American Cities Have Long Struggled to Reform Their Police – but Isolated Success Stories Suggest Community and Officer Buy-In Might Be Key

Posted on by

Yves here. Even though the regular news of black deaths and the hands of police continues, it’s a mistake to think that Black Lives Matter failed. Police violence has fallen. From Scientific American in March:

Since Black Lives Matter protests gained national prominence following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the movement has spread to hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. Now a new study shows police homicides have significantly decreased in most cities where such protests occurred…

“Black Lives Matter represents a trend that goes beyond the decentralization that existed within the Civil Rights Movement,” says Aldon Morris, a sociologist at Northwestern University, who was not involved in the new study. “The question becomes, ‘Are Black Lives Matter protests having any real effect in terms of generating change?’ The data show very clearly that where you had Black Lives Matter protests, killing of people by the police decreased. It’s inescapable from this study that protest matters—that it can generate change.”

However, this change is still from a bad baseline. And the question of what sort of reforms might work is still a very much debated question.

You might also be interested in an earlier piece on this topic: Five Days Without Cops: Could Brooklyn Policing Experiment be a ‘Model for the Future’? From our overview:

THE CITY has mentioned trained “violence interruptors” before in its articles; here, they appear as a key element in a police reform experiment. Notice that the intent was to remove cops as the primary means for monitoring and enforcing neighborhood safety; people who were closer to the community served as the main eyes and ears, with the police at a remove but ready to step in. Although five days in one district is too limited a trial to declare victory, this test went well and strongly suggests that this approach merits more implementations and refinements.

As you’ll see from the article, some of the elements for success were situation-specific. The Brownsville area had a tense relationship with the police. NYPD moved one cop who’d roughed up some locals off the street and also replaced the precinct head with a an officer from the neighborhood. That commanding officer, Terrell Anderson, set out to rebuild relations with the community.

By Thaddeus L. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Georgia State University and Natasha N. Johnson, Clinical Instructor of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Georgia State University. Originally published at The Conversation

The guilty verdicts delivered against Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021, represented a landmark moment – but courtroom justice cannot deliver the sweeping changes most Americans feel are needed to improve policing in the U.S.

As America continues to grapple with racism and police killings, federal action over police reform has stalled in Congress. But at the state level there is movement and steps toward reform are underway in many U.S. cities, including Philadelphia; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon.

Many of these efforts are geared toward ending specific practices, such as the granting of qualified immunity, through which officers are shielded from civil lawsuits, and the use of certain police neck holds and no-knock warrants. Mayors and city councils nationwide have also pushed reforms emphasizing accountability and transparency, with many working to create independent oversight commissions.

It’s too soon to expect substantial improvement from these recently proposed remedies.

But as scholars of criminal justice – one a former police officer of 10 years – we know America has been here before. From Ferguson to Baltimore and Oakland to Chicago, numerous city police departments have undergone transformation efforts following controversial police killings. But these and other reform movements haven’t lived up to their promises.

Resisting Change

After the shooting death in Missouri of unarmed teen Michael Brown in 2014, police in Ferguson agreed to a reform programthat included anti-bias training and an agreement to end stop, search and arrest practices that discriminate on the basis of race.

But five years into the process, a report by the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson found the reforms had done little to change policing culture or practice. This was backed up by a Ferguson Civilian Review Board report in July 2020 that found the “disparity in traffic stops between black and white residents appears to be growing.”

Similarly, concerns over the quality of Baltimore’s police services persist despite federal oversight and reforms brought in after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

Commentators have pointed to a resistance to change among officers and an inability to garner community buy-in as reasons for the slowdown in progress in Baltimore.

Part of the problem, as seen with Baltimore, is that federal intervention does not appear to guarantee lasting change. Research shows that Department of Justice regulations aimed at reform only slightly reduce police misconduct. There is also no evidence that national efforts targeting the use of force alone mitigate police killings.

Community-Led Reform

One beacon of hope is the Cincinnati Police Department. Twenty years ago, residents in Cincinnati experienced events similar to what many cities have faced in more recent years. An unarmed Black man, Timothy Thomas, was shot dead by officers in 2001, sparking widespread unrest. It led Cincinnati to enter into a different model of reform: a collaborative agreement.

Touted by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as a national model for community-led police reform, the collaborative agreement saw the police department, civic government, police unions and local civil rights groups act in partnership for a reform program backed by court supervision.

The resulting changes to use-of-force policies, a focus on community-based solutions to crime, and robust oversight brought about improved policing. A 2009 Rand evaluation of the collaborative agreement found it resulted in a reduction in crime, positive changes in citizens’ attitudes toward police and fewer racially biased traffic stops. There were also fewer use-of-force incidents and officer and arrestee injuries under the collaborative agreement.

But it isn’t perfect. Cincinnati’s Black residents continue to be disproportionately arrested – likely owing to the concentration of crime, service calls and police deployments in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Figures from 2018 show Black Cincinnati residents were roughly three times as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts.

Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement contained a number of elements that experts say are needed if police reforms are to be successful: strong leadership, flexible, goal-oriented approaches, effective oversight and externally regulated transparency.

Moreover, it depended on police officials’ ability to cultivate community investment and overcome resistance from police officers and police unions.

Community confidence is critical to police reform and community safety. When citizens view police as legitimate and trustworthy, they are more likely to report crimes, cooperate during police investigations, comply with directives and work with police to find solutions to crime.

Beyond Collaboration

Efforts like that in Cincinnati that put community engagement at the heart of police reforms undoubtedly are strides in the right direction. But they can go only so far. A noticeable shortcoming in most police reform programs is a focus on what is the right thing to do during confrontations with the public, rather than on trying to avert those situations in the first place.

Fatal police shootings often happen during police stops and arrests – situations that carry increased risks of citizen resistance and violent police response.

Scaling back low-level enforcement, such as arrests for vagrancy and loitering – much of which has little public safety advantage– and having police partner with civilian responders for mental health, homelessness and drug-related calls, could mean fewer opportunities for violent police encounters.

Some departments have begun to change their enforcement policies along these lines. The Gwinnett County Police Department in Georgia, for example, stopped making arrests and issuing citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

A 2018 study of traffic stops in Fayetteville, North Carolina, found that redirecting enforcement away from minor infractions – such as broken taillights and expired tags – toward the more serious violations of speeding and running traffic lights resulted in reduced crime and a narrowed racial gap in stops and searches.

Removing the Trigger

Low-level infractions have often been the triggers for police interventions that end in citizen deaths. Eric Garner – who died in 2014 after a New York police officer put him in a banned chokehold – was stopped for selling loose cigarettes.

Devoting less time to policing such activity would also free up officers’ time to devote to such endeavors as analyzing crime trends, conducting wellness checks on elderly residents and mentoring community youth. I (Thaddeus Johnson) felt this as a police officer on the street, and I see it as a criminal justice scholar now.

The examples of Cincinnati, Ferguson and Baltimore show that getting community buy-in is crucial if attempts to improve policing are to be successful. We believe that evaluating officers’ performance and rewarding them based on community-oriented activities – rather than just the number of stops and arrests – could foster the support necessary for lasting reform.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Carla

    Good article. However, it doesn’t really address two items that would seem to have bearing here. One is the militarization of police, i.e.,

    The other is the abolishing of local residency requirements for city employees, including police and firefighters. I think this has had a major deleterious effect in Ohio since the state government pre-empted municipal home rule to achieve this a number of years ago, and the Ohio Supreme Court upheld it. Now in the cities that have the highest crime rates, the safety forces tend to be staffed with officers from distant suburbs. They can be viewed (and sometimes act like) invading forces rather than feeling themselves to be, or behaving like, members of the community.

    I heard a good interview on NPR with a police officer who bucked that trend by moving into the neighborhood he serves. Will find that link and post it.

      1. Barbara

        I have experienced both types of community. When my husband and I were much younger, with a lot less economic comfort, we lived in a working class town where the police were residents.

        One day I was driving down our shopping area when, at the first intersection, I saw a young guy arounnd 17-18, walking blindly in the road with blood running down his face. Nobody in the cars around me seemed to be taking notice. In the middle of the next block there was a crosswalk where sometimes a policeman would protect pedestrian traffic. I stopped my car by him and told him what was happening at the intersection and he just ran. I had a good feeling about the outcome.

        Now, years later, I live in a “comfortable” community where the police are not residents. If something like that happened here, the policeman would just take out his phone and “call it in”.

        But more than that, a policeman was working a utility protection gig 300 feet from the house of a friend. A robber came right up to her door, jimmied the lock. The guy stole a bunch of stuff and came out the front door, stashed the stuff in his car and drove away – right by the cop. And while I understand the cop was in the pay of the utility company at the time, the fact is he was in uniform and using a town police car.

    1. Fraibert

      I was recently thinking about local residence requirements. (Not sure why that particular idea, just was thinking about police issues and it was one of the matters that came into my head over time.)

      The problem, as I came to see it, is that cities possess a troublesome combination of issues that make residency requirements likely to repel good officers.

      First, there is the cost of living issue. I expect in almost all cases cities have relatively expensive living costs compared to their suburbs (with the exact differential varying greatly–I bet it isn’t so bad for smaller Midwestern and Southern cities, but we all know the differential is huge for cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco). This general fact mean that cities with residency requirements have to adjust their pay scales to, at a minimum, make it economically rational for an officer to even live in the jurisdiction. But realistically, this pay scale further has to provide a meaningful salary above the bare minimum needed to survive–the money has to stretch so that officers aren’t financially struggling _because_ of their decisions to work for the city. I don’t think many cities have the political will, or necessarily even the money, to pursue this course of action.

      Second, the public schools in the cities generally are pretty poor, except for some number of the schools being very good either due to their particular location or due to being selective “magnet” type schools. Given that private schools tend to be quite pricey, residency requirements may nonetheless be a gigantic issue for officers who have, or intend to have, a family.

      The best, though likely partial, solution I could come up with is that cities (likely with federal assistance) should build high quality “barracks” for their public-facing employees (primarily police officers, firefighters, EMS technicians and paramedics, and teachers). These facilities would include apartments for both single employees and for families, as well as the comfortable amenities, all made available at a reasonable (below market) price. Government (both federal and state) should exempt the difference between the paid rent and the market value from income taxation (just as is done with a soldier’s Basic Housing Allowance).

      The idea is to counter the residency requirement’s cost of living issue in an economical and effective manner. I suspect that approaches such as subsidizing expensive private housing costs or paying a higher outright salary would cost the government more, and not necessarily foster retention in the way that my proposal might (which is trying to create a community of sorts).

      The schooling issue I’m not certain can be satisfactorily resolved. One idea I had was to have the residences of a “barracks” be treated as a school district, with additional students drawn from the surrounding area. I don’t know enough about social dynamics to know if this is viable, though, or if it would just cause tension between the “city employees” and the “regular people” (so to speak).

      Just throwing all of this out there, as I’ve been thinking about it for a while.

      1. Carla

        Since they got residency requirements abolished, I think the police and firefighters unions have pretty much owned American policing. This is one area where “labor unions” have proven to be pretty toxic to local communities, unfortunately.

        Incentives can be offered to safety officers to live in the communities they police and protect, but such perks are only likely to be enticements in areas that are already pretty nice to live in.

        The idea of “barracks” could work, I suppose, as so many become police officers following military service, but I see that as part of the militarization of police trend that doesn’t seem to me to need any more help.

        1. Procopius

          The Army, especially overseas, provides “dependent housing,” government owned houses or apartments that are provided instead of a “housing allowance,” which is usually much less than market prices. The problem I see with this model is the ghettoization of the police, having them all living in a very restricted area. Seems to me this would vastly increase their alienation from the civilian populace.

    2. coboarts

      I think the local residency requirement as discussed has a good intent, but misses the nature of what police residency meant before. Growing up in SoCal as the population boomed gave a front row seat to watching the change between local resident policing and external hires policing. It isn’t just where the employed officer lives; it’s where the police officer was raised. Policing has a totally different character when the cop that pulls you over is your neighbor’s older brother. The family ties and old school relationships, etc. meant that you and the officer had a deeper relationship to the community. Outside hires come in as somewhat of a mercenary force. I think hires should be from locally raised.

      1. JBird4049

        Hiring locally and requiring them to remain locally is hard when the cost of living is too darn high. Too often police, firefighters, and certainly teachers have had to move way out, as in hours out, from anywhere near the inner Bay Area because the cost of housing is just too much.

    3. Adam Eran

      The police problem is systemic, so there are lots of good suggestions for change in these comments. My personal suggestion: After the multi-generational, bipartisan cutting of social safety nets, people are more desperate, and the problems police have to handle are more pressing. There are bound to be police shootings / abuse in that context.

      Remember the “end of welfare as we know it,” passed by Newt Gingrich’s congress and signed by Bill Clinton? That threw a half million adults off of food stamps. Before the “end,” 76% of those needing public assistance got it. After: 26%. By now, everyone knows that 40% of the U.S. can’t handle a $400 emergency without borrowing or selling something. (“St. Peter don’t ya call me ’cause I can’t go… I owe my soul to the company sto'”)

      I’d be interested if any studies of income inequality and police abuse have been conducted.

  2. Tom Stone

    The primary job of the police is to maintain public order.
    If that means they need to be armed with tanks and machine to do so you get something like the 1033 program formally or informally.
    And it continues to surprise me that Corruption is so little mentioned even here, the black economy is huge and has been for well over a century.
    Remember the Cocaine 80’s?
    I recall reading a WSJ article about how the Fed had added 12 trains per day to ship cash from Florida to the rest of the USA.
    Not carloads, trains of 80-100 cars.
    Per day.
    And that’s drug money, not a lot of $1 Bills.

  3. The Rev Kev

    If they want to reform the police, I can think of a few measures. One is to get rid of military gear which is inappropriate and which I would guess to be a very expensive ongoing item to the annual police budget. Come to think of it, what is the annual cost of maintaining an MRAP anyway? Two, have police actually live in the area that they police like I believe Chicago does. In LA I heard that about 90% of them live elsewhere. Three, have more foot patrols where they can so that they get to know the local community instead of just arriving like a flight of Valkyries. Lots of valuable intelligence to be picked up that way.

    And four, have them maintain the same standards as soldiers. What do I mean? I saw a professional soldier watch videos of a screwed-up SWAT raid that ended in a death and he thought it pathetic and would never be tolerated in a place like Baghdad. Also, I have seen cops point loaded automatic rifles at reporters or just ordinary people. Any decent army instructor would have torn strips off those cops and had them running laps around a track with his rifle above his head till they puked or collapsed. If they want Army firearms, then they can learn to treat them safely like soldiers are trained to do.

  4. Alice X

    Much of the military gear is in grants from the Feds, who want to buy new gear.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    There were two fundamental reforms of the police in Irish history – one a century ago after independence, one more recently in NI after the peace process to make the old RUC into the modern PSNI. Both were pretty successful at changing what were essentially colonial enforcers into police forces with pretty wide acceptance from all communities.

    The reforms were complex, but a central element on both was the identification at all levels of the most retrograde officers and getting them out, whether firing them or pensioning them off. There is always an element within any organisation like a police force that has its own malign agenda. You can’t deal with them by giving them HR lectures. You must identify the worst offenders and get rid of them.

    1. The Rev Kev

      PK, if I might ask you a question about this. So why was the old Royal Irish Constabulary done away with entirely back in 1922? Or did a lot of them just move on over to the Royal Ulster Constabulary when it was formed?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Its a long time since I read the history, but the old RIC was essentially reformed into the Garda Siochana, with more or less the same structures and many of the same members, although not at the most senior level. There were actually several different police forces at the time, they were all merged together. The job of ‘cleaning it out’ was made easier by the fact that the worst elements realised that there was probably a bullet waiting for them so had already taken the boat to England.

        Ironically, most of the good work was done by Eoin O’Duffy, who later became an enthusiastically unsuccessful fascist. But he was what was needed at the time – a no-nonsense disciplinarian who did what was needed to create what at the time was a very modern police force.

  6. chuck roast

    I never thought that I would see the day when the Starsky & Hutch fantasy was replaced by the Derek Chauvin nightmare. It was a long time coming and presents a unique opportunity to make policing an extension of the community rather than a plague on the community. All my life I would tell people, “Cops never did anything for me, they alway did stuff to me.” This was always met with stoney silence. But, defund the police may be the dumbest thing that I ever heard.

    Here are some tips: number 1.) get the cops out of their cars, 2.) get the cops out of their cars, 3.) get the cops out of their cars. When steps 1, 2 and 3 been completed, follow steps 4, 5 and 6. Step 4.) de-arm the police. Cops need a gun here in the US of A, but they don’t need a bullet proof vest, a tazer, tear-gas spray and all the rest. Step 5.) put the cops on bicycles or have them walk a beat. Step 6.) require cops to attend community meetings; garden clubs, neighborhood associations and the like. The old capitalist superstructure of cops as protectors of property and not people needs to be demolished.

    Did I forget to say: give recruits a psych test upon entry and pay them a decent wage?

    1. James Simpson

      You didn’t mention what police are for: defending and promoting the interests of capital. They have no other function in a capitalist society. Your fantasies about friendly, community cops are just that: unreal. We have the same kind of fantasists here in the UK in both main political parties, maundering about bobbies on the beat. You need to learn some history of policing in capitalist states.

    2. Aumua

      But, defund the police may be the dumbest thing that I ever heard.

      The article and most of the comments are actually talking in an indirect way about defunding, but they’re just not using the word. Which is good I guess since everyone seems so hung up on it.

  7. Sue inSoCal

    Back in the Jurassic Era, I represented municipalities, which included police and sheriff’s departments. Some were awful, but some like Sacramento at the time had community policing. (Most had pretty good screening processes. But that was long ago.) The neighborhoods knew “their” cops and vice versa. The moms especially wanted the dealers out of their neighborhoods and the gun fire from them to stop. And they left and it did. I’m hoping we can root out the corruption and militarization. I admit I completely took my eye off policing for years. (That’s a privilege perhaps.) Another thing that occurred to me is with strong unions, police seem to make a lot of money, so I don’t reckon finding a place to live should be all bad. But I don’t know. ?

    1. HotFlash

      Ms Sue, or anyone, I cannot recall if it was Palo Alto or maybe Menlo Park or perhaps elsewhere, they hired a police chief (I think) who took the boys out of uniform and put them in (kevlar) blazers with a distinctive crest, IIRC, and ran them as community officers. My friend and his friends and neighbours liked it a lot, but the cops hated it, and the Chief was gone shortly.

    2. James Simpson

      Wanting dealers out of their neighbourhoods? So where did those dealers go? They didn’t take up legal jobs, as the dealers would have been poorly educated and, being mostly Black, unlikely to be able to earn the same level of reward in the straight economy. They would have moved to another poor community. The answer is not community policing, it is socialism which enables everyone to live well.

  8. Dave in Austin

    Baltimore and Cincinnati are both in trouble. I invite the NCers to Google “Cincinnati city” and “murder rate” and “Crime rate”. Then compare the 1950 to 2000 rates and the demographics of the city vs the total SMSA.

    What strikes me about the solutions in both Baltimore and Cincinnati is that in response to Black anger at the police departments the cities- and the political leaders- decided to reduce potentially dangerous interactions by reducing policing of small time crime. It worked in the sense that the local Black communities were less restive but the actual numbers for Black deaths and Black-on-Black crime didn’t budge. The Black population rebelled against enforcement but high Black death rates didn’t create a Black public backlash. At the same time the SMSAs changed as Whites, Asians and more middle class Blacks moved out of the city. The Cincinnati SMSA is 80-85% White but the City itself is now I think47% Black and almost all the deaths caused by crime are Black deaths. Again, a short Google will confirm these numbers. I’d be interested to see if increased percentages of Black officers makes a difference in close-to-majority Black cities.

    So local peace is purchased by reducing law enforcement and letting the violent folks kill each other. This sounds like how my parents and their friends talked about prohibition in RI. The local police checked out and told the feds “Enforce it if you want” while the local Italians and Irish mobs (the latter including my relatives) fought it out. The only rule was “Don’t kill bystanders”-and they didn’t.

    1. JBird4049

      Over-policed and underserved is perhaps the right description on this. Any laws that are passed are enforced on minorities at a greater rate than on whites, with the possible exception of poor whites, even when the rate of the crime is less or the same.

      Taxation or revenue creation using law and code enforcement is common. Add the documented brutality of the police against both minorities and the poor as well as normal special attention given to wealthy communities as against the bad service often given to everyone else, it is not surprising that violent crime is rampant. Also the childishness of many police officers of refusing to do their jobs of protecting the community after the justified complaints of violence and murder is also a cause.

  9. Tomonthebeach

    Looking at police reform as a retired organizational psychologist, everybody seems to overlook the 900lb gorilla in the room – organizational culture. I spent 32 years in the military and have done research in both military and civilian police organizations. Because your life can depend upon your colleagues, new hires are readily socialized into the worldview and mores of “this is how we actually do things around here” which often neuters a more community-oriented approach to policing. You may think that your sergeant is an a-hole, but you need him/her at your back in a dangerous situation.

    As I see it, professionally, there are two factors that mitigate against police reform despite changes to training curriculum. First is selection criteria. Not only should new hires be screened for sociopathic tendencies, they should be monitored during training for evidence of poor person-job fit. Second is organizational change interventions. That includes things like semi-annual workshops. However, most importantly, people resistant to change should be publicly disciplined to indicate that management is serious about change. Things like reduction in rank often cause other bad apples to consider quitting too.

    1. HotFlash

      Ah yes, organizational culture. Some years ago, I went paintballing for the first time with some martial arts friends. We got to the meet-up barn, donned the provided camo uniforms, and I felt, “Whoa! I need a leader!” I, and most of my dojo, latched onto some guys who seemed to know what they were doing. Long story short, we, led by the some guys, whupped the (mumble mumble) regional police force team 6 out of 6 that day.

      My takeaway? The world looks different when you have a uniform on.

  10. Cuibono

    reforming the police is like reforming schools.
    instead we should realize , as Illich tried to teach us, that these institutions most often create the very problems they purport to address. and safety, like learning , does not mainly occur within the perverse framework of these institutions

  11. JTMcPhee

    So many of the video-recorded police shootings and abuses display the behavior of cops working only from a script of total dominance of any situation. It’s all about DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO NOW!!! Even if the directions are “Put your hands outside the window where I can see them, shut off the engine and get out of the car and onto the ground!” Kind of ensures a “failure to acknowledge my authority,” and add that to the culture that “split-second decisions are necessary” because of the way the police set up the situation.

    Quite a good example is the recent stop and abuse of an Army lieutenant,The readily available videos are truncated to just show the cops pulling pistols on him and issuing a bunch of inconsistent orders,, then one of them pepper-spraying him, both dragging him out of his vehicle, forcing him to the ground and handcuffing him. It becomes apparent to Officer Guttierez that he has made a big booboo. He keeps the driver in cuffs through a long “negotiation” where he tries to wheedle a commitment by the driver not to make an issue of this, otherwise the cops were going to arrest him and process him with possible consequences to his career, or commit to just let it drop. That whole part of the interaction has been scrubbed from any of the media or blogspace videos I have run across.

    So if it does turn out that the cops have made a f@ck-up, and in the event that it has not turned out with a dead “civilian,” then the police try to browbeat the person whose ‘rights” they have crushed into not following up. Hard to produce any significant changes in police/minority interactions when the cops are ‘entitled” to demand and get “compliance,” with whatever outrageous commands they issue.

  12. christopher lee

    It is almost unfathomable that no ideal police / community relationship exists with the Black community anywhere in the US. There is NO best practice, no model, nor blueprint for a problem that goes back one-hundred years. I actively follow vera Justice, John Jay and Atba Goff’s Center for Police Equity.

    I figure by now someone would have gotten it right. America is not longer the can do country; we are can don’t country.

    Our society may not be capable of fairly policing poor people and instead should look at breaking up residential segregation.

Comments are closed.