The question is on everyone’s minds as America convulses over the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests over police violence: How do we fix this? Here, Daniel Nagin, widely honored criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, and Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, join with Tarrick McGuire of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing to suggest realistic paths to better policing.

By Daniel Nagin, Cynthia Lum and Tarrick McGuire

The death of George Floyd has left a deep wound on our nation’s collective conscience. It has shattered the foundation of public support for American policing and calls us to critically examine the institutional systems of policing itself. To heal the injury and repair public trust in the police requires far more than just more training in implicit bias and de-escalation.

Fundamental change in the institutional structure of police organizations is required: Frail systems of accountability and outdated policies that allow police officers to physically harm citizens with impunity must be overhauled; new systems of incentives, monitoring, and measurement that put building community trust at the forefront of policing goals must be installed; radical changes in how training is carried out must be implemented; and re-engineered police deployment systems that prioritize prevention and proactive problem-solving over arrest and reactivity must be implemented.

Organizational systems of accountability and outdated laws and policies must be reexamined and overhauled. This includes updating internal investigation procedures and renegotiating labor contracts that weaken police leadership’s authority in addressing poor officer behavior that is detrimental to the police department and community.

Strict and transparent responsibility for accountability must be strongly integrated for every link in the chain of command. In a police department where unconstitutional patterns and practices have been established, federal- or state-led reforms can be a significant jump-start to these fundamental adjustments, but this type of re-engineering requires local agencies and their governments to do the hard work required to make this happen.

Some of the details of an action plan were already laid out in President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force recommendations. Strengthening the accountability infrastructure, however, also requires change at the individual-officer level, such as transforming first-line supervision to reflect a more positive and proactive mentoring, monitoring, and coaching approach of front-line officers.

Strengthening the accountability infrastructure of policing also includes developing tangible incentives systems that monitor, measure, and reward officers who build community trust. We do not mean checking a box when an officer attends a community meeting or goes through training. We mean promoting and advancing officers who: regularly engage in problem-solving activities with community members to resolve local challenges; consistently have the hard conversations with people on their beats to discuss their actions and consequences; tirelessly try to co-produce safety with citizens; and show leadership by intervening when it is their moral and ethical duty to do so. Such incentive systems require the building of monitoring systems that accurately measure community levels of trust and confidence with specific police officers, as well as overall community reactions to actions of the police in their communities.

Police train constantly, but training that prepares officers for diverse response options to dynamic situations is greatly needed. Such innovations require training that actively and directly involves community members that are most likely to interact with the police, or engaging trainees in working on current agency challenges and priorities, so they better see the organizational infrastructure and the problems that the agency faces.

Training should also strongly reflect the police departments mission and vision to the community. Incorporating emotional intelligence and decision-making to include incident management and awareness during stressful events can reduce police misconduct and increase ethical decision making.

Finally, American police deployment strategies rest on the mistaken premise that arrest is the core tool for creating public safety and the central function of the police. Decades of research indicate that safety and the reduction of community harm is best created through prevention, not arrest, which requires a multi-disciplinary approach from all segments of the community.

Many police leaders want to heal the deep ethical problems and moral injuries that exist in policing and their communities. But without re-engineering the core infrastructure of American policing itself, we will just be painting over a foundation already corroded beyond repair.