JOHNSON & SMITH: Rethinking The Purpose Of Policing

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The violence towards Tyre Nichols perpetrated by police officers sworn to protect the community is a tragedy and a disgrace. Unfortunately, it is nothing new. Similar tragedies in recent years demonstrate a toxic “us vs. them” mindset has infiltrated many law enforcement departments across the country.   

Like most Americans, we are sick of this cycle: the grief, the outrage, and the promises to do better that seem to always break. It’s abundantly clear, and has been for some time, that policing is in need of reform to weed out the bad apples that spoil the bunch.  

To be clear, the majority of cops do their jobs well, and we recognize that a few bad officers are ruining the reputation of the whole, making it that much harder for good cops to have positive relationships with the community. But even good cops can be tainted by the training, tactics, and attitudes that stem from “us vs. them” thinking. Without reforms that address the underlying causes of policing failures, we cannot hope to stop the deterioration of police-community relations or effectively reduce violence in our communities. 

We must re-align policing to its core mission: protecting and serving the community. No policy reform, training program, or innovative equipment will be successful without this crucial mindset shift.  

 It is evident that the purpose of law enforcement has been warped by bad policy. Instead of working with the community to protect the life, liberty, and property of its inhabitants, law enforcement officers are incentivized to confront citizens, even when their actions do not infringe upon another’s rights. This shift to a “warrior” rather than a “guardian” motivation can largely be traced to the so-called “War on Drugs,” which militarized the police and overused incarceration. 

The heavy-handed, big government approach of the “War on Drugs” is reflected in the culture of many policedepartments today, where successful policing is determined by the amount of drugs seized, arrests made, or traffic tickets issued rather than improved public safety. It wasn’t until recently that police in New Jersey, for example, stopped being evaluated for promotions based on their number of arrests. Police departments across the country continue to rely on fines and fees to fund their budgets, transforming cops into ”revenue agents” and straining relationships with the community. More than 20 states evaluate police performance based on the number of traffic stops performed per hour. And studies show that officers who deploy “warrior” policing strategies, such as conducting aggressive traffic stops, are more likely to be rewarded by their departments than those who favor “guardian” strategies.  

How we define success in our criminal justice system directly impacts police culture, training, tactics, and attitudes. Unfortunately, the metrics of success favored by many departments often result in antagonizing community members rather than protecting and serving them – and the incentives created by local, state, and federal policies have backfired. Our focus on incarceration, for example, has led to the highest incarceration rate in the world, but has not done much to improve public safety – the United States also has one of the highest violent crime rates among developed countries. And adversarial policing tactics have created friction between law enforcement and the community 

It is still unclear why Tyre Nichols was pulled over and yanked from his car that night. What appears certain, however, is that the officers were combative from the start of the released video. Research tells us that if officers are aligned with certain elements of police culture, like “cynicism, negative attitudes toward the public, focus on crime-fighting,” and  “aggressive police tactics,” they are more likely to use overly aggressive tactics when interacting with the community – including during traffic stops. Though we cannot say for sure, it’s possible that is what happened here – a warped sense of purpose fed into bad policing culture, which led to violent actions.  

 We can argue that to stop tragedies like this from happening again, police need more training and better oversight, that there needs to be better accountability and transparency, and that departments need funding so they can attract the best candidates. All of this is true. But these actions will not result in the transformation needed without refocusing on the purpose of policing.  

Law enforcement and the public need to come together to rediscover the core mission of policing. Realigning policing to focus on protecting individual rights and public safety can provide the framework for better training, accountability, and leadership required for culture change. And all of this must be done in close collaboration with community members. 

We have to recognize that there is a common thread linking the tragic and unnecessary loss of life at the hands of police – and that is the warped purpose of policing. It will take strong police leadership and partnerships from the community to get it right.  

Alice Marie Johnson is founder and CEO of Taking Action for Good and author of “After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom.” Ja’Ron Smith leads the Public Safety Solutions for America coalition. He is also a partner at Dentons Global Advisors, a senior fellow at Right on Crime and an adviser to Hope for Prisoners. He was the 2020 recipient of the Bipartisan Justice Award for his work in the Trump administration.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.