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OpinionEditorial

Rethinking the way we police

Protesters stage in front of the Suffolk County

Protesters stage in front of the Suffolk County Police second precinct in Huntington on June 06, 2020. Cops are crucial to public safety, but must be deployed properly and held accountable. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

America needs police officers.

But America does not need its police officers to be warriors, or to operate under a “warrior mentality,” because there is no war. We are a peaceful and prosperous nation enjoying historically low levels of crime.

And America should not demand that its police officers act as social workers. Cops are not well-chosen or well-trained for tasks like getting a mentally ill homeless person the right help, which are also inappropriate uses of officers’ expensive time. Worse, adding police to a situation that’s more emotionally fraught than dangerously criminal can heighten tensions rather than defusing them.

So what should police officers be, if not warriors or social workers?

Guardians.

America needs police officers, and it needs them to be thoughtful, resourceful and reassuring guardians, properly deployed to address challenges they are appropriately prepared to handle, with respect, consistency and professionalism.

We don’t need to abolish the police: their work in preventing serious crimes and apprehending serious criminals is irreplaceable and their presence is, for many, deeply reassuring. We do not need to defund the police, although properly limiting the law enforcement footprint should allow scarce dollars to be allocated to other important social programs.

Calls to defund departments or abolish them are hyperbolic and will undermine the goals of the advocates chanting them. Such extreme demands are nonsensical to many Americans ready to support needed changes. Americans must be reassured police will be there to answer 911 calls and apprehend dangerous criminals before they rally around crucial reforms.

But we do need to change policing; change how we hire and train officers; change how we deploy them; change how we discipline, supervise and reward them; and change how we evaluate and dismiss them.

Captured on heartbreaking video, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer shocked the nation, energized long-time activists and brought newcomers to fight for social change. The images of Floyd, handcuffed and pinned by Derek Chauvin’s knee for nearly nine minutes while other officers made no move to stop him, encapsulated centuries of brutal treatment of blacks by far too many white cops.

And the aftermath showed the nation how the rottenness that sometimes crops up in policing persists.

Given all this, the emotional calls to disband and defund police departments are no surprise.

It’s understandable to want to tear it all down, but it’s wrong. As with so many American institutions, policing needs to be reformed but ensuring public safety is a fundamental obligation of government.

Already in New York, the State Legislature has made long overdue changes that will hold cops accountable for their behavior. Chokeholds like the one Chauvin used on Floyd are illegal. The disciplinary records of officers can now be made public. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order Friday demanding police forces reinvent themselves by April or lose state funding, by focusing on areas like use of force, implicit bias awareness training and civilian complaint procedures, as well as what tasks should be reassigned to civilians.

Now what’s needed is structural change to the institutions themselves. Here’s what it could look like:

Police officers spend too much time responding to calls spurred by homelessness, drug use and mental illness, where the primary expertise needed is not crime fighting. Police officers on Long Island also spend a tremendous amount of time transporting people or waiting with them, working details like traffic enforcement often better handled by cameras and computers, and responding with multiple cars and officers to negligible incidents.

They do all this, particularly in New York, because police departments with all-powerful unions that double as potent political operations are as much job programs as crime-fighting organizations. Unions make it nearly impossible to discipline or fire bad officers, and they cry impending doom whenever a task is shifted away from sworn officers or staffing is reduced to reflect actual needs.

That’s unacceptable and it’s a problem that’s become clearer in the past few weeks, as even police brass and municipal leaders call for wholesale change and only police labor leaders continue to fight unabashedly for the status quo.

Then there is the swagger of militarization. Police forces, particularly in metropolitan areas that face a significant threat of terrorism, need high-powered equipment and officers trained to use it. But SWAT teams and riot squads and the lethal equipment and macho tactical garb and attitudes that go with them have made departments too much like quasi-military operations.

We’ve seen a lot to upset us from many police departments in the past few weeks. Much of it is about race, but much of it is also about broader issues, of the blue line of mutually protective police officers with no fear of punishment, of brusque and violent crowd control and of privileged bravado.

The system must change. The responsibilities must change. The culture must change. The power relationship between the police and the community must change.

We can’t abolish these departments, but we can demand they operate as the public wishes. They work for us, and we get to say.

- The editorial board

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