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Problems With Police Sanctions

Recent research about ways to deal with police misconduct, and some of its unintended consequences.
(Photo: photokup/Shutterstock)

(Photo: photokup/Shutterstock)

“Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments, and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve,” said Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month. At the time, he wasn’t speaking about the deaths of Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice. Holder was speaking at the close of a long investigation into possible patterns of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by the Cleveland Division of Police—including the excessive use of firearms, chemical spray, and Tasers.

The Justice Department had launched the investigation in March 2013, and it wrapped up a few weeks ago, with the DoJ declaring that there were in fact problems, and that remedial action was necessary. “There are real, practical and concrete measures that can be taken to ensure not only that police services are delivered in a constitutional manner, but that promote public safety, officer safety, confidence and collaboration, transparency, and legitimacy,” Holder said.

Police departments are just like any other workplaces, and it’s important for all employees to have a clear understanding of the rules and to feel "a sense of fairness" in the punishments when those rules are broken.

But what would those measures be? The deaths of Garner, Brown, Rice, and other unarmed people by police officers have sparked a national outcry this year for greater police accountability—but there’s no consensus about what that reform should look like. Discussion has involved individual officer resignations, increased investment in body cameras, and how to both collect better data about potential police misconduct and make that information public. There has been stern talk of better training, and then, after two NYPD officers were murdered, that stern talk inevitably quieted down.

As the lengthy Justice Department review of Cleveland’s department shows, though, officials and officers are often struggling behind the scenes to improve police-public relations, and to make sure cops are doing the right thing—even in the absence of high-profile cases like those. But how? In reviewing the latest research about the best (and worst) ways to try to prevent and punish police misconduct, the prescription seems elusive.

For one thing, proposed reform and regulation that comes from outside the department seems less effective than, say, civil litigators or Justice Department officials would probably like to think. Joshua Chanin from the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University examined the “sustainability” of reform for a recent article for Police Quarterly. He looked at citizen complaints, civil cases, and incidence reports in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, and then the solutions, settlements, or court-mandated changes that were proposed there in response. Chanin found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “resultant organizational changes are not self-sustaining; implementation does not in and of itself guarantee meaningful, institutionalized change. In fact, the assumption that it does may undermine efforts to promote lasting reform.”

So, for instance, when the Justice Department or some other agency undertakes a five-year period of strict oversight, there will tend to be compliance with the new rules for those five years; but then, as soon as the time is up, that “abrupt stoppage signals to the department that sufficient change has been made and that no future attention to the reform is necessary.” And then, after that brief period of tenuous reform, the old problems return. Chanin recommends a longer-term, but less strict and more periodic, pattern of oversight. These findings imply that true, long-lasting, institutional change really must come from within, and that it may take a long time to stick.

One of those tools for reform, presumably, is the disciplining of individual officers who have broken the department’s rules. A 2012 article, also in Police Quarterly, by Jon Shane of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argued that, whatever disciplinary sanctions or sentences are levied against police officers, they absolutely must be consistent and logical. (These sanctions could be as simple as verbal warnings, or as harsh as docked vacation days, suspension without pay, transfers, or firing.)

Police departments are just like any other workplaces, Shane explained, and it’s important for all employees to have a clear understanding of the rules and to feel “a sense of fairness” in the punishments when those rules are broken. To encourage that, he encourages a consistent and clear “disciplinary matrix” across all agencies. He writes:

Some police agencies may rely on informal sentencing practices that are laden with unfettered discretion. The result is disparity in punishment for similarly situated officers, which may result in antagonistic relationships between labor and management and lower performance and increased stress from officers.

And if police unions and arbitrators have to get involved, Shane adds, that will only exacerbate the antagonism on all sides.

Yet another study, out now in the journal Crime & Delinquency, takes this same line of argument a bit further. Criminal justice researchers Christopher Harris and Robert Worden looked at the effect of sanctions in police departments on the likelihood that individual officers would incur more or less civilian complaints after being punished for misconduct. “Police disciplinary systems are predicated on the notion of deterrence,” of course. Unfortunately, Harris and Worden show, they do not necessarily have the intended effect.

"How officers are treated in this process is at least as important as the outcomes that are reached."

In the long-term data of the police department they studied, it appears that the officers who received the most severe punishments were more likely to be accused of misconduct later, and to do so sooner. This could be because the punishments simply weren’t working, and the bad apples kept being bad, but then again, the authors only looked at officers who had complaints filed against them—some of whom were punished, and the others of whom were not. Or, it could be that officers who get in trouble tend to be under greater scrutiny from their superiors in the following weeks and months. But, most troublingly, it could also be that the punishment actually damages the officers’ attitudes toward their jobs—that “the perceived injustice of the disciplinary system may actually promote officer deviance.”

Whatever the reason for this correlation, the authors argue, it seems clear that “how officers are treated in this process is at least as important as the outcomes that are reached.”