Police departments in the United States, especially those in big cities, face an array of challenges — not just the familiar duties of responding to emergencies and investigating crimes, but also keeping abreast of the latest advances in forensic science and addressing community relations, race relations, youth violence, street gangs, organized crime, cybercrime, and terrorism.
“It seems like police chiefs have to master a thousand things,” notes Harvard Kennedy School professor Christopher Stone. He says that he and his coauthor Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, are offering police officials “a new organizing framework, which attempts to redefine what policing means, while helping them manage the hugely complex set of issues they have to deal with.”
Stone and Travis call their approach the “new professionalism,” to distinguish it from a mid-20th-century model some- times referred to as professional crime fighting — a style of policing “deliberately removed from communities,” according to the authors, which “failed to produce adequate public safety.” Some of the problems stemming from the insularity of police departments were alleviated in the 1980s and 1990s, when “community policing” came into vogue. Community policing represented a significant step forward, though its scope was somewhat limited, says Stone. “It was largely focused on community relations, leaving out many of the things that police departments must contend with.”
The new professionalism, he and Travis believe, can better encapsulate the ever-expanding mission of today’s police forces. This framework consists of four key elements: accountability, legitimacy, innovation, and coherence. “Twenty years ago, the term ‘police accountability’ generally referred to accountability for misconduct,” Stone and Travis write. They have something far broader in mind: making police officers accountable for their actions not only to their own departments but also to various government entities, citizens, and journalists.
While police departments are granted their authority by law, they need to earn their legitimacy from the public, gaining people’s trust and confidence through each and every interaction, Stone and Travis maintain. “Those citizens and groups most disaffected by past harms or present conditions have the greatest claims to attention on this score,” they write.
Policing in the mid 20th century stifled innovation, the authors argue, because “police managers were so concerned about the dangers of corruption and a loss of discipline that they suppressed the creative impulses of frontline officers who wanted to try new ways of solving crime problems.” That philosophy is changing — as it needs to, they add. “By a commitment to innovation we mean active investment of personnel and resources both in adapting policies and practices proven effective in other departments and in experimenting with new ideas.”
Policing in the United States is inherently decentralized. There are approximately 20,000 separate departments — a fact that makes them susceptible to parochialism, with some branches conducting business in their own way, as they always have, out of step with the latest practices. Stone and Travis would like to bring some coher- ence to the field, as well as professionalism, through organizations such as the Police Foundation and the Police Executive Research Forum, which foster a commitment to continuing education and host national conversations among practitioners and researchers about the best current protocols.
The authors recommend some consolidation among the 80 percent of the nation’s police departments that have fewer than 25 officers, to provide more-professional services to the public. “There are things a department of 100 to 200 can do that a department of 10 to 20 cannot,” Stone says. He and Travis would also like to see greater mobility across jurisdictions, with more police personnel recruited from outside their departments and even outside their states.
To some extent, all these things are happening today. Progress is being made toward achieving the four criteria laid out by Travis and Stone. “We just want to encourage this movement,” says Stone. “Our paper represents an effort to summarize what we see happen- ing in the field and to urge departments to move more aggressively in this direction.”
— by Steve Nadis