Police Reform and Systems Design in 5 Clear Points

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has said that police culture has long been detached from the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve and that it needs to be transformed. Police racism and abuse of power are well documented, but why have so many attempts at reform failed? At one obvious level if the culture in an organization is still unchanged, what should we expect? But yet many of the tactics that have been tried address only symptoms and are often subverted as changing a policy does not change culture.

Charles P. Wilson, Chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, has even stated, “The [police] system was designed to keep poor people under control” reflecting how even today the disturbing roots of policing in America (slave patrols in the south, protecting the wealthy, warrior vs. guardian culture) retain their influence.

That word, system, is one that designers know well. It means rather than being able to address a problem as a singular thing, there are instead multiple forces that interact, often in ways that are more complex than they seem. Just because a problem is easy to spot, doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix. Systems theory is its own subject, as are police history and police reform, but I haven’t seen them brought together in a simple way that most people can grasp.

Shaila Dewan, who covers criminal justice for The NY Times, explored this in her rundown on The Daily podcast of 5 of the systemic reasons (there are more) for why the police stay protected even when they violate our trust. She explained:

“Our systems are set up to protect police officers from repercussions… its even been bitterly complained about by police chiefs coming in wanting to change their departments… Minneapolis had two police chiefs who were heralded as reformers. The current chief sued the department for racist hiring practices before he became chief… but he may be forced to rehire [the four officers involved in the George floyd killing] “

This view helps explain the Gordian Knot of how police, unions and other organizations, resist change and protect each other. It’s far from complete, but it offers an introduction into why this has been a hard problem to solve.

Dewan’s five systems are listed here – I’ve modified them slightly and added my own notes (you can hear her explain them on the podcast):

  1. The police police the police. It’s commonly known that most departments have Internal Affairs divisions that investigate police issues (often romanticized in movies), but we forget that they often report into the same larger organization that ultimately manages the people being investigated and who have incentive to bury or minimize bad news about their department. Internal affairs typically only investigates and makes recommendations, via methods that are often kept from the public. They are usually former police officers who are part of the same culture and community as those they are investigating. As citizens we call the police as a (hopefully) objective actor but the police are not policed in the same way. Police records about individual officers, complaints and discipline history, are often hard to obtain and provide limited information to the public.
  2. Courts and arbitration protect police officers. Public employees can appeal firings or suspensions to an independent group or mediator outside of the police department. Through these appeals police are often given lighter sentences or are reinstated, since they often base judgements on past precedent of leniency (which self-reinforces light penalties). The Twin Cities Pioneer Press analysis showed fired cops were reinstated 46% of the time.
  3. Civilian review boards rarely have power. Review boards are often created in response to police brutality, but they are often toothless, relying on journalists and the media to apply pressure. They are granted meetings with police leaders to discuss issues or review cases but not much more. Often few complaints brought to these boards result in any action.
  4. Police unions are very powerful. Unions represent the needs of officers, not the needs of the police department or society. They are well funded compared to other unions (given the political nature of policing) giving them significant negotiating power with city governments. A primary duty of unions is to protect police jobs. “They are often the biggest opponent of reform minded chiefs. Minneapolis is a textbook example of this.” Minneapolis Police Union President Bob Krul, whose own words on violence are disturbing, has 29 complaints against him as an officer. He has stated he will get the jobs back for the officers involved in the George Floyd killing.
  5. Reasonable Fear laws reduce sentences. Prosecutors and juries, who depending on their ethnicity and neighborhood have had far different experiences with the police, are often willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt in use of force since they are viewed as public servants, taking risks for the greater good. The concept of reasonable fear laws is that officers have dangerous jobs with split second decisions: If an officer can make the argument that a reasonable officer would have been afraid for their life in that situation, than a jury or prosecutor is not supposed to convict or judge harshly.

In systems theory stasis is the tendency for systems to be resilient to change. Each part of a functioning (in the sense it achieves outcomes the people in it desire) system will naturally adapt to keep the system stable and even compensate for changes, neutralizing them.

This helps explain the pattern of:

  1. Something terrible happens
  2. Society is outraged
  3. Change is demanded
  4. A new policy is created (or a police chief who believes in reform is hired)
  5. And… nothing changes

Dewan offers that “.. even an institution that wants to change itself can’t overcome it’s architecture.” There are often just too many powerful or slow moving forces that work against change happening. We don’t often talk about the value of institutions, but they are meant to provide value across generations. When designed and maintained well, the slow moving nature of an institution is an asset, not a liability. It’s a different scale of investment and return that many have forgotten.

Fixing a broken system usually requires:

  • Studying similar systems and why change failed or succeeded
  • Integrating different kinds of expertise
  • Considering both symptoms and causes
  • Attacking the problem from multiple directions
  • Growing and nurturing a new culture with it’s own stasis/resilience
  • Understanding feedback loops & how parts of the system influence each other often in complex ways
  • Committing to the long term, possibly over generations, as change may require more than a single term for mayors, politicians or anyone involved, just to even successfully manage out the defenders of the status quo.

References / Related:

5 Responses to “Police Reform and Systems Design in 5 Clear Points”

  1. c andrew

    Hi Scott,

    Within reform point #3 is one of the primary issues at stake. Police are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hence, they are also ‘civilians’. And we should not acquiesce in police tendency to refer to citizens, often pejoratively, as ‘civilians’, let alone endorse that mindset by naming police overview groups as ‘Civilian’ review boards. Citizen Review Boards or even Police Oversight Committees would be better alternatives.

    I realize that colloquially, various professional groups refer to out-groups as ‘civilians; Doctors, EMTs, etc. But with police, this is not a harmless or ironic quirk. The Founders went to great pains to make the military power subject to the civil power. It is an abrogation of that effort to allow the primary mechanism of civil power to arrogate to itself the cachet of the military mindset. I would even go so far as to remove rank designations that mimic the military. Robert Peel, who established the British Constabulary, was sound in his reasoning as to why militaryesque rank designations were a very bad idea.

    Norman Schwarzkopf famously said that the role of the military was to “Kill people and break things.” This is not the mindset that one wants in one’s civil police. And it goes a long way toward explaining why, in current policing, there is a tolerance within police culture for precisely the kinds of behavior that is so deleterious to civil order.

    I know this is some serious nit-picking. I like her list overall. And I’m of the opinion that much of what is wrong with the justice system overall could be fixed by removing immunity, in all it’s aspects, from the State participants in the process. Not just cops, but prosecutors and judges as well, should be subject to civil and criminal penalties for malfeasance.

    c andrew

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for this thoughtful note. On the podcast she makes a note about how “civilian review board” is a misnomer since the police are citizens too.

      The militarization of police in terms of equipment I’ve known about before but never considered how their ranking/designations contribute to a military culture. Thanks for that perspective.

  2. Dave Cortright

    I thought these were insightful:



    “The worst part is this [police violence against blacks] is nothing new, it’s just filmed. While the rest of the developed world sees free firearms access as a problem, the US sees it as a solution… And so the tinder accumulates. Racism, inequality, disadvantage, third-world health care systems, convulsive economic growth. More guns won’t help. Every one of these is a failure of US politics, often a result of over-politicization.
    Donald Trump is a beneficiary of American anger and frustration. A critical mass of angry Americans gave up on the conventional political system to solve their problems and turned to a celebrity demagogue out of frustration. Trump was an alternative but not a solution. Populism is a political style that offers unworkably simple solutions to complex problems. So the problems still won’t be solved.”

      1. Denis Pol

        This is very interesting information. Thanks you. I’ll take note


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