Putting law in order, part 2 of 2

To demonize all law enforcement officers as violence-prone racists is both wrong and absurd. The police have a difficult job made all the more dangerous in a society awash with guns, when every encounter with civilians is a potentially life-threatening situation.

While teaching at Florida State University in the 1970s, criminologist George Kirkham was discussing police personality types when one of his best police officer/students resisted the stereotypical image of police as paranoid, hostile and aggressive. The officer-student challenged Kirkham to become a police officer and see how he would react to the pressures of law enforcement work. The 31-year-old Kirkham accepted this challenge, and after four months at a police academy he was patrolling the streets of Jacksonville, Florida.

His first day on patrol, Kirkham was punched after politely asking a man to leave a bar, later recalling that he “couldn’t believe it. What on earth had I done to provoke such a reaction?” Over the next few weeks, Kirkham began fearing for his life and safety. On one occasion, a hostile crowd gathered as he and his partner were making an arrest. Kirkham wrote later, “How readily as a criminology professor I would have condemned the officer who was now myself, trembling with fear and anxiety and menacing an ‘unarmed assembly’ with a shotgun.”

Kirkham learned that police officers often have to make critical decisions in a short period of time, sometimes seconds — “to shoot or not to shoot, to arrest or not to arrest, to give chase or let go.”

New York Police Department police union leader Mike O’Meara stated that people should “stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect. We’ve been left out of the conversation. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.” O’Meara makes an excellent point, and no doubt members of minority communities across the country share his sentiments that they are often treated like animals and deserving of respect by police.

Former FBI director and deputy attorney general James Comey states the police are experiencing a “uniquely toxic … perfect storm” of circumstances: an unprecedented pandemic that has gripped the country, including the toll it has taken on law enforcement (over 1,000 NYPD officers were infected with COVID-19 during the first month of the coronavirus outbreak); the nation’s economic pain (felt especially by the lower economic class, “essential workers” who have incurred the greatest financial hardships); a visual record of police misconduct; and “horrific national leadership.”

In addition to this perfect storm of events, we have given police the difficult (if not impossible) task of dealing with mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness — social problems that have their roots in economic and political inequality, and will certainly increase in scope and severity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At a 2016 news conference, then Dallas police chief David Brown stated: “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. … Every societal failure, we put off on the cops to solve.”

African American sociologist Rashawn Ray (University of Maryland) states that police officers should be held accountable for their behavior and that systemic racism exists in American law enforcement. Ray also notes that police are overworked, overstressed and underpaid. “When people are overstressed and underpaid, they aren’t mentally fit; they don’t make good decisions. … Their implicit biases, their stereotypes, go on steroids.”

According to one study, 7 to 10% of all police encounters involve individuals with mental illness, a situation brought about in large measure by decades of cutting government mental health programs and resources. The mental health Treatment Advocacy Center states “that as many as half of all law enforcement homicides ends the life of an individual with severe psychiatric disease.”

Many police departments are experimenting with Crisis Intervention Teams comprised of officers who have undergone training (usually through community mental health agencies) to deescalate encounters without the use of force, properly restrain individuals and make an initial assessment on how to handle the situation. Evidence regarding the effect CITs have on arrest rates of the mentally ill is inconclusive.

“Defunding” the police is a confusing term as it appears to mean abolishing police departments, a preposterous idea that few people, even in high-crime minority neighborhoods, would endorse. The police are needed, and without their presence, street crime would certainly increase. The more logical component of defunding means reallocating some police funds to government programs that deal with homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness. Arguably a better (partial) solution is to increase police budgets for CIT training combined with dramatically increasing funds for community-based mental health services.

If there is to be any meaningful change in American policing, the following issues will have to be addressed:

¯ Terminating bad officers — Daniel Oates, who served 18 years as a police chief in three departments (Michigan, Colorado and Florida), stated that police unions have “immense power to block the discipline of bad cops.” In nine years as chief in Aurora, Colorado, Oates states that of the 650 officers in the department, he felt 16 should have been fired. He terminated four of the individuals, and the Civil Service Commission immediately reversed his decision on three other officers. Oates negotiated severance packages with the other 12 that allowed these officers to get jobs elsewhere if they could.

¯ Crossing the blue line — In 2006, Buffalo police officer Cariol Horne, a 19-year veteran of the force, was terminated (one year shy of receiving pension benefits) after she intervened to protect a suspect from police brutality. Officer Horne states that she grabbed the arm of a fellow officer who had a chokehold on a handcuffed suspect. Other officer present, who could have controlled the suspect if needed, did not intervene.

After investigating the situation, the Buffalo Police Department stated that Horne showed an “extreme lack of professionalism … an error in judgment” and had the “temperament of an individual entirely unsuitable to address the substantial responsibilities of police work.” Did the race and/or gender of officer Horne (Black female), the officer administering the chokehold (white male) and the suspect (Black male) have anything to do with Horne’s termination, or would any officer under similar circumstances who crosses the blue line of silence and solidarity have been terminated?

(That same white officer was later sentenced to four months in prison for slamming the upper torsos and heads of four Black teenagers into a squad car).

¯ A reliance on force? — Both the United States and Canada are racially and ethnically diverse societies with this diversity clearly evident in cities. Adjusting for the vast population difference, between 1990 and 2015, police in the U.S. used lethal force about six times more than Canadian officers. Criminologists at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada note that Americans think in terms of a “police force” while Canadians are protected by a “police service.” Perhaps this small semantic difference “is enough to show how the philosophy and psychology of the entire institution operates from the ground up.”

Reforming law enforcement will not be easy as the stiffest resistance to change typically comes from the police themselves. Investigative reporters Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg state that a number of cities have attempted to reform the police and failed, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Minneapolis (before the police killing of George Floyd). The situation was particularly ugly in Baltimore, where police “undermined every new policy in an open revolt.”

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


Barkan, S. and G. Bryjak (2011) “Fundamentals of Criminal Justice — A Sociological View,” Jones & Bartlett Learning: Sudbury, MA

Bump P. (June 12, 2020) “What police work actually looks like — and what that tells us about ‘defund’ politics,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Comey, J. (June 8, 2020) “James Comey: My advice to police officers on handling criticism,” Washington Post. www.thewashingtonpost.com

Dunning, C. (2020) “Crisis: Intervention Teams in Law Enforcement,” Criminal Justice Programs, www.criminaljusticeprograms.com

Fitz-Gibbon, J. (June 17, 2020) “Buffalo seeks to restore pension of cop fired for stopping chokehold,” New York Post, https//nypost.com

“Former Buffalo police officer sentenced to four months in prison, house arrest” (Dec. 12, 2018) WKBW Buffalo, www.wkbw.com

Jones, S. (June 16, 2020) “A black officer stepped in when a white cop had a suspect in a chokehold. She was fired and the city wants an investigation,” CNN, www.cnn.com

Kirkham. G. (1984) “A professor’s street lessons.” pp. 77-89, in “Order Under Law,” “Readings in Criminal Justice,” edited by R.G. Culbertson, Waveland Press: Prospects Heights, IL

Lundman, R. (1980) “Police and Policing: An Introduction,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York

McCartney, R. (June 22, 2020) “Police critic says officers need more money, less stress, along with greater accountability,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Manning, P. (1997) “Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing,” Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, IL

Oates, D. (June 12, 2020) “I used to be a police chief, This is why it’s so hard to fire bad cops,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

“Overlooked in the undercounted: the role of mental illness in fatal law enforcement encounters” (December 2015) The Treatment Advocacy Center, www.treatmentadvocacycenter.com

Paine, L. (May 28, 2020) “Police, experts condemn knee restraint used on George Flyod,” ABC News. www.abcnews.com

“Policing in Canada vs Policing in the USA” (2019) Laurier Online, Wilfred Laurier University, https//online.wlu.ca

Skolnick, J, (1994) “Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society,” Macmillan: New York

Sondel, J. and H. Knowles (June 10, 2020) “George Floyd died after officers didn’t step in. These police say they did and paid the price,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Taheri, S. (Nov. 5, 2014) “Do crisis intervention teams reduce arrests and improve officer safety? A systematic review of meta-analysis,” Sage Publications, https://journals.sagepub.com

Taylor, J. (June 1, 2020) “How did George Floyd Die?” American Renaissance, www.amren.com

Witte, G. and N. Miroff (June 10, 2020) “Beleaguered and besieged, police try to come to grips with nation’s anger,” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com

Wood, J. (July 2017) “The ‘gray zone’ of police work during mental health encounters: Findings from an observational study in Chicago,” National Institute of Health, www.ncbi.nim,nih.gov

Woods, B. and B. Soderberg (June 18, 2020) “Baltimore tried reforming the police. They fought every change,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Vitale, A. (June 26, 2020) “Five myths about policing,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today