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The Evolving State of American Policing

For a century, the annual conference of police chiefs has sounded the same complaints. Is it time to decouple the war on poverty from the war on crime?
Law enforcement officers at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago on October 27, 2015. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Law enforcement officers at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago on October 27, 2015. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

"Never at any time in the world's history has it been possible for so many people to know, so promptly, of the dereliction of one police officer in such lack of context as to cause distrust and lack of respect for all," Police Chief Frank Ramon tells his colleagues. It's the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and hundreds of law enforcement executives from around the country are gathered together to talk about recent and troubling publicity around police forces pretty much across the country—California, New York, South Carolina, Maryland. Reflecting on the crisis in policing, he continues, "the law enforcement image is dependent on the professional, competent performance of the men and women who protect and serve their community."

But Ramon, the chief of police of the Seattle Police Department, isn't talking about viral videos shot by bystanders with cell phones, or about footage from dashboard cameras. All of that is still many years away. Ramon is speaking in the year 1965.

Yet Ramon's comments could just as easily have been made in 2015—and, in fact, they sort of were. Over the course of the 2015 IACP, many speakers echoed the sentiments expressed at the conference opening by Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy (who resigned a month later when the Laquan McDonald cover-up was brought to light). "We're in a tough time for policing right now," McCarthy said. "And I believe we're at a crossroads. I don't think this climate has ever existed in the history of American policing.... Never have we been going through the scrutiny of every single action that we deal with like we do today, in the digital age."

If police have been made responsible for measures both punitive and provisional in many low-income communities, this is not entirely by accident.

So much of what police executives said at the conference—what they complained about, what they asked for, what they believed was utterly new to our present place and time—sounded remarkably familiar. I attended the conference not only as a reporter but as a historian of the IACP; I've spent dozens of hours combing through years of conference proceedings, and I heard little at this year's conference that I hadn't read before. In 2015, I heard law enforcement executives suggest—as they've done for many decades—that complaints of police brutality are still overblown, especially by the media; that police, still broadly disrespected, suffer daily indignities as they attempt to serve the public; and that this public misapprehends the danger police officers face every day and fails to see police officers as individuals.

So what happened? Why do police still seem to feel embattled and pressured in the same ways they did 50 years ago? Haven't things changed?

The IACP and the larger field of law enforcement are visibly different than they were in the 1960s (and very different from the 1890s, when a mere 51 delegates attended the first annual convention in 1893). This year, over 15,335 law enforcement executives from 83 countries attended an event with 204 sessions spread over 13 educational tracks, three "interactive sessions on global issues with significance in local communities," and a trade show of more than 700 vendors and exhibitors. Chiefs could attend education sessions on legal marijuana, social media strategies, cyber security and "the cloud," developments in rapid DNA testing, and, of course, body-worn cameras. From this perspective, the work of policing and the concerns of police executives have evolved significantly over a century. Advances in technology, psychology, and forensic science have made the act and art of policing look drastically different than it did in 1893 and 1953 and even 1983.

So does American society. At the 1965 meeting, law enforcement executives spoke from the far shore of a country-wide crime wave that was just beginning its swell. In 2015, they addressed each other in a country that is statistically safer than it has ever been: The homicide rate in 2010 was 4.8 for every 100,000 people; in 1980 it had been more than twice that—10.8. In 1965, the ink was barely dry on the Civil Rights Act; in 2015, although we still have far to go, civil rights have evolved to encompass a much larger spectrum of diversity and inclusion. America in 2015, then, presents new challenges, and new opportunities, that were unimaginable in 1965. Yet the complaints, and the script, remain the same.

What happened? Or, perhaps more precisely, what hasn't happened?


The executives who spoke at the IACP meeting were right: This has been a difficult period for American policing. Ever since the high-profile deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers in 2014, departments have been subjected to close public scrutiny—which has only intensified in the wake of further high-profile police shootings and excessive force cases in 2015. These cases have raised questions: Why do police continue to use excessive force? Why aren't such incidents captured, statistically recorded, and analyzed? Why do we not have a national mechanism for tracking police violence? Should police officers wear body cameras? What influence has the study of our police and our culture had on how officers engage with the public? And, perhaps the most radioactive question at this particular moment: How has institutionalized racial bias shaped police behavior across America? Such conversations are also amplified in the context of the debate over the efficacy and by-products of mass incarceration and the so-called war on drugs, two projects in which law enforcement is heavily invested.

And, of course, police face challenges to their legitimacy and authority in the eyes of the American public. In June, a Gallup poll revealed that Americans' confidence in the police had fallen to 52 percent, its lowest level since 1993, after the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who assaulted motorist Rodney King were acquitted by a California jury and subsequently re-tried in federal district court, where two officers were found guilty and two were acquitted. (When Frank Ramon spoke to the IACP in 1965, police approval ratings were around 70 percent—and would climb to 77 percent later in the decade.)

The wearying effects of the past year and a half were on full display this year, when 15,000 members of the IACP gathered at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center for four days in late October. Over the course of the event, many others echoed McCarthy's sentiment of the digital age bringing about a "crossroads" in policing.

Such a "crossroads" moment requires a new response. In what was described as a "break in tradition," the IACP held a panel discussion on the third day, called the Critical Issues Forum, in lieu of the usual round of keynote addresses. The panel was moderated by University of South Florida criminologist Lorie Fridell. For nearly 90 minutes, Fridell led a discussion among NAACP President Cornell Brooks, Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O'Toole, Arlington (TX) Police Department Chief Will D. Johnson, and Vanita Gupta, the Department of Justice's lead civil rights prosecutor and acting attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

American policing, they all agreed, is facing an unprecedented crisis. Though there was some disagreement over the degree to which the crisis is internal or external, O'Toole, Johnson, and Gupta all concurred that, regardless, a significant part of the solution lay outside the purview of police. Will Johnson views the problem this way: "Lack of capacity in the mental illness sector, substance abuse, job placements, all the things that drive what the health of a community is—we defunded those. We have deferred to the police to handle all those problems."

Just as O'Toole and the other panelists asserted that the challenges American police face today stem in significant part from a lack of "community-based initiatives that address ... poverty, education, health and safety in our communities," Lyndon Johnson suggested in 1967 that "the problems of poverty, the problems of disease, the problems of ignorance" were the true obstacles to solving "the real problems that affect morality."

Perhaps one key difference between America in the 1960s and America now is this: In the 1960s, when Americans called for profound change, government was much more poised to deliver it.

In some ways, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that these moments seem so similar. The 1960s were a time of profound social change that bears no small resemblance to current conditions, as America found itself engaged in a wrenching discourse about race and racism, fueled in part by mounting public protest from students and in urban communities characterized by vocal criticism of how police engaged with African-American communities.

Perhaps one key difference between America in the 1960s and America now is this: In the 1960s, when Americans called for profound change, government was much more poised to deliver it. When Johnson addressed the IACP in 1967, his administration was already well into executing his Great Society agenda, which included programs and legislation such as Job Corps, Head Start, Upward Bound, Medicare and Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Urban Mass Transportation Act. All of this sounds remarkably like what Chief Johnson is asking for. New or incipient in 1967, many—though not all—have been largely dismantled or defanged by 2015. Is it possible that the solutions to these problems might have lain within the programs of President Johnson's Great Society?

Maybe, says Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton—but it's not so simple. Will Johnson and his colleagues are right, she says, that police are now implicitly expected to "fill the void left behind by War on Poverty programs as they closed their doors and were defunded." But cops had already been pressed into social welfare provision by those very same programs: The War on Poverty's solutions were themselves part of the problem. As Hinton says, the War on Poverty programs were actually policing strategies themselves, and understanding that may be an important key to better assessing our current predicament. "The War on Poverty itself," she says, "as a means to improve police-community relations in the 1960s and to cut costs," deliberately enlisted police officers into the same social support roles that Chief Johnson and his colleagues now say they shouldn't be occupying, authorizing them to do things like run recreation programs for low-income youth.

In fact, as Hinton also argues in her forthcoming book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: Race and Federal Policy in American Cities, it's not a coincidence that Johnson launched his War on Crime a year after announcing the War on Poverty. These were two fronts in the same battle: "The War on Poverty and crime control were always deeply linked," Hinton writes. Johnson's War on Poverty was, it's well known, partly an effort to bring to fruition the anti-poverty and social welfare programs that John F. Kennedy had proposed under the banner of a "New Frontier." Less well known is the fact that a number of these programs had their origins in Kennedy's President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, and that "Head Start programs and job training programs and counseling programs and Upward Bound programs are meant as crime control measures," as Hinton says. If a direct connection between the War on Poverty and crime control still seems tenuous, consider this: When Johnson declared "War on Crime," he mobilized the resources of his anti-poverty programs, ordering the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Model Cities program to participate.

Thus, if the police have been made responsible for measures both punitive and provisional in many low-income communities, this has not been entirely by accident. What may be unusual about 2015, Hinton suggests, is that police executives are finally "identifying the root causes of crime in a way that national policymakers like [President] Johnson did, but law enforcement executives themselves weren't." That may be why many IACP members are increasingly in favor of criminal justice reform too.


There may be occasion for hope: At the close of the IACP Critical Issues Forum, O'Toole offered a reflection on the particular struggles of our present time. "Of my years in the business," she said, "this is the most difficult time. This is the most challenging time. But I think we should capture this as an opportunity. I don't think we should resist change and reform, I think we should embrace it." O'Toole and her colleagues may be right: This moment of unprecedented difficulty for police is also one of epoch-making opportunity for profound transformation, not just of law enforcement, but of our society. But if that's the case, the mistakes of the past suggest that something else has to change too. It won't be enough to re-invest in the social welfare programs we used to have.

A final, ironic note: Among the things repeated over time at the IACP conventions is the same observation I made this year—that the conversation doesn't seem to change much from one convention to the next. At the IACP's 1959 convention, for example, Bangor, Maine Chief of Police John B. O'Toole reported having gone "back to reports of the [IACP] Public Relations Committee for the past 25 or 30 years," and found that "we are saying the same things today as we said and did 25 years ago."

The leaders of this year's IACP might well be be ready, even eager to move on. Only if policymakers find ways to create a robust social safety net without also making the police its agents, however, will the conversation—at the IACP and in the United States—move forward.