Public outrage over perceived police misconduct has led to violence again, after a grand jury on Monday chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Various law enforcement agencies responded to control protests and stem rioting, including local police, county and federal forces. Buildings and police cars were set ablaze, amid tear gas, looting and vandalism in parts of the city.
While the response in Ferguson has been extreme, calmer demonstrations against police brutality and misconduct have been occurring across the country. Protesters’ slogans and the media’s obsessive coverage largely have focused on demands to punish individual officers and police departments. But the real problem with law enforcement is far more systemic. Issues of unprofessional and inefficient policing are rooted in our decentralized approach to policing, allowing some local departments to get away with subpar officer training, shoddy practices and corruption. This fossilized and inefficient system needs to be thrown out. Instead, policing should be managed at the state level, which would provide for higher-quality law enforcement and more oversight.
Law enforcement in the United States is disturbingly fragmented. The system evolved in an ad hoc manner over time, with a complex jumble of municipal, county, state and federal police. While local agencies constitute the bulk of law enforcement, even those forces are broken down into housing, transit, airport, school and park police agencies. That complex network leads to overlapping boundaries and authorities, creating confusion and redundancies.
In total, there are almost 18,000 police agencies in the United States, employing about 765,246 sworn officers. Half of police departments employ fewer than 10 officers, and three-quarters serve areas with fewer than 10,000 people, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Jurisdictions that can’t afford officers must contract with county police or neighboring agencies, which can cloud accountability and breed resentment in the community.
This fragmentation of policing is ineffective and inefficient. For one, the training and policies that dictate officer behavior vary widely from town to town. When an uncooperative driver refuses to provide his license to a cop, officers in one jurisdiction might respond with verbal judo, but in the neighboring town, it could result in arrest or use of force. Differences in policies and training mean that some cops can use pepper spray and Tasers on passive resisters, while other departments permit it only when a person is physically resisting an officer. With no central standard of conduct, there is plenty of room for incompetent policing.
The patchwork structure of our law enforcement system leaves some agencies inexperienced and ill-prepared to respond to certain situations. The Ferguson Police Department’s militaristic response to public protests in August was a prime example. In Los Angeles, police would not have deployed armored trucks with machine guns pointing toward the protesters — not because the Los Angeles police don’t have the equipment, but because experience has taught the department that a militaristic response is counterproductive and alienates the community. Because smaller agencies rarely face events like large-scale disasters, riots and major violent crimes, they can be caught off guard when they do occur.
There are numerous other flaws with decentralized law enforcement. The current model hinders coordination and information sharing between law enforcement agencies, and creates expensive redundancies in resources. It also allows for crime displacement, where suppression of crime in one jurisdiction simply moves criminals into neighboring areas.
The old, disconnected approach to law enforcement doesn’t work. To improve the professionalism and training of our police force, we should get rid of local departments and consolidate them into statewide agencies. The foundation for such a system already exists in state highway patrols and state troopers. By moving all police forces into statewide organizations, we would create a much more efficient system of policing that allows for consistent officer training, uniform standards of operation, and wider application of best policing practices. And by cutting back on system redundancies, these improvements would come at a lower cost to taxpayers.
Centralizing law enforcement also will improve oversight and reduce corruption. In the current system, corrupt cops and police chiefs often enjoy long tenures, sheltered in autonomous local departments. A statewide system offers more accountability. While concerns about misconduct or corruption are being investigated, accused officers — or entire divisions — could be moved to another part of the state to ease tensions in the local community and reduce opportunities for biased treatment in their home jurisdictions.
A state-level approach to law enforcement also would allow for faster and more coordinated responses to terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies. Currently, there’s often a chaotic initial response to these kinds of events, with multiple law enforcement agencies converging on the scene, creating confusion over who is in charge and leaving gaps in communication. Consolidation of police also would ensure that all communities in a state receive the same level of professional service and equal access to needed resources and equipment when circumstances demand them.
To be sure, there is resistance to the idea of centralizing police. Critics believe that consolidation threatens local governance and would reduce law enforcement’s responsiveness to the unique needs of each community. But as Ferguson showed, local representation does not necessarily make an agency more responsive to or more perceptive of a neighborhood’s needs. And a statewide policing model wouldn’t prevent officers from creating local connections. The state could form local units that reflect each community’s diversity. Those local units should be evaluated based on the satisfaction of the communities they serve instead of the misguided approach of judging police solely on crime reduction, which fails to measure qualitative police work. Work evaluations and promotions should always be pegged in part to the level of community support officers receive.
Violent demonstrations in Ferguson have revealed the critical breakdown of trust between the public and law enforcement. This calls for a major reform of our policing system. To rebuild public trust, we must make the system more transparent and accountable to the people. That means dismantling the current law enforcement structure that allows for substandard police training, inefficient operations and too many opportunities for corruption. All officers should be held to uniform standards for use of force, and policing in all communities should reflect universal best practices. By consolidating policing responsibilities in statewide agencies, we can prevent the next Ferguson.
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