asking the wrong question. 

When approaching police reform, we have a choice between two questions: 

  • Do we reform policing systems by improving individual police officers’ practices?
  • Or, do we reform police practices by rethinking policing systems?

Most reform work over the past five decades has chosen to tackle the first question above. It has looked almost exclusively at measures governing individual conduct. The Boston police reform recommendations were no exception, with their focus on a more robust oversight board to review misconduct allegations, enhanced use of body cameras, and greater public access to records on police wrongdoing. 

These are all worthy and important steps, but they miss the forest for the trees. We should be asking, what societal philosophy and organizational norms will guide the choices an officer will make tonight, under duress, with seconds to make a life-altering judgment? How can we work to reshape those norms in ways that lead more consistently to the type of police behavior we say we want to see exhibited? 

By failing to tackle this type of systems change, Boston missed an opportunity to make us safer, more unified, and more secure in our lives and property. 

The societal response to the murder of George Floyd created that opportunity. For the first time in history millions of Americans of every skin color, ethnicity, and political belief used the term “systemic racism” in daily conversation. Whether people embraced the reality of systemic racism or dismissed it, the words entered America’s over-the-fence backyard talk for the first time. Americans also soundly reject abolishing the police. Seventy-eight percent of black Americans opposed elimination in a Gallup poll and 88 percent of white respondents rejected it. The spirit of this post-Floyd moment still demands answers to questions such as these: 

  • What do we want policing to produce?
  • How do we want to produce it?
  • What are the core values that will guide practice?
  • What impact will the new systems have on the humans – residents and police officers – affected by them? What are the unique biological and emotional effects that officers experience at various stages of life and career? Do policing systems, in the way they are organized, currently have the potential to turn good people into bad cops?

I would have advocated for a new strategic goal that makes prevention of crime and harm the goal of the police service. Currently, policing systems are geared to post-facto response. This new goal would require a system of policing that is based on police and community collaboration. This goal would require police officers and residents closest to the problem to consult one another.  

The seminal treatise on this, Herman Goldstein’s Problem-Oriented Policing, is accepted, though not necessarily followed, by police departments and provides a manual for prevention-oriented police work. A prevention system would be informed by real-time data analysis. Police would maintain the robust rapid response capability that communities have come to rely on. They would still do follow-up investigations to bring wrongdoers to justice. But these tactics would also be part of a systematic effort to reduce harm and fear.  

For example, if firearm violence were a community’s primary generator of harm and fear, police would consult with community stewards – neighborhood leaders, clergy, even the local barbers and hair stylists — to gain a deeper understanding of how the problem works. They would debrief every arrestee in that community to learn anything they might know about firearm crime. We would mine case files for patterns. We would evaluate every activity for whether it helps to reduce the harm and fear. We would move beyond effort measurements such as case clearances arrests made to include effectiveness measurements, such as reduction of harm and victimization. 

The guiding operating principle should be preservation of life. If police were operating everywhere with preservation of life as the guiding idea we would have prevented many of the deaths that have troubled us in the recent past. That grim roll includes residents and police alike. For example, I believe that the late Breonna Taylor might be alive today had police in her community kept preservation of life in the lead as they served a drug-related warrant. They would have accounted for the likely responses to a loud, frightening forced entry in the nighttime. They would have assumed that in a state such as Kentucky a resident would have a gun in the home. Rather than serve a no-knock warrant with force at midnight, they might have chosen one of many other options for accomplishing the objectives of the warrant. 

Any systems thinker worth her MBA will tell you that when we see problems in an enterprise, the source is usually a flaw(s) in the design or implementation of a system, rather than the result of widespread individual inadequacy or bad intentions. But most police reform efforts of the past 50 years have focused on improving the individual, not thinking hard about the ends and means of safety and security in a free society that is riven by contradictions of race and class. 

The distinguished Bostonians who made up the reform panel are accomplished and wise. Led by chair Wayne Budd — a widely lauded former US attorney and the son of the first black police officer in Springfield — they brought huge credibility to bear on the subject. Like policing itself, their efforts were guided by deeply embedded, powerful assumptions that are hard to see in the rush of the day to day. 

Among the most powerful assumptions are that policing, as it has been organized for the past 100 years, is built on a sound foundation and lapses are the results of poor individual suitability or character. In fairness, as CommonWealth reported earlier this month, the task force makes clear that theirs is not the last word. Their report said the recommendations are offered “not as an exhaustive list of police reform recommendations, but as a portfolio of recommendations that, if implemented, can serve as a foundation upon which additional work can be done.” 

Still, it’s hard to imagine getting to the more fundamental reform that’s needed from a foundation built on outmoded assumptions. The focus on the systems for dealing with bad behavior or misconduct reinforces the idea that if we could only get these procedures to work well, we will have accomplished the reform goals. 

As a society we do a poor job of preparing the younger generations to see the paradoxes of our history and our character as Americans. The majority in society becomes defensive and embarrassed when engaged on issues of race. That extends to the formation, education and training of our police officers. Only recently have training regimens even begun to teach seriously the impact of race on police and society. 

The assumptions that guide pedagogy are the same as those that guide patrol. So the emphasis is inescapably on how to respond tactically after the fact to the infinite variety of harmful situations humans can create. Almost no consideration is given to understanding how certain bodies of laws can in effect criminalize poverty. Little is said about social and economic inequities as contributing factors to disorder and harm. We fail to teach officers that history matters in policing. How people perceive police today is influenced by a troubled history, especially in communities of color. Officers are not guilty of the past injustice but must account for it in contemporary encounters. 

National, state, and local police commissions have had their impacts in moving policing forward. As one example, President Hoover in 1929 empaneled the Wickersham Commission, staffed by the era’s most progressive police leader, August Vollmer, in response to the corruption and chaos of Prohibition. Guided by commission member and Harvard legal visionary Roscoe Pound, the commission was hugely influential in establishing the police organization as we know it today. At a time when professional policing and sociology were both in their infancy, Pound introduced “sociological jurisprudence,” an approach to legal concepts in which the law is recognized as a dynamic system influenced by social conditions. 

Today we also might ask, what sociological forces and organizational norms guide the judgments our officers make? What effects does our contemporary system of policing exert on an officer’s wellness and judgment after 10 years on the job, after 15, or after 20? 

Meet the Author
Police reform is serious work, and the Boston task force members took their charge seriously. In the end, however, progress will be stymied until we have the maturity and willingness to engage in a more fundamental conversation about the ends and means of a police service in our unique society. 

Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.