EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was researched and written by a local group called Crosscurrents, which joins liberals and conservatives in discussion of policy matters such as gun control, health care and police reform. The group chooses topics that are in the national spotlight, and seeks agreement on public policy issues. This article was drafted following a spate of unrest in the summer of 2020.

For each of the past five years in the United States, police have killed approximately 1,000 persons. Approximately 40% of the deceased were unarmed. Most citizens view many of these deaths as unacceptable because they are the opposite of the protection we expect from police. An apt analogy would be of doctors harming their patients.

Of the 1,000 killed, approximately 30% are Black. Liberals and conservatives in our group offered differing explanations for this over representation of Blacks. Liberals highlighted systemic racism, which they say pervades our society and manifests itself in the unwarranted actions of some police. Conservatives countered that the majority of those shot by police are non-Black. Blacks are over-represented among the dead, conservatives said, because they are over-represented in violent crime, with a homicide rate approximately four times that of the non-Black population.

Both explanations could be true, and, whether or not racism is a central cause, our group agreed police reform is urgently needed. People of every race will benefit if police killings are cut. The group thinks our country also needs to reduce killings of police. FBI statistics report 89 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2019. All lives are important, and we owe police gratitude for the risks they take to protect us.

Police reform done right is a win for everyone, including police. Higher quality policing would translate into better lives for our citizens, with safer, healthier neighborhoods and more effective community development and growth. Police would find greater respect, increased personal safety, and greater cooperation in solving crimes.

With strong popular support, and with numerous police reform concepts and policy initiatives discussed and tried in many towns and cities for many years, it is fair to ask what holds back full acceptance and broad implementation of police reform. There are numerous reasons, including proliferated bureaucracies, inter-organizational dynamics, limited resource availability, multi-level politics, and people being people in a large, geographically varied and diversely peopled nation.

Some key facts about policing structure and funding: 1. Nationwide, there are nearly 18,000 police organizations with nearly 700,000 officers; 2. By far the most numerous police organizations with largest numbers of police are at the town and city level – counties augment towns and cities, but rarely assume sole responsibilities for policing, as Beaufort County does on Hilton Head Island; 3. In 2017 these towns and cities funded 86% of the costs of police  with various local taxes; 4. States pay about 10% of policing costs, but that always includes the state police, leaving little for localities. Federal Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA’s) provide very limited local funding.

Therefore, the roadblocks to police reform include: 1. Policing in America is predominantly a local responsibility, and it is paid for mostly by local resources; 2. Police leaders and their elected bosses in cities and towns zealously guard their local control of police and are resistant to change; 3. The proliferation of police organizations leads inevitably to jurisdictional, operational, procedural and functional interface problems that require constant coordination and adjudication at all levels; 4. Police reform requires continuing training, technology and increased salaries for the quality police force of the future; and 5. Human factors, bureaucratic inertia, local ordinances and the pull of stakeholders (such as Fraternal Order of Police) are some of the other impediments to implementing police reform.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is an organization consisting of leaders in police forces along with scholars who study policing issues. It recommends 30 principles to guide smarter policing. Among many suggestions, No. 1 is dedication to the sanctity of life. The other principles flow from that foundation – for example, confining the use of force to the scale and nature of the threat. PERF urges that agency guidelines on the use of force must be easy to understand and follow.

Recruiting good officer candidates is basic to good policing. Currently, the majority of new hires come from current officer referrals. Increased efforts to locate motivated, well-qualified candidates are essential. A national registry of officers dismissed for misconduct should be used to prevent rehiring problem police. To retain good officers, pay and benefits should be substantially above the regional average for all jobs.

The training should challenge outdated concepts, such as the idea that police must always “draw a line in the sand” and resolve all situations as quickly as possible. Officers must initially contain whatever threat is present, but then training should teach de-escalation, striving to prevent, reduce and manage conflict.

To assist officers in making vital decisions under the enormously stressful conditions they sometimes face, PERF recommends training in and use of the Critical Decision Model, wherein officers are guided in gathering information and using the principles and policies of their agency to develop a plan. With this model officers find they can resolve situations with a response that is safe, ethical and proportional to the threat.

Training in racial bias should incorporate a brief history of the relationship between police and minorities, including reflection on episodes from the past that have gone wrong. One task force summarized the goal of training as creating a police culture of guardians, not warriors.

Coupling this training with community policing, wherein officers are assigned to specific communities and are closely involved with residents, organizations, businesses, etc., reduces mistrust and increases comfort with officers.

As a simple practical matter, agency policy should require body and dashboard cameras to be turned on during all police actions. These cameras should be improved to incorporate audio recording. If force becomes unavoidable, then the minimum amount required should be employed, and very carefully. Some unnecessary deaths could be eliminated by banning chokeholds. No-knock warrants should be used only in cases of a severe and immediate threat. Equipment and training in an array of non-lethal options should be provided.

To better identify problem areas as well as successes, data on all police activity should be collected in a standardized format and shared nationally. All incidents that might involve deadly force should require investigations by a national agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board. Decisions about disciplinary measures should always incorporate citizen input. Insights gathered should be analyzed and shared widely and used for training and guidance.

Federal LEAs should be in a leadership role and provide technology, communications, IT solutions, intelligence access, technical services, and best practices; state and county LEAs should provide surge manpower, forensic and crime scene augmentation, recruiting support, training, standards, as well as certifications and licensing for police departments and officers themselves.

Reducing the 18,000 police organizations in the America by 30% to 50%, mostly at the local level, should be an achievable goal in this decade. This reduction would vastly simplify the complexity of coordination in police operations, standardize policing methods and procedures, and improve the potential for police reform. State and federal LEA partners should “nudge” localities toward greater cooperation and consolidation by technical and grant incentives they provide for towns that regionalize policing.

When police reform is implemented, local resistance to consolidation might be mitigated for mayors, city councils – and police chiefs – when they realize the possible budget savings that could accrue even as local policing improves.

The Crosscurrents dialogue group is interested in growing to help increase its credibility and impact. If you have an open mind, are willing to learn regardless of your political views or party and would like to join or learn more about our group, contact Richard Hammes at rhammes@comcast.net.

Authors: Roger Bernier, Raymond Dominick and Fred Gaskin live in Okatie; Greg Blackburn, Bluffton; Richard Hammes, Hilton Head Island.