News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Police reform takes leadership and time

“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” -

— H. L. Mencken, 1917

I’ve been thinking about this quote recently because it seems especially relevant today, more than a century later. My professional experience includes 30 years of police work, both in the military and as an officer, detective, and supervisor in Los Angeles Police. The human problem that concerns us all is how best to rethink and reform policing in our communities.

Two questions must be addressed: What can and should the public reasonably expect from law enforcement? Given the current, contentious debate about policing, how can reform best be done?

The primary mission and top priority of law enforcement is to keep the peace and to provide protection from injury or death while upholding civil rights and the law.

So, what should the public expect from good officers? Honesty, constancy, practical knowledge, respect, neutrality, compassion, and stamina, all while exhibiting a command presence and providing good role models for their fellow citizens — and of course, to magically appear when needed. Two bonus characteristics: a sense of proportion and an inherent sense of right and wrong. An officer is motivated by (and is paid to have) an overt commitment to law and to public service, to exhibit physical and moral courage in difficult circumstances, and to endure potentially arduous working conditions.

Police act as arbiters much more often than they do in stereotypical cops and robbers scenarios. Problem-solving skills are expected and should be demanded. Law enforcement officers wield two solemn powers: the power to arrest and trigger a prosecution, and to take a life without due process of law (albeit in extreme circumstances). If officer candidates or serving officers are unable or unwilling to fulfill these expectations, they should not be trained, hired, or retained. The public is absolutely right to expect this from those who pledge to protect and serve.

But too often these expectations are not met. Several well-known reform solutions — more training, more money, a few high-profile firings after the fact —seem neat and plausible. Even some ideas of “defunding the police” can seem, to a few, neat and plausible. But, as Mencken points out, that does not mean they are right.

Let’s look at what reform actually entails. Law enforcement is an essential component of local government, and as such, wields power and demands funding priority. These hierarchical organizations typically exhibit internal solidarity and value the shared experience peculiar to police work. Selling major change to the rank and file, never mind the command staff, can be daunting. It’s roughly analogous to changing religion.

Additionally, finding collaborative solutions to long-festering problems is especially challenging when those problems explode. The propensity to throw out the baby with the bath water is a dangerous solution that serves no one.

But does that mean that reform is impossible? It does not. The harder the problem, the greater the value of the solution. Internal change in response to external problems can help: new technologies, changes in the law, and better policies and procedures.

However, leadership is key. Successful leaders will have several traits: experience backed by a strong intellect; moral certitude and honesty; creative thinking and problem-solving abilities; political skills and proven consensus-building attributes; iron willpower, and an elephant hide. Major stakeholders must be included in the process.

Reform in a police agency requires complicated, expensive training and re-training. Resources, usually money, must be identified. And then there is luck and time. Luck is preparation that meets opportunity. Change — real change — will take time. Americans are famous for perseverance, not so for patience. We must insist on leadership that will provide a model for the changes that are needed.

In the end, we have no choice but to pursue a police reform solution that is not only neat and plausible but, most important, right.


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