Blue Line

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The swinging pendulum of police reform

February 2, 2023  By Charles W. Dahlinger

The history of criminal justice is often described as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between strict punishment and lenient rehabilitation. People of all backgrounds are coming to the realization that defunding the police is a bad idea. One must look no further than some cities who tried it, only to realize an increased emergency response time, slower investigations, less officers for service calls and, most importantly, higher crime rates. Soon, when citizens demand more from their police departments, asking “where’s the police?”, they will only have to look at what they asked for a year earlier. Defunding or dismantling the police means different things to different people, but largely, those who call for it are asking for money to be divested from the police and instead put into community initiatives like education, jobs and mental health services—which is still a noble idea for improvement and should be explored. But money is still needed to protect citizens of our cities and counties.

Recently implemented changes in policing can be helpful for both law enforcement and the communities they serve. So, when the pendulum swings back, police need to be ready with improvements born from the views and ideas of this movement. Certain ideas of police reform can aid a department in doing better and not relying on the old ways of conducting business. For example, more transparency in arrests and operations, increased de-escalation skills, community policing and improved hiring practices can only progress relations positively with communities. Police culture is changing—not as fast as many may want—but good things take time to build, as does putting all the pieces in the right places.

The reality of defunding the police is placing a greater strain on existing officers and increases the likelihood that these officers will quit or perform their jobs ineffectively, due to being burned out. Furthermore, defunding the police harms law enforcement’s ability to recruit and retain good officers. Police departments across North America already have a problem recruiting minorities, but there needs to be a stronger diverse representation in police departments in order to achieve this goal of police reform.

Matt Dolan, an attorney specializing in public safety, raised several valid questions on the topic of reform, such as:

  • Is there any correlation between demands to defund the police, low officer morale and increases in homicides?
  • Did the release of violent offenders to protect them from contracting COVID-19 lead to increased victimization in the communities to which they returned?

We can learn and improve on policing and criminal justice reform by looking at these issues, and by honestly answering these questions in time. Criminal justice reforms can still be achieved, but we need real criminal justice reform that is focused on improving public safety and making the system fairer. The law enforcement community must work with legislators to reevaluate tactics and training, including the utilization of best practice methodology for police tactics and techniques.

Good reform comes with focusing policing on more serious crimes. We can increase access to community solutions to poverty, mental illness and addiction, instead of throwing people behind bars. But to achieve this, funding needs to come from other sources, not solely from police budgets. The answer it to develop innovative resources and partnerships, and not blame police for the problems of society.

Police culture is changing—not as fast as many may want—but good things take time to build, as does putting all the pieces in the right places.

Transparency is a new buzz word thrown about in circles of society pertaining to police, yet no one wishes to discuss transparency for medical, educational or political institutions. However, this is a two-way street, and police departments are now releasing entire videos of a suspect’s behaviour during their interaction with an officer. If the public understood what their local police department was doing, there would be less uncertainty, fear, and violence breaking out across.  Departments must educate citizens on policy, procedures, or why certain actions may have been taken. Thus, informed communications from law enforcement can explain what may be perceived as unjust.

Optimism remains key to this profession. Law enforcement knows in time the pendulum will swing back, with fresh improvements required for both law enforcement and communities in the near future. The momentum may move slowly; patience is a key for police personnel and citizens alike. Some factions unrealistically demand changes immediately, and that is not going to happen when we examine the collective good for everyone.

The overwhelming majority of police in North America are good, solid and decent people who should not be stereotyped as bad cops. We know the profession is still trusted and respected by a majority of citizens. There is still appreciation for law enforcement officers that will hopefully continue into the next decade, and there is a strong understanding that society still needs the police. Make no mistake, it will take some time, but the pendulum will come back to better law and order.

Charles W. Dahlinger spent 30 years law enforcement, working for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety since 1990, and prior to that the Western Michigan University Campus Police.  Dahlinger also served in the United States Army. In addition, Dahlinger previously was the coordinator for in-service training with the Kalamazoo Law Enforcement Training Center and served as a resource person and instructor for the Kalamazoo Regional Police Academy.

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