On a mild late spring night in 1993, a police officer in Berkeley, California, stopped a black-and-yellow two-door Chevy for a traffic violation. The officer was twenty-one years old, white. He was working a midnight shift in a lower-income neighborhood adjacent to North Oakland that had seen more than its share of violence, much of it linked to the trade in crack cocaine. The year before, 12 people were murdered in Berkeley, then a city of 103,000. Nearly 900 were robbed and more than 700 were victims of aggravated assault, putting Berkeley’s violent crime rate at twice the national average.
At 1:30 a.m., the officer was driving north on a mixed commercial and residential street. A block ahead, the Chevy was stopped at a red light in the left turn lane. Not waiting for the light to turn green, the driver lurched forward, veering out of the lane to continue straight. This was hardly a serious offense. The streets were empty, no oncoming traffic. Still, it was illegal. The officer hit his overhead lights. “Adam 13, 11-95,” he called on the radio. Car stop. One of a dozen he’d probably make that night.
Except the driver accelerated. The officer couldn’t tell whether he was trying to get away or hadn’t noticed the police car. Nor could the officer know that the events to follow would speak directly to one of the most pressing issues of our time today, three years after the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin: how to fix the police, a troubled American institution. Although many police officers – most, perhaps – do their difficult jobs admirably and well, incidents of egregious abuse are all too common and police reform has proved an elusive goal.
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The solution has been apparent for decades, the major barrier to its implementation politicians and police chiefs who lack the vision and commitment necessary to carry it off. Cop culture, which the Berkeley officer was in the grips of, needs an overhaul.
At the next street, the Chevy went left. The officer followed but the car had vanished. The only place it could have gone was Stanton, a small street that branched off, and as the officer drove past it, he caught sight of the car’s brake lights. He slammed on his own brakes, backed up, and barreled down Stanton until he reached the Chevy, which had parked in the driveway of a stucco house.
Like most small- to midsize police agencies, the Berkeley police department, with 180 cops in the early 1990s, didn’t have its own police academy. When the officer joined as a recruit, he was sent to the academy run by the city of Sacramento, held on the grounds where the California Highway Patrol trained. There the future men and women of law enforcement took their morning runs; the recruits all idealistic in their own way, driven to scratch some inner itch by pinning on a badge. Trainers taught them that car stops can be dangerous, even for minor infractions. Usually drivers and passengers are cooperative. But you never know—you might pull over someone with a felony warrant who’ll do anything to keep from getting arrested, or a dealer with a stash and a gun hidden under the front seat, or a guy with anger issues looking for a fight.
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Posters hung in the gymnasium, where the recruits practiced defensive tactics. One showed the CHP Survival Creed: “The will to live, to survive the attack, must be uppermost in every officer’s mind. Fight back against all odds. Don’t let them kill you on some dirty freeway.”
Sacramento police academy recruits were trained to be on high alert when stopping cars. The cardinal rules were that you had to keep everyone contained, and hands had to be visible at all times.
There was no containment happening on Stanton Street. As the officer pulled up, a young man about his age, Black with cornrows, stepped from the passenger side of the Chevy. He was shirtless, with pale blue shorts and blue Nikes. The driver had stayed at the wheel. The officer yelled to the passenger, “Get back in the car and close the door!”
The man said flatly, “Why?”
“I’m stopping this car. Get back in and close the door.”
The man ignored him. He began walking toward the porch of the house, only a few paces away. While trying to keep his eye on the driver, the officer ran to the passenger and put his hand on his shoulder. The man flung it off. “If you touch me again, I’m going to kick your ass,” he said.
The two were face-to-face. The man had threatened a cop; he was going to jail.
“Get on the ground, you’re under arrest,” the officer ordered. He wanted the man seated or prostrate so it would be harder for him to make good on his threat. The officer had followed every twist of the Rodney King case, but he wasn’t thinking about the symbolism of a white police officer ordering a Black man to the ground. He was thinking: if this guy’s willing to fight rather than sit in a car while I write his buddy a ticket, there must be something he doesn’t want me to know or find. His other thought was, don’t let them kill you on some dirty freeway.
He called for cover.
The driver, also Black and in his twenties, was out of the car now, too. The passenger again made a move toward the porch. This time, the officer grabbed him, pushing him against the hood of the Chevy, intending to apply handcuffs. The man pulled loose and swung at the officer, clocking him on his cheek. The officer stumbled a couple of steps and drew his baton. Few police had access to Tasers back then (the LAPD officers who assaulted Rodney King were an exception), so batons were the best nonlethal option.
Now the officer upped his radioed request to “Code 3” cover—for an emergency. Sirens kicked on in the distance along with the intermittent beeping on police frequencies that signals trouble.
“Get on the ground! You’re under arrest!” the officer kept repeating, thwacking the passenger in his leg while the man stood ready to box. He grabbed the baton, but the officer wrested it back and hit him again in the leg, then once in the abdomen, a jab he’d been taught in defensive tactics.
His partner from the next beat over came running to cuff the driver. Meanwhile, an older couple had emerged from the house—the passenger’s parents, it would later turn out—and were trying to restrain their son. The officer saw why: he was holding a sizable rock over his head and was about to throw it.
A third cop arrived and rushed to help arrest the driver. The first officer unholstered his handgun, a stainless steel .40 caliber Smith & Wesson, and pointed it at the rock-wielding passenger, lining him up in his sights so he’d have a clean shot. “Put the rock down!” he screamed. After a tense moment, the man did as he was ordered. The officer wasn’t faced with the choice of shooting him in front of his parents or taking a rock to the head.
That Berkeley officer was me.
We never figured out why the passenger had fought. He had an arrest record but wasn’t on probation or parole. He had no warrants and no contraband on him. He’d been drinking but wasn’t drunk. Taken into custody, all he would say was, “I’ll be out, Gross. I’ll find you.”
The stop that night on Stanton Street should never have escalated as it did; the outcome could have been horrific. The passenger wasn’t blameless. He should have gotten back in the car when I asked. He shouldn’t have threatened me or punched me in the face or tried to throw a rock. But I wasn’t blameless either. Nor was the police institution that molded me into the cop I was.
As a rookie, I checked all the right boxes. I was born and raised in the Berkeley area and would be policing my hometown. I was educated. I was young but not completely inexperienced: I’d worked part-time for several police agencies while in college, including as a dispatcher. I had a clean record. I’d gone into policing with the best of intentions, to help people and make the community safer. And yet there I was, gun in hand, fighting with a young Black man over what? Over nothing, really.
What went wrong? I served as a Berkeley police officer for eleven months before quitting and going to graduate school to get a PhD in sociology, looking for answers to questions just like that. I’ve been a social scientist for more than two decades now, and I’ve thought often about the Stanton Street fight with a mixture of guilt, sadness, and dismay.
At Colby College in Maine, where I teach courses about the police, I sometimes assess proposals for police reform by asking whether they would have prevented the kind of escalation that occurred. Could the whole incident have been avoided if my training had been different? If the department had different policies in place? If the police academy hadn’t taught me to be paranoid about car stops, perhaps I wouldn’t have perceived a passenger walking away as such a threat. If California had mandated meaningful de-escalation training for officers, maybe I would have thought to use a calmer tone or to say something less hostile than “get on the ground.” Maybe I would have retreated after the man threatened me and waited for the arrival of more officers so that we could have arrested him safely through sheer strength of numbers. If department policy had established that lethal force could be used only when there was absolutely no alternative, maybe I would have ducked for cover when it looked like rocks were about to fly instead of drawing my weapon.
Maybe. But probably not. You can train and rewrite policy all day long, but done in isolation, that won’t get you very far. If you’ve got a department full of cops who think of themselves as aggressive crime fighters locked in a life-or-death struggle against the forces of evil— which is how many officers saw themselves, even in liberal, educated Berkeley—then alienation and resentment are bound to spread in heavily policed neighborhoods. In the heat of the moment, you won’t see police backing down.
Policy change is crucially important. But to fix policing, we need to change cop culture: the values, beliefs, and assumptions, the worldview of those in law enforcement. Right now, not enough people are talking about how to do that.
In the wake of the massive Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of Mr. Floyd, a Vox/Data for Progress poll found that large majorities of likely voters supported such police reform ideas as mandatory use of body cameras, collecting better data on use of force, and banning choke holds. Likewise, a CNN poll found that a mere 14 percent of American adults believed that “policing works pretty well as it is,” and 53 percent favored major changes to the institution, with the remaining 32 percent preferring smaller-scale reforms.
Politicians at the federal, state, and local levels (primarily on the Democratic side of the aisle) tried to address this demand for change. Federal legislation (ultimately stalled in the Senate) sought to forbid choke holds and “no-knock” warrants, reduce liability protections for police officers, require implicit bias training, and much more. States, for their part, upped de-escalation training, instructed officers to intervene if they see their peers engage in misconduct, and changed laws governing the use of lethal force. Cities increased citizen oversight of police operations, pulled police out of schools, and even prohibited police officers from doing low-level traffic enforcement.
Yet whether well-conceived or not, each of these plans for reform will quickly run up against a limit: the aggressive culture of policing that characterizes many American departments. That culture prioritizes above all tactical safety, putting bad guys behind bars, loyalty to other cops, and not taking flak from anyone on the street. Policy changes perceived to be at odds with those values—basically, anything that constrains the options cops have in dealing with what they see as dangerous people and situations—will be resisted and undermined at every turn.
We’ve been here before. After the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests and unrest, President Obama assembled a task force charged with developing a vision for policing in the twenty-first century. The task force issued policy recommendations, but its central insight was that policy change alone isn’t enough to ensure good policing. “There’s an old saying,” the task force noted: “‘Organizational culture eats policy for lunch.’” “Any law enforcement organization can make great rules and policies,” the report continued, “but if policies conflict with the existing culture, they will not be institutionalized and behavior will not change.” The reason for this is simple: in policing “the vast majority of an officer’s work is done independently outside the immediate oversight of a supervisor.” Thus “consistent enforcement of rules that conflict with . . . culture . . . is nearly impossible.”
Despite the report’s emphasis, proposals for reform today typically aim at regulating or limiting the power of the police, not changing police culture. Politicians and pundits talk occasionally about the need for law enforcement officers to view themselves as “guardians” rather than “warriors,” but it’s difficult to know what that distinction entails, let alone how agencies could move in such a direction. It’s as though policy makers can’t imagine what ethical, effective, democratic policing might look like.
But the culture of policing can be transformed. Three unusual police departments, dedicated to replacing the aggressive crime fighter with something different and better, have worked to come up with healthier, more socially responsible models of what it means to be a good cop. Many police forces promise change; these three—in Stockton, California, Longmont, Colorado, and LaGrange, Georgia—are walking the walk. The chiefs in those agencies and the officers and detectives who work for them have invaluable lessons to teach all of us on the importance of leadership, creativity, perseverance, and the involvement of everyday citizens when it comes to changing how police officers approach their job. These cops also have remarkable personal stories to tell, stories that shed light on the real world of American policing, which bears little resemblance to its portrayal by political partisans of the left or right.
The challenges this country faces in getting the professional, equitable, and humane policing it needs are formidable. The aggressive culture of policing I encountered thirty years ago prevails in many departments, and racial inequities are entrenched.
Amid national outrage about police abuse, the temptation has arisen to either write off policing or impose a plethora of legal and policy restraints to bring police into line. But we can’t write off the police, not in the foreseeable future. And while restraints on police behavior are needed, public institutions like the police need more than rules to function effectively. They also require an animating spirit, a culture, one that offers employees a sense of mission, purpose, and identity, and that steers them toward doing the right thing. Changing cop culture must become a new national priority.
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