How American Policing Fails Neighborhoods - and Cops
How American Policing Fails Neighborhoods - and Cops
A rally outside Baltimore City Hall, July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
By James J. Nolan /

How should we understand the violencecounterviolence and civil unrest that mark the current era in American policing?

And, based on this understanding, what can we do to stop it?

Rather than focus on the characteristics of “bad apple” police officers or angry, revengeful citizens, sociologists like me tend to look at the context in which the violence occurs or at how individuals within this context interact.

For example, sociologists might study a sport like soccer. Participants learn the rules of the game, what behaviors they expect of each other, how to score points and what it means to be considered a “good" player.

Policing also has rules and logic that makes certain actions the right things to do and other actions the wrong things.

Sociologists like the influential French thinker Pierre Bourdieu argue that the game itself, rather than innate personality traits, shape the worldviews of the players and make them act in a way that fits the logic of the field.

This suggests that to understand the behaviors of American police, one must uncover the logic of the “game” they’re playing – policing.

No consequences

In our book “The Violence of Hate: Understanding Harmful Forms of Bias and Bigotry,” Jack Levin and I describe how the game of law enforcement produces, in many police officers, a worldview and disposition that puts them at odds with the community.

Many police officers remain strangers and adversaries to residents rather than partners in keeping neighborhoods safe. Officers are highly suspicious of strangers, hypervigilant of danger, fixated on sorting the good people from bad and uninterested in the long-term harms to individuals and communities that result from their law enforcement efforts. Police and government leaders wrongly view the current law enforcement practices as a natural way of policing rather than a socially constructed game that can be changed.

So what do we know about the way the game is currently played?

The game of law enforcement

I worked as a police officer for 13 years and then a sociologist studying police behavior for another 13 years before undertaking a year-long research project at my old police department in Wilmington, Delaware in 2014.

On this return to the profession, I noticed that aside from having better technology, things had not changed much in terms of what the police were doing. What had grown noticeably worse, however, were the relationships between the police and minority communities, a situation mirroring the underlying racial tensions in FergusonBaltimore and Cleveland, among other U.S. cities at the time.

Through the lens of sociology, it was clear that Wilmington was focused on the old “law enforcement” game. This long tradition was exacerbated by the war on drugs among other policies that overemphasize street-level arrests as a way to improve the quality of life. Status and power in the department were tied tightly to street arrests, gun and drug seizures, and the heroics of “running and gunning,“ a catch phrase for chasing down armed criminal suspects.

A SWAT officer in San Diego, California, July 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In this hardcore version of the law enforcement game, well-intentioned and highly competent officers seemed blind to the consequences of their actions and indifferent to harm it caused. It didn’t seem to matter to them whether a neighborhood was ultimately safer following police action, or whether convictions were won in court. It also didn’t seem to matter whether serious crimes like robbery or burglary were ever solved, or whether families and communities would suffer from widespread police sweeps and the disruption of mass arrests. Worse, nobody worried that the broken trust in the police would contribute indirectly to more killings. These things were not part of the logic.

The only thing that mattered was that “lockups” were made and that guns and drugs were seized. “Community policing” meant placating the community with a few friendly faces so that real police work – arresting criminals – could go on unimpeded.

My observations about the game of law enforcement are consistent with the published findings of recent Department of Justice investigations in BaltimoreCleveland and Ferguson. They also jibe with the reflections of sociologist Peter Moskos of John Jay College, who spent a year working at the Baltimore Police Department.

So what can we do to change this reality?

A new policing game

The current crisis in American policing requires dismantling the old law enforcement game and starting anew. Many police agencies, including my old department, are collaborating with the U.S. Department of Justice and organizations like the Police Foundation to develop and implement a new game that redirects the work of the police away from law enforcement “outputs” such as arrests and drug seizures as a measure of success. This new approach emphasizes public safety “outcomes,” like strong, safe, thriving neighborhoods.

My work over the past several years has focused on identifying and measuring the underlying psychological processes in neighborhoods that build community trust and cohesion in some places and “Stop Snitching” campaigns in others that reinforce barriers between police and citizens. Uncovering these hidden dynamics enables officers to tailor policing strategies toward strong neighborhoods.

Strong neighborhoods are places where crime rates are low and where residents and the police work together to keep it that way. In 2014, during my research year, the Browntown neighborhood in southwest Wilmington was such a place. The Wilmington police worked closely with residents to build relationships through block-by-block organizing, regular neighborhood social events and collaborative problem solving. Surveys of this neighborhood at that time reflected strong support for the police and the willingness of residents to intervene as needed to prevent crime.

In a recent editorial following the release of the Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department, Kevin Davis, the new police commissioner, claimed that “most police officers come to work every day and consistently do the right thing.”

I agree that the vast majority of police officers want to do the right things.

But what constitutes the “right thing” is contingent on the game being played. Changing the goal of modern policing to creating strong neighborhoods creates a new game. It is the logic of this new game, rather than the moral reasoning of individual officers, that will lead to the cultural shifts in policing of the magnitude imagined by today’s police reformers – including those protesting on the streets.

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How American Policing Fails Neighborhoods - and Cops