Reimagining Policing in America—A Complete Institutional Overhaul
By: Lieutenant Colonel Lemar Farhad
In recent years, the names of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and Kelly Thomas, among many others, made local and national headlines. Yet, these names have not earned the attention that their individual and collective loss merited. Some garnered online and local protests, while others faded relatively quietly, were conveniently ignored, or forgotten by the media. The current tragedy of George Floyd’s blatant murder at the hands of a police officer has once again brought police misconduct and brutality to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. In the last two weeks, numerous Americans have filmed undisputable images and have documented in real-time unsettling video footage of police officers betraying their public trust and employing unnecessary, heavy-handed tactics. In a theater of war many of these instances would not only be grounds for immediate dismissal from office but a war crime. Looking from the outside in, these images are utterly disturbing, and I know the majority of police officers in this country would look at those images with disgust. It is clear that America has a police problem.
So, how do we move forward as a nation? How do we hold the police accountable? Should America legislate the issue further? One argument is the need for new laws that will make prosecution and conviction of police misconduct less difficult. While prosecution of police misbehavior is welcomed, it is simply not enough to solve the problem. Furthermore, police have drifted towards militarization vice community-based policing. Police response to rioters over the last several weeks have shown us that are overly dependent on military hardware and kinetic approaches; neither have produced positive outcomes. There must be a nationwide initiative to reform policing in America. To that end, I suggest a new way of thinking; a novel paradigm for recruitment, training, evaluation, and monitoring of police officers. As a military officer, I spent most of my career reforming military and security forces of partner and allied nations. As many of you know, this calls for security sector reform focused on building the capacity and capability of partner nation defense and security forces. In some more dire circumstances, this requires completely revamping the defense and security institutions from the ground up. In America, we must look at our own institutions in the same hard revealing light. In this editorial, I offer a new operational design on how we, as a nation, could train, develop, supervise, improve, and monitor our police officers.
The Current Model
Policing in America is managed by each State, County, and City. This has led to a mishmash of professional standards and the lack of a core moral ethos that governs the law enforcement community and its culture. In fact, the disparity and lack of standards is so vast and varied that officers in one jurisdiction might not qualify to serve in another. In the current system, to become a police officer you apply to a large department that will have its own in-house police academy. For example, the NYPD has a 38-week police training program. By contrast, in Los Angeles there is a shorter program that is roughly 6 months. Furthermore, if you apply to smaller departments, candidates only need to take part-time courses, usually hosted by a local junior college. Once candidates complete the required hours, they must pass a standard exam, and undergo local training at the department hiring them.
This example of the lack of uniform standards and the de-centralized recruitment and training process has created a police force that is lacking a universal or national norm. Collectively, law enforcement is void of a common culture that puts citizens first, often to the detriment of people of color. As someone who has trained and advised foreign armies and has overseen the training of U.S. service members for a living, I believe that 6-8 months is not enough time to create a police officer who can perform efficiently, lawfully, and successfully time after time while being asked to make split-second decisions under stressful conditions.
Military Commissioning Model
In a departure from the current model, I advocate for a combination of regional police training colleges modeled after our military academies and incorporating a 4-year policing degree into college along the lines of the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC). These would be four-year degree-granting institutions, focused on law, humanities, leadership, decision-making, police and investigative procedures, forensics, racial and cultural sensitivity, diversity appreciation, conflict resolution, and physical fitness. By enforcing the “West Point and ROTC” models for training law enforcement, Americans will ensure that those who want to pursue the path of law enforcement will not only be given a top-notch education, but must prove themselves in a four-year institution instilling esprit de corps and the overarching principles of respect, equality, and fairness towards the civilian populace. Furthermore, this will result in higher academic and training standards and will undoubtably attract higher quality of recruits. Moreover, by modeling education on the U.S. Military officer commissioning system, we ensure that law enforcement training not only reinforces academic curriculum but would be rigorous enough to weed out recruits who have suitability or judgment issues.
It is exceedingly difficult to mask undesirable traits in an intensive four-year program. Furthermore, this model allows the institutions to instill a value system that inculcates community relations, ethics, and morals into young recruits, thus ensuring that future police officers will operate at the highest levels of conscientiousness, integrity, and preparedness. Furthermore, emphasis would need to be placed on non-kinetic approaches, community based engagements, soft-skills that emphasize de-escalation and conflict resolution, and methods that the U.S. military have used in COIN theory to win the hearts and minds of the population. As police recruits graduate from this program, they would be commissioned as a federal police officer. On graduation, recruits must apply at the state level, then pass a 6-8 week state-run police academy, focusing on state and local laws and policing standards. After this hurdle, candidates apply to individual police departments where they must pass an additional 12-18 months of probation and an evaluation period.
The path I have laid out here is not unique. In fact, this parallels the journey of becoming a military officer in the United States. One of the most coveted entry-level positions in the U.S. Army is earning the right to become a Platoon Leader (PL). A PL is charged to lead a platoon with 30-40 soldiers. That PL is responsible for life and death decisions, has a four-year college degree, and he or she has been assessed as an officer that has met standards in physical fitness, leadership, and decision making. PLs complete 6-18 months of specialized training following their commissioning as officers (four-year program) and then compete for the position after arriving at their first unit. Looking at the two models, notice the similarity between the time frames and the standards with that system for which I am advocating for police officers.
By following the military commissioning model, we should also look at the lifecycle of police officers’ careers. The military lifecycle model requires continued training in the form of Professional Military Education and is supplemented by advanced degrees once an officer reaches field grade status (10-14 year mark). To ensure police officers are receiving continued grooming and education, more seats should be given to police officers at the FBI National Academy and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), which are currently reserved for federal law enforcement agents. Further opportunities to earn advanced degrees at civilian institutions, focusing on leadership and conflict resolution, must be afforded to career law enforcement officers.
While the U.S. military has had unfortunate cases of misconduct, such as the Mai Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandals, the U.S. Department of Defense training and standards reduced the severity and frequency of such incidents over the last 20 years, which also included sustained combat against enemy combatants. The U.S. military’s response to these scandals has worked to correct the core cause of the disease and made consequences clear, a great example being the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam era reforms. When compared to police brutality and misconduct against American citizens, we clearly need a similar response. Another difference is that military leaders are groomed to find weaknesses within the force, identify how to fix them, and then aggressively pursue appropriate policies to address them--whether it be through training or a recalibration of organizational norms.
A significant issue facing police departments is ensuring compliance with basic civil rights. Police departments have internal affairs divisions that investigate police misconduct. How effective has this been? To have a properly functioning police department, officer misconduct must be investigated by an outside and unaffiliated agency. This duty can be taken on by the Department of Justice or states also can have a separate civilian-run agency whose sole purpose is to investigate police abuse and misconduct. Such approaches more often lead to real unbiased accountability. The investigators should have no ties with the department and officers in question.
According to Eric Levitz, of the NYMAG-Intelligencer, “Police officers in the United States kill about 1,000 people in the line of the duty each year (only four other nations allow their security forces to take so many civilian lives annually—Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Syria)”. Mr. Levitz further posits that between 2005-2017 only 0.25 percent of police officers who killed Americans faced legal penalties. It is reasonable to consider that lesser forms of police brutality do not make it to any sort of investigation board and therefore no penalties are levied, allowing for unprofessional police officers to continue service while degrading public trust.
If these police officers who have recently became household names with images that are now synonymous with police brutality completed a rigorous training and selection process like that that I outlined above, my belief is that they would either have never met the standards to be hired or removed from the force due to a lack of suitability a long time ago. It is up to us as a nation to create new institutions that produce qualified, well rounded, and morally conscientious police officers that rely on community based engagements, and soft-skills to win over the trust and confidence of the population they are responsible for protecting and serving. Police reform will cost money, and it will take time to revamp the police, but the end result will be the police force America deserves and demands.