The counter-reaction to “defund the police” movements has been distressingly predictable: the assumption is that, without police, current policing practices would stop functioning and therefore it’s a bad idea. Basically, it’s a declaration that the status quo is the only way that can ever possibly work, and it ignores the fact that there was a time where civilizations did exist without policing as it is done, today.
While the police and their supporters continue to promote practices that would be immediately familiar in the 17th century, we are surrounded by “internet age” innovations (not all of which are great) including technologies that can be used to produce “flash mobs” and magically summon cars to take people who can afford it from place to place in solitude and relative comfort. What if the current structure of policing was blown apart and reconstructed for the internet, GPS, high surveillance age? Because of the way we currently do policing, we’re trapped in this circular reasoning that “it works” (for some) so “don’t break it.” But current events have showed that it doesn’t work, is heinously expensive, rewards the wrong parts of the local economy, and – oh, yeah – it’s racist and murderous.
Most jurisdictions in the US spend up to 1/2 of their budget on policing. By any terms, that’s ridiculous. For one thing, it conceals the underlying tradeoffs that are being made by society, for example: mental hospitals were largely shut down under Reagan in the 80’s, and police took over as first responders for people who are having mental problems or drug problems. That’s a recipe for disaster, but the US cheerfully inflicted it on itself, and patted itself on the back for “getting tough on crime.” The underlying issue is a matter of race and class consciousness and how tax dollars are allocated. I believe that it’s largely meaningless to talk about police reform without taking the whole problem in a broader context of social services and how they are provided. I will note: social services are something I assume a government is supposed to provide; I agree with Rousseau that that’s what government is and does unless it’s a failed and illegitimate state. When you look at today’s militarized mall ninjas, I think it’s hard not to see the US as a failed state and its legitimacy is in doubt when up-armed cops deliver beatdowns to peaceful protesters.
I obviously have not had time to think through a complete proposal but I thought I’d bounce a few ideas off of you.
First and foremost, technology does change things. Other than new guns, cars, and criminal records databases, modern police are straight out of the 18th century, but they have cool sunglasses. What are some of the changes that we can exploit to build new police systems?
- Ubiquitous telecommunications are available; police and citizens can communicate using standardized protocols in real-time. The old “standardized protocol” was, basically, shouting for help – nowadays carried over voice to 911.
- Mobility is much better; police and citizens can move around fairly quickly even in crowded urban areas.
- Identity is persistent; it is no longer strictly necessary to catch someone in the act before they vanish into a crowd. Why not tag them, record them, and pick them up later if it’s necessary? It is weird to me that policing is still built around a model of “hot pursuit” to “catch someone in the act” but you can drive past a toll booth on a highway and get a bill in the mail a month later. There are entire categories of crimes that can be handled “offline” and do not need to be dealt with in real-time.
- You can’t outrun a radio.
- Criminology statistics indicate that what old school detectives know: it’s usually the husband that did it, or a boyfriend, or someone the victim knew. If that doesn’t hold, then follow the money. This is not always true but it’s true often enough to make a big difference. Let me note something: this completely guts the “broken windows” theory of policing promoted by James Q. Wilson and Malcolm Gladwell – if someone jumps the turnstile at the subway to avoid paying a fare it does not mean that they are going to turn into a hardened criminal and start dealing drugs but it probably means they can’t afford the subway fare.
- Most police/civilian encounters are not violent. The implication of that is that police do not need to be carrying military weapons. Combine that with increased mobility and “you can’t outrun a radio” and it’s reasonable to question whether police need to be armed at all.
- The “war on drugs” is an example of a failed social policy, like the Volstead Act, which was used to create a permanent under-class for purposes of social control. Its effect on crime was to increase it and raise the stakes to the point where violence was profitable. Then, you need armed G-men to deal with the violent profiteers, which means the profiteers obtain machine guns. This pattern has played itself out enough that we ought to be smarter by now.
- Cameras are everywhere. The relationship between police and cameras has lately become unpleasant for the police; they keep getting caught on camera doing nasty things. Do, by all means, blame the camera. Joking aside, police frequently circumvent “cop cams” which amounts to shredding evidence and ought to be treated as evidence of ill intent.
Let’s look at that last point: right now, it’s probably no longer worth worrying about cop cams. The cops had their chance with that one, and blew it – preferring to manipulate the evidence or refusing to carry them. Now, every civilian who sees a cop should be recording everything they do and uploading it to the internet. There are scads of CCTV surveillance cameras, too, such as the ones in Baltimore that failed during the crucial 60 seconds when Baltimore police broke Freddie Gray’s neck – those ought to be under civilian control not under control of the city.
Take all the points above and knead them into a smooth, elastic dough, and you get a new view of policing that looks like:
- Community ‘agents’ who are local residents that are empowered to engage with people in a particular neighborhood. They don’t carry a gun, but they carry a badge and a radio. They are trained in de-confliction, first aid, recognition of drug overdoses, psychological problems, and alcohol overdose. They are trained to explain consent to drunken fratboys, to tell someone who is shoplifting “put that back!” and to vector members of a community in need, where and how to get assistance. The community agent’s main mottos are: “it’s all on camera”, “you can take this to a higher authority if you want to, and here is the procedure”, “you can’t outrun a radio”, and “I can call for help if you’d prefer.”
- CCTV cameras produced in the future need a protocol whereby a blanket request can be made to sequester camera data from within a geofence. Privately or local government-operated CCTVs must support this open evidence-collection standard. There would similarly be a feature in smart phones that geofences an area so that a person who possibly recorded a crime would be notified that they may have important information on their phone and please don’t delete it. This would be a “push” not a “pull” – i.e.: the municipality would not get a list of potential witnesses to intimidate, but potential witnesses might get a blanket notice that they may be in possession of important data. David Brin, the science fiction novelist, wrote a bit about a future in which an ageing population turns their selves into mobile “crime cams” – this is not quite the same thing, but close. The idea is that targeted surveillance combined with “you can’t outrun a radio” means “hot pursuit” would seldom be necessary.
- Since a tremendous amount of crime is traffic offenses (and this is legitimate: drunk driving is a problem) traffic offenses would be mostly handled asynchronously without a mechanism for chasing down offenders in real time. How would this work? You see someone weaving around the road, and you log a call through the policing app, which goes to a local call center where a dispatcher either calls for someone to follow that vehicle at a safe, leisurely pace, or in some cases the perpetrator gets a ticket and a fine in the mail. Note: this is already in place in a way in some jurisdictions; it’s just set up to farm revenue. Here’s the crazy piece of all this: it appears that people’s cost/benefit analysis gets severely adjusted if they feel that they will get caught and will have to deal with the consequences of their actions. That’s actually one of the ideas behind the “broken windows” model of policing! If you know you’re not likely to get away with something, you won’t do it unless you’re rich and powerful enough to exempt yourself.
- The war on drugs: same thing. Handle it asynchronously and do not police it in a way that encourages violence. Mostly, de-criminalize non-violent offenses top to bottom. There should be three categories of crimes: minor offenses justifying a fine or community service, asynchronous offenses that can be handled in the fullness of time, emergencies.
- Emergencies will still occur. Community agents would be able to call for backup if someone gets violent or is being dangerous and cannot be handled. Mostly, a community agent’s job in an emergency would be first response (first aid, diagnosis, etc) but if someone gets threatening, they’d break contact and call for help of the appropriate type. That doesn’t mean the SWAT team shows up, or an A-10 flies in with cluster munitions, it means a gradually escalating response where more people begin showing up to help deal with the emergency. So, if some drunk threatens to punch a community agent, the community agent would hit a backup call that would flag in more local community agents and, if the situation continues to escalate then a patrol car with a few uniformed officers with a more structured response. I still don’t mean that cops come boiling in in squad cars with sirens, but there might be a car with flashing lights and a couple guys in uniforms and the whole thing would be on camera. The guys in uniforms wouldn’t be carrying military weapons but they might have a stick and a few years of training in aikido. By the way, if you are in Japan and are talking to a cop and they look kind of tough and burly, it is a fair bet that you’re talking to one of the majority of Japanese cops who are members of their police department’s kendo team, or an aikido instructor. No shit. It is a matter of pride (for them) that the Japanese police are usually the top kendo players in the country, and they are not swaggering masses of badass like American cops, but if you throw a punch at a kendo godan (5th degree black belt) it probably won’t land where you think it will. I have sparred with 3rd degree black belts in aikido and usually attacking one of those guys means you’re going to wind up tired out while you get a lecture about the non-utility of sloppy violence.
- This should all be statistics-driven. If there is a jurisdiction where there are drunken brawls at bars, that should appear in the statistics and maybe that district will have more responders in uniform, ready to help the community agents defuse drunken brawls. My prediction is that the statistics on most jurisdictions will form a pyramid:
- “Crisis management” may mean calling on some tactical team that exists, somewhere. Or, it may mean calling on someone with a back-hoe to try to deal with some flooding. I do believe it’s unavoidable that police may need to call in people with guns, sometimes – while I am writing this, I am remembering the DC area sniper incidents – that’s an example of a situation that cannot be handled safely by community policing or intermediate police response. But, I will note that the final capture of the snipers was a result of a local person making a phone call, and local responders organizing quickly to coalesce around the sniper’s location and arrest them peacefully.
- Community agents would not have the power to arrest anyone, but they would have the power to recommend someone be arrested and a situation escalated further. In other words a community agent might tell Drunk Fratboy Bob, “Go home and sleep it off; I’m going to log this as a recommendation that you be arrested and brought before the magistrate, but we don’t need to deal with that now. Keep cool, nurse your hangover, and be apologetic and respectful and maybe this won’t be too hard on you. Meanwhile, I’m going home; I’ve logged this situation and you really should try to do anything to keep it from getting worse. I’ve called you a taxi, it’s on us.” Note that, in that situation, the community agent probably would have summoned backup, which means a couple other community agents are sauntering toward the situation and any bystanders who are recording the incident on their smartphones are getting a notice that their footage may be valuable data they might want to save.
- I forget who said it first, but I believe “you can’t outrun a radio” may be the motto of the community agents.
- The small number of first responders that are authorized to employ violence would be focused on that, and trained to do it well. I’m going to be a bit nasty: I used to do a lot of shooting and was fairly good at it. At the range where I used to shoot in Linganore, MD, there was a state police barracks nearby and sometimes the cops would have a “tactical team” setup with a rifle. And, they were some of the worst shots I have ever seen. I saw cops wearing “tactical team” jackets with a McMillan’d Remmy Model 70 .308 and they couldn’t fire a 10″ group at 100 yards. That’s the distance where my 5-round groups were .35″ If the state is going to have people authorized to employ violence, I do not want them to be more capable I want them to be more sure of themselves. The reason a cop pulls a 9mm and fires 20 shots at a civilian is because they’re scared (they even say so, themselves in their defense) and they’re resorting to overpowering force because they are not competent enough to resort to graduated force. That’s why the Japanese kendo master cop doesn’t reach for a gun – they know they can handle a drunken tourist with courtesy, or if that fails, they can dodge drunken fists for a while and then – if strictly necessary – foot-sweep the drunk and let them spend some time meditating on concrete. American cops reach for their guns because a) they have them and b) they aren’t good at handling scary situations. My old friend Sazz [stderr] was pretty good at handling scary situations; I think if a drunk had threatened him, Sazz – broken neck and all – would have looked at them and said, “Please, don’t. I’ve seen scarier things than you.” Combat vets call it “seeing the elephant” and some of them are pretty unflappable. I am a gigantic non-fan of militarizing police or hiring ex-military as police, but that top tier of first responders might be made of a mix of veterans and martial arts instructors – but, above all, people who understand how violence is employed gradually and not simply splashed all over a situation.
- When I was in Iceland for a week in the mid 90’s, since I was a security guy, I wound up meeting and hanging out with Iceland’s security people. In Iceland, at that time, they did not have a SWAT team: they had the ski patrol. The ski patrol mostly did stuff like rescue kayakers who got stuck somewhere dangerous, or hikers who broke an ankle on a glacier, or whatever. But – at the time I could imagine it – if one of those guys rumbled, “please sit down and shut up.” I wouldn’t even ask “where?” Iceland’s policing model, at that time, was similar to what I’m talking about, here, except without the camera/telecommunications infrastructure. If you started a bar fight, the ski patrol was going to show up eventually and they would cool it down. That meant that the owner of the bar could be fairly confident that things would be handled, so there was no need to have a shotgun under the bar. One of the reasons that violence cascades quickly in the US is because the cops are not competent and reach for overwhelming force and – because the civilians are not confident in the cops’ ability – they feel the need to prepare for violence, themselves.
- By the way, the Icelanders also had a version of “you can’t outrun a radio.” When I was talking to one of the ski patrol guys he said “We did have a murder last year. It was very unfortunate but also exciting because we had a big man-hunt.” I asked what happened and he said, “well, we close the airport departures area, and monitor the harbor and ask them to turn themselves in politely.”
- American cities spend absurd amounts on police, and insurance for police, and settlements for police abuse. Restructuring policing around community agents and a tiered response would allow for a lot more community agents instead of expensive gun-carrying guys in squad cars. The way policing is done now, a cop in a car, is the generic unit of policing; that’s pretty much what you get. In my imagined restructuring of the police, the dispatching system would have a computerized workflow that made recommendations to the dispatcher, who had more options than just sending a squad car. US police have something primitive like that, when you call 911 they can get you a tow truck or an ambulance or send a squad car. In a restructured system the dispatcher might have the option to send a mental health professional, or an animal rescue expert for the cat that’s stuck in the tree. There is no sense sending an expensive armed cop to get a cat out of a tree, no matter how good it looks in public relations photos. In other words, I imagine that the dispatch system would be a workflow management system with integrated records keeping and digital asset management, frontending a resource allocation and capabilities matching system. You get the response that you need, where you need it, when you need it – resources are not expended having cops driving around in squad cars. Resources are expended on having lots of trained community agents, and then a backend cloud of service-provider experts. Consider this: when I hit a deer with my Tundra 2 years ago (it was messy, I was going 70+ and the deer jumped right in front of me) I called 911 and they called a civilian business that specializes in towing, and gave them my location information from my phone, and a wrecker truck showed up. I paid for the wrecker’s service and I think that’s appropriate. Structurally, what are we looking at? The state police, sensibly, outsource wrecker service and determine implicitly who is paying for what. The wrecker did not need military weaponry, they needed a tow truck and a toolbox and a crowbar. The resource allocation and capabilities matching were there – they were just not coordinated sensibly. Another way of looking at that point is that it’s suspicious that US cops allocate away a lot of the capabilities except for the monopoly they retain on violence. It’s as if they really like beating the shit out of people, sometimes, or something, isn’t it?
- The community agent concept would allow a complete restructuring of policing based on expense. There would be a few expensive parts of the agency – IT (records management) and communications infrastructure, emergency responders of various sorts – but the agency would be able to decide what they do in-house and what they hand off to another capability. Perhaps, if they get a “cat in a tree” call they might tell the distraught ailurophile, “we have called a cat expert and they’re on their way, their cell phone number and location is on your police smartphone app.” And the cat expert can handle their own billing. But a jurisdiction that has a lot of cats in many trees might decide it needs to offer its own de-treeing service and integrate an expert team into its capability map.
- Back in 2000, when I wrote my book on homeland security, I spent a lot of time researching how policing and emergency response is done in the non-computer world. Maybe there has been some improvement, but I doubt it. On 9/11 the cell network in New York crashed because it was overloaded, and when it crashed, it turned out that a lot of emergency responders were relying on cell phones because the police had incompatible radio procedures and equipment from the fire department, etc. I’m not going to say “someone should hire Elon Musk to fix that” but there is a business opportunity, here. Why is this even a problem? It’s simple: each department specs their own gear and manages their own budget. That is utterly stupid. Sinfully stupid. It’s so bad that the DHS and FBI has spent gigantic amounts of money building “fusion centers” that are basically data aggregators that re-compatibilize the incompatible local communications – except it’s mostly one way. Defunding the cops and replacing their communications systems entirely would be a gigantic cost savings and would make everything more efficient and transparent. The reason the current system has been allowed to propagate is empire-building by local officials and police agencies. They don’t like being told what to do, but they have no problem telling other people what to do.
- Lots of community agents on the ground means that jurisdictions that have more problems need more community agents, not Bill Clinton-esque “100,000 new police on the ground.” 500,000 community agents would cost much, much less. I’m seeing being a community agent as a sort of a part-time job: you get trained and certified, have to keep up to date with procedures and information about current events, and you get a badge and maybe a hat (I like hats!) (buy your own sunglasses) and you log in to the policing app and you’re getting paid by the hour. Mostly that means hanging around doing what you’ve already been doing but you might get a ping that you need to go supervise a cat being removed from a tree, or join 15 other community agents who are running to defuse a bar fight, but you clock in and clock out and your actions are logged and tracked and, sort of like an Uber driver, you’re able to create a log of the event, any outcome, recommendations, actions taken, etc. Events where multiple community agents are involved, the system on the back-end would expect to see the same reports on the problem’s resolution or it might get flagged for further investigation. One of the best parts of this idea is that it would inject money back into the very community that is being managed. The community agent isn’t some foreign fighter from the suburbs, they’re your neighbor – someone you know – and someone who knows you; they know if you’re a trouble-maker or whether you’re in need of broader social support, or have mental problems or are going through a hard time. If being a community agent paid by the hour, then a jurisdiction could sign up lots of them and do demand-based service, again like Uber does. Picture this: community agents in a geofence all get a broadcast that there’s a peaceful protest planned on such a date and such a location, and additional “feet on the ground” would be appreciated; come help hand out water and be a presence and you get a demand bonus of 10% extra per hour. Does that sound ridiculous? Not to me! What sounds ridiculous is the cops who get paid overtime and a half to stand around with guns at a parade. What idiotic culture brings guns to a holiday parade? [Sure, if its the Irish marching to provoke catholics versus protestants, maybe it’d be a good idea to have a response team in the area in case the community agents see a problem and flag that they need help. My vision of “riot control” is to bring a large number of people who are acting in unison and who are the rioters’ friends and neighbors.]
That’s probably enough, right there, because it illustrates the big problem with government: it’s all connected. You can’t really reconstruct the police without reconstructing how accident victims get taken to emergency rooms and how they are managed and tracked (because it may require investigation). So, to reinvent the police, you need to reinvent local government and to reinvent local government you need to reinvent the national government. It’s obvious to anyone except a republican senator that the system is a mess, right now, because governments at all levels have reacted tactically by instituting “reforms” aimed at short-term electoral goals. You cannot really re-work how policing is done without addressing the Reagan-era’s closure of mental hospitals, and the creation of a large number of homeless people without mental health-care, who became a problem for the police. Whenever a cop shoots a person with mental illness, should we entirely blame the cop, or blame Ronald Reagan, or the “let us hate and be cruel to the poor” policy of both wings of the federal government? Nancy Pelosi is also a “deficit hawk” which is code for “she hasn’t met a poor person in half of her life because she didn’t get rich in order to have to hang around poor people.” Having the government provide medical care as a service would further reduce the need for police to be involved in medical interventions which happen in a possibly criminal context. It is a tough issue: a cop is expected to handle a shooting victim while worrying about becoming a target, and having to potentially deal with the shooter, too. Police have huge complex problems to deal with, which is why I think policing needs to be re-factored, tiered and prioritized, with factored capabilities matched to situations – instead of sending a car with 2 cops, 2 shotguns, 2 9mms, and a laptop, they should have someone at the scene diagnosing and triaging the problem with a smartphone and a dispatching app.
Part of the reason why policing in the US has become so dangerous to its citizens is because we have allowed it to be done horribly incompetently. But, for 1/3 of your local budget, what do you want?
This is probably an over-generalization, so I didn’t make it in the main article, but it appears to me that “police reform” efforts have typically centered around giving the police more money for training, which is why the unions go along with it. Anything that threatens their budget is treated like a lethal plague. That’s part of why I like the idea of community agents, who get paid for their service but don’t come with a gigantic infrastructure cost for expensive cars and guns and donuts and whatnot. If they want a big hat, they can buy it on their own.
I know teachers who have had to pay for class/lab materials out of their own pockets. Yet the police manage to suck down 20-30% of a municipal budget and they buy military gear so they can terrorize their customers. That is so goddamn backwards that words fail me. If cops want to buy military gear, then by all means put in place a “BYOG” (bring your own gun) program and they can have a “Go Fund Me” for sniper rifles and burp guns – in the mean time, fund the fucking schools. Americans sit around wringing their hands asking “why are we such a bunch of ignorant, violent chucklefucks?!” Well, there’s your answer.
Iceland ski patrol story: One of the ski patrol guys I talked to had served security for the Reagan/Gorbachev meetings outside of Reykjavik. He had a picture he showed me of himself and some of his ski patrol buddies with the Russian and US Secret Service security team(s). You’ve got to picture this: A stereotypical Secret Service guy in a dark suit and tie with shined shoes, standing next to a huge Russian who looked like he could squeeze juice out of rocks with his bare hands, and flanking them were two even bigger icelanders who looked like Thor’s big brothers, wearing these beautiful icelandic wool sweaters that fit them like spandex. The icelanders had huge grins, the others not so much.