Casting police reform as a “national security” issue risks perpetuating the public safety crisis

Horrified by the tragic death of George Floyd, Americans showed widespread agreement about the need for serious police reform.  But how should it proceed?  How can we avoid having the best of intentions go awry as has happened in the past?  Part of the answer may be to cast the effort in the right terms as that can help to ensure the right people are recruited and retained for policing.

Unlike other police critics, Angelic Young offers some concrete ideas and specific recommendations in her essay, “Reforming police recruitment and training is a national security imperative.”  She leans on her extensive experience of working with law enforcement and, while I don’t agree with every particular, she has certainly penned a good starting point for a vitally important dialogue.

However, she does classify law enforcement reform in national security terms, something I believe is counterproductive.  I understand wanting to endow such a worthy project with the cache of “national security” to help mobilize public attention and support; but in this instance I fear doing so risks perpetuating issues deserving of searching re-examination if a solution to the crisis is to be found.

Full disclosure: I’ve long been concerned about the implications of characterizing every serious national dilemma as necessarily being a “national security” matter.  As I’ve said elsewhere:

“The problem is that if you denominate something as a ‘national security’ threat, it’s naturally assumed that it’s to be addressed (if not solved) primarily by the defense establishment (to include specifically the military).  A militarized approach to every issue is a bad idea, plain and simple… More generally, do we really want the military as the nation’s all-purpose problem-solver for everything that has serious implications for our society?” 

It is true that 58% of Americans “support the deployment of the military to aid police responding to protests,” but we shouldn’t take that to mean they would also support transforming a public safety crisis into a “national security imperative” and all that could carry with it.

Do we want police with a militarized, “warrior mentality”?

Ms. Young doesn’t advocate militarizing the police, but branding the current law enforcement situation as being a national security “imperative” too readily invites, among other things, a militarized mindset that experts warn is unlikely to produce the solutions we need.  In an extremely insightful essay, Professor Tom Nolan details the origin and consequences of the militarized approach to policing that we see today.  He observes:

The militarization of police departments has been a feature of U.S. domestic law enforcement since the 9/11 attacks.  What is clear from the latest round of protest and response, is that despite efforts to promote de-escalation as a policy, police culture appears to be stuck in an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”

An “us vs. them” mentality obviously is not what will help policing today. Unfortunately, describing police recruiting as a “national security” imperative could understandably attract people who conceive of policing in those terms, and that carries real perils.

In an era when “national security” has been dominated by more than two decades of overseas combat against ruthless foes, it’s just too easy to translate a conceptualization of policing put in “national security” terms into something that calls upon officers to defend against ‘enemies’ of the state.  That’s just not the way cops ought to think of themselves.

At a Brookings event last fall about “Improving police culture in America,” Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute, cautioned:

“[T]hat…the presence of a ‘warrior mentality’ imbued in police training and recruitment…attracts a subset of individuals who may not always be the best fit to deal with the social work issues prevalent on the front lines of policing.” 

Recruiting and retaining officers with the right mentality is critical in an era of shrinking police forces

While I disagree with the utility of Ms. Young’s “national security” characterization, I do applaud a point she makes (that too many others are missing) when she says that “most officers are brave, compassionate, and caring people.”  This is of no small import given the existing shortage of police.

Last February–before COVID-19 exploded and well before the Floyd crisis–the City Journal warned that “in many cities, [police] forces are shrinking—and that could spell trouble for public safety.” It said “86 percent of police chiefs nationwide reported a shortage of sworn officers, with nearly half stating that the shortage had worsened over the past five years.”  That’s the troubling environment in which reform must take place.

Yet the process cannot wait.  Virtually everyone agrees that policing in America requires a re-evaluation and renewal now. Even President Trump said:

“[W]e have to get [to] the police departments, everybody has to do better, has to do better. This is a long-term problem. This didn’t happen today.”

As Ms. Young makes clear, part of the answer has to do with police recruiting.  Although its release was crowded out of the news by the pandemic, the Congressionally-mandated National Commission on Military, National and Public Service issued its final report, “Inspired to Serve” in March. It’s full of great ideas about how to stimulate public service in this country, and many of them could be applied to police recruitment.

In the meanwhile, it’s important to recognize – as Ms. Young also does – that most of the nation’s 800,000 sworn police officers want to do their extremely difficult job the right way.

Policing is rated as one of the most stressful jobs in America, and we ought not forget that over “89 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2019,” including 48 as a result of criminal acts.  Another 26 have already been killed this year by gunfire or vehicular assault.

“Doing an impossible job”

Today New York governor Andrew Cuomo observed that there “were a number of police officers who were hurt” in the recent disorders.  He said he had “no tolerance for violence against a police officer” and pointed out:

“One police officer was stabbed in the neck. Two police officers had gunshot wounds, I believe both to their hands. That is intolerable. The police are doing an impossible job. They’re trying to deal with the protesters, they’re trying to stop looting, and, they’re trying to keep themselves safe because the police want to go home to their families.”

We shouldn’t forget that police officers don’t have to continue to try to do “an impossible job” – they can just quit.  If the ones who leave are the ones we most need to stay, that should sober all of us.

After Hurricane Katrina
Sept. 4, 2005

It can happen.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “at least 200 New Orleans police officers ha[d] walked away from their jobs.”  While we must vigorously prosecute rogue cops, we need to be careful to focus on the alleged wrongdoers, not the overwhelming majority of good cops.  We shouldn’t be stereotyping anyone – police officers included.

The perils of indiscriminate disparagement

Discipline and discernment are needed in the rhetoric about the police. Of course, improper conduct and bias must be called out, but indiscriminate disparagement will drive away those America needs to serve.  As the National Commission pointed out:

“Public officials and civic leaders should also recognize the work of public servants as vital to the security and well-being of the Nation and avoid negative and disparaging comments that undermine morale among the current public-sector workforce and discourage Americans from pursuing public service careers.”

Let me be crystal clear: none of this is to suggest that reforms aren’t needed, but rather simply to point out that all the reforms and retraining in the world won’t work if the most suitable people aren’t willing to join this demanding profession, or the best and brightest already in the ranks choose not to continue to serve.

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