Are we asking police to do too much? 7 experts debate the role cops should play in today’s society | Perspective
Officers spend their time responding to pressing crises — overdoses, homelessness, and mental health crises, to name a few. And at the same time, nationwide, the majority of crime goes unsolved.
When kids dress up as police officers for Halloween, they pretend to catch “robbers” and find clues that will help them solve mysteries. But the reality of being a police officer in Philadelphia today is very different. Officers spend their time responding to pressing problems — overdoses, homelessness, and mental-health crises, to name a few. And at the same time, nationwide, the majority of crime goes unsolved.
Could the reason be that we are asking too much of police? We asked a variety of experts to answer that question and give us a sense of what police should prioritize. To glean that information, we asked them how they would recommend that a police department spend an imaginary gift of $100,000. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. Interviews were conducted by Abraham Gutman.
Police as problem solvers.
Are we asking police to do too much? “Historically, the role of police for centuries has included a mandate to handle situations, maintain order, enhance public safety, and provide service. This has not changed – police have always been involved in social work to some extent. When we limit our conception of police to only law enforcers, we do a disservice to the profession. What we need to provide are more resources and tools for officers to effectively and efficiently handle the situations they encounter. With the opioid crisis, these resources may include stronger police/public health partnerships, investments in treatment facilities, police training in crisis intervention, providing officers with additional alternatives to arrest, and structuring our law enforcement agencies to support these alternatives through changes in policies, training, and supervision. We are not really adding more ‘tasks’ to police; we are asking police to be problem solvers – and therefore we need to provide them the tools and resources to do that effectively."
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “I would invest the money in a comprehensive review of the Police Department — the policy, the procedure, the practice. I would assess the needs and the resources, talk to citizens and officers, and come back with a plan for evidence-based policing.”
— Robin S. Engel is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and director of the IACP/UC Center for Police Research and Policy
“I need you to go out there.”
Are we asking police to do too much? "In the past few years we, as law enforcement, have been moving away from the law enforcement-only standard and have been moving into a guardian position where our role is to take care of the public, take care of the citizens, take care of those who depend on us the most. I don’t think that being a law enforcement officer and being a guardian have to be mutually exclusive. I would contend that a really effective police officer says, ‘I need you to go out there, and you don’t have to lock everyone up, but you do have to have a good relationship with a community that we serve.' "
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “My priority would be dealing with the public. That can be implicit bias training, cultural diversity training, how to deal with a difficult situation, use of force — if you effectively figure out those things, everything else falls into place.”
— Lt. Sonia Pruitt is the national chairperson of the National Black Police Association. She has been serving as a police officer in Maryland for the last 27 years.
“When no one else can help, we call the cops.”
Are we asking police to do too much? “We always have been -- that’s what cops do: Pick up the pieces of what society has failed at solving. In a way that is their job. The buck has to stop somewhere. It’s a shame that issues like mental health and homelessness aren’t solved. But when no one else can help, we call the cops and ask them to do something."
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “Public safety trumps a lot. I don’t believe it is possible to solve society’s greatest problems if people are afraid — and sometime for good reason — of getting shot when they leave their house. We need proper evaluation of programs. A hundred thousand dollars isn’t that much money, but it could fund a proper study. ... So much more depends on leadership instead of a little bit of money here and there.”
— Peter Moskos is a professor and chair of the department of law, police science, and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He served as a police officer in Baltimore for two years.
Policing is dealing with social problems.
Are we asking police to do too much? “We certainly are, within the current constraints of how much we are willing to support them. We increasingly ask more of police, and they could take additional roles if we supported them appropriately, but we don’t. Law enforcement is just enforcing legislation, but policing involves dealing with many more social problems. We give police officers law enforcement training and tools, but we ask them to do a social service mission. And so their tools and training and support are not set up for the duty that they have now evolved into."
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “I would spend the money on more hours of police foot patrol in small crime hot spots in the summer. We know that violence tends to spike in the summers. We know that violence concentrates in small, specific crime hot spots — just a few corners, a few localized places. And we know that if we put police officers, especially rookie police officers who tend to work hard and engage with the community, in those locations, we’ve shown already in Philadelphia that that can have a measurable impact on one of the city’s most acute challenges."
— Jerry Ratcliffe is a professor of criminal justice at Temple University. He served as an officer with London’s Metropolitan Police for 11 years.
Invest in alternatives to police.
Are we asking police to do too much? “For too long, police have been used and invested in as a catch-all for a range of issues — from substance abuse to homelessness to even school discipline. That is way beyond what the role of the police should be. Instead of police, we should be investing in alternatives. In response to public health issues like substance abuse, we should be having mental-health providers responding to calls involving people who are having mental-health crises rather than police. I think the police are doing entirely too much.”
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “There are things that take money to do and that need to be done in the context of policing, like the creation of oversight structures, accountability structures, and crisis intervention training. However, the police already receive so much money. In many cities it’s like 40 percent of the city budget. That’s more than enough to do those things.”
— Samuel Sinyangwe is the cofounder of Campaign Zero, a data-informed platform that presents comprehensive solutions to end police violence in America.
Decisions about police spending are like “Sophie’s Choice.”
Are we asking police to do too much? “In many respects, we are. Throughout my career, starting in Boston decades ago, that has been the case. The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder. After 9/11, police departments, particularly in large cities, are expected to commit resources to preventing terrorism. We are expected now to deal with cyber crime, and the opioid crisis. Police are being expected to be better trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people on the street. We are asking police officers in the 21st century to be almost doctors — what drug are they probably on? What mental-health condition? I have an expression that we used in Los Angeles, but I think it applies for the profession as a whole: ‘too few who have been asked to do too much with too little for too long.’ "
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “In terms of prioritization, first has to be technology. Training, because the vast majority of departments in America do not do enough in terms of training. Third, we must address the sufficient number of police. There is the old adage of ‘You get what you pay for.’ So $100,000, in some respects is a Sophie’s choice dilemma.”
— William Bratton is the executive chairman, risk advisory, at Teneo Consulting. He served as the police commissioner of New York City, the chief of police of Los Angeles, and the commissioner of the Boston Police Department.
Invest money in communities, not cops.
Are we asking police to do too much? “When we look at the most criminalized communities, largely black and brown communities but also communities where folks have disability and are struggling with drug addiction, we know that the thing that will help them overcome those deeply embedded challenges is not continued criminalization and suppression, but instead investments in the common good. Investment in housing, education, health care, and jobs. Police are not mental-health professionals, they are not trained to provide health care to people, they are not social workers, and we need to reevaluate the role of policing in society and reimagine public safety in a way that invests in communities and neighborhoods, not incarcerates them, surveils them, and oppresses them."
How would you recommend the Philadelphia Police Department spend $100,000? “I believe that we need a massive divestment from policing and the police state. The role of policing has largely been about social control, about the control of black and brown bodies, and the intersection of racial capitalism that allows people to exploit and profit largely off of communities of color. If you said I’m going to give you $100,000 for policing, I would say, we don’t need to put $100,000 more in policing. In fact we need to be taking millions of dollars out of policing and invest that money in our communities.”
— Jennifer Epps-Addison serves as the president and co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy and CPD Action’s network of 49 partner organizations in 33 states.