It’s been a tough year to be a cop. Last week epitomized just how much so.
“Sixteen shots! Thirteen months!” hundreds of protesters chanted last week as they marched down North Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. They were referring to the number of times 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot and the number of months it took to bring charges against Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who killed him. Meanwhile, in Baltimore demonstrators marched demanding justice as the trials start for six police officers accused of negligence in the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in police custody. In Minneapolis last week, activists were gathered in front of a police station to protest the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, when a group opposing the protestors opened fire, shooting five people. As a result, Black Lives Matter released a statement that echoed what a lot of people across the country, especially the poor and black, believe: “We have zero faith in this police department’s desire to keep us safe.”
The streets are filled with fear of and frustration with America’s police. A 2015 Gallup poll revealed that confidence in police in America has hit a 22-year low. In contrast to a 1967 Gallup poll in which 77% of respondents had a “great deal” of respect for police, this year only 25% had that same respect, a disturbing 52% drop.
Part of the problem is a culture of violence that, among Western industrialized countries, is uniquely American. Many of our movies and TV shows celebrate the Wild West mentality of solving problems through force. A right cross or quick draw seems more efficient than negotiation and patience. This leap-to-action attitude is going to be even more prevalent in para-military organizations that attract those who enjoy physical contact and weapons. (I say this as a person who spent most of his life in a sport involving constant physical contact and as someone who collects Old West guns.)
Americans recognize that being a police officer is dangerous and requires courage and making split-second decisions under pressure. Sometimes officers will make mistakes that have tragic results, through no fault of their own. Because of that, we are willing to forgive well-meaning errors. But the escalating level of unnecessary and excessive violence, particularly against the poor and minorities, has shaken our confidence. According to a 2000 U.S. Dept. of Justice study, 84% of police witnessed fellow officers using more force than necessary, and 61% of them didn’t report what they considered to be serious criminal violations.
But we can never know the full extent of the problem because we have no national database on officer-involved shootings. Commenting on this, FBI Director James B. Comey said: “It’s ridiculous — it’s embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.” The FBI attempts to gather information but, because reporting is voluntary, only 3% of the U.S.’s 18,000 police departments submit figures.
And there is rarely any recourse for the citizen who’s been abused by police. At least 95 percent of police misconduct cases that are referred for federal prosecution are dropped by the prosecutors because juries are more likely to believe cops over alleged victims. The local level is no better. Central New Jersey doesn’t bother to investigate 99% of police brutality complaints. In Chicago, of the 10,000 police abuse complaints made between 2002 and 2004, only 19 “resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.”
One effective means of curbing excessive police force is having officers wear video cameras. A 2012 study concluded that as a result of having officers wear cameras during all their interactions with civilians, complaints against officers went down 88% in one year and police use of force dropped 60%. Philip M. Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who has been keeping a database of officers arrested since 2005, commented: “Video is making a huge difference in cases that I don’t think would have resulted in charges against a police officer but for the video.”
Another bold step taken by the Montgomery, Alabama, police force is to teach their recruits some cultural sensitivity. All police cadets are taken to the Rosa Parks Museum where they watch a reenactment of Ms. Parks refusing to give up her eleventh row seat to a white passenger. An African American officer, Lt. Stephen Lavender, teaches other officers about the history of the black neighborhood where he works, from Dred Scott to slavery to the civil rights era. He was inspired to do this when, as a young officer, he was surprised at negative reaction to him by the local black community. His lessons are meant to change officers from going into the situation with their “mean face,” and instead to understand the situation in context.
While these and other innovations may help produce a more accountable police force, we still have a long way to go. And we need to hire more women police officers. Unfortunately, police work is portrayed inaccurately on television and in movies — every confrontation with a suspect (aka skell, perp, dirtbag) must end in a chase over chain-link fences, a dramatic tackle, and a brutal fistfight. The reality is that 80% to 95% of police work is nonviolent service solving problems within the community. Even so, women officers have proven themselves just as capable as men when forced to deal with violent confrontations. And they are better at not provoking them.
Study after study for the past 40 years extolls the virtues of women police officers. A 1974 Police Foundation study concluded that women encountering angry, drunk or violent individuals were as capable as men in resolving the problem. More important, women acted “less aggressively and they believe in less aggression.” A 1988 study of 14 years of U.S. and international research concluded that women were effective at reducing violent situations: “Policemen see police work as involving control through authority, while policewomen see it as public service.” In 1992, following the riots after the Rodney King beating, a study concluded, “Many officers, both male and female, believe female officers are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less the need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language.” A 2002 study of excessive force complaints in seven major cities concluded that male officers were 8.5 times more likely than women officers to sustain an allegation of excessive force, and 3 times more likely to be named in a complaint of excessive force. Another study concludes that the reduction in crime in the U.S., U.K., and Canada is in part related to the increase in female police officers in each of those countries. One can’t help but wonder how the October 2015 case of the defiant school girl tossed from her desk and dragged across the room by the South Carolina power-lifting deputy would have turned out if a female officer had been sent. In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the 2,813 people killed by police since May 1, 2013, might be alive today if the call had been answered by a female cop.
Reducing police violence also reduces government costs. Chicago has paid nearly half a billion dollars in settlements against the police department over the past ten years. In 2011, Los Angeles paid $54 million, while New York paid $735 million, though not all of it from police abuse. Minneapolis paid $21 million since 2003 and Oakland paid $74 million since 1990. The list of cities across the country goes on, adding up to hundreds of millions a year paid out due to excessive police force. This is taxpayers’ money that might be saved with a less confrontational approach favored by women.
With all this great press, why aren’t there more women police officers, especially since studies show that communities prefer teams consisting of one male and one female officer? According to Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007, the most recent statistics available, local police departments employed only 12% women, barely up from the 7.6% 20 years earlier. Sheriffs’ officers were only 11.2%, while state police only had 6.5% officers. Larger police departments have as high as 18%, mostly due to federal court-ordered decrees to hire more women and minorities. But these numbers do not parallel the 46.5% of working women in America.
One reason we don’t have more women police may be the perception that brawn is a requirement: officer tests emphasize upper-body strength, an attribute rarely, if ever, needed. Another reason is the level of sexual harassment women may face. One 2008 study said over half the women officers surveyed experienced sexual harassment. The Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson police force found that the officers tolerated sexual harassment of women too. And Ferguson is not an outlier. This kind of cop-buddy mentality is perpetuating the decline in community trust in and support for law enforcement that is especially important during these tumultuous political times.
As the son and grandson of police officers, I grew up with pride in my family’s commitment to serving the community. When they went to work each day, it was with a mission to make life better for the city, for the neighborhood, for their family. Americans want to feel that level of commitment again. And it seems clear that adding more women to law enforcement will protect lives by lessening violence and increasing trust.