The Deep-Seated Flaws of American Police Policy

By Willie Johnson | USA

America’s police forces are sworn to protect and serve, enforcing federal, state, and local laws while also providing security to the citizens they are tasked with defending. The very nature of the job puts officers in danger and forces them to make difficult judgments, usually giving the impression that their services are honorable, necessary, and effective. The current success of the average police force, however, reveals that good intentions are not enough to support a flawed system. Most policemen are honest individuals but are often unwittingly corrupted by two factorspolicy based on results and the need to generate revenue, both of which cause needless damage and lead to certain crimes being pursued over others on the basis of financial incentive rather than severity.

The first glaring issue I’d like to address is the extreme focus that most police forces have on results, a value that is at the core of standard policy and that dictates the day-to-day procedures of common officers. Putting the goal of catching lawbreakers, no matter the offense, above the safety of officers and innocent bystanders is counter to the very purpose of police. For example, the FBI reports that nearly half of all people killed in high-speed chases are law-abiding citizens that simply get in the way of vehicles either involved in the chase or swerving to avoid it. In this situation, the intended result of the chase (apprehending a criminal) is prioritized over the possibly deadly repercussions of such an action, something that most police officers don’t think twice about—it’s standard procedure, after all.

Numbers of arrests, detainees, and solved cases shouldn’t measure the success of a police force, but rather its failure; judging success by volume of results creates an incentive for more of those results to be produced artificially, whether by deceptive tactics like speed traps or by focusing on easily-solvable cases over more long-term ones. Choosing to focus efforts on small scale, victimless crimes over the persecution of more serious offenses will mean more people detained and an illusion of effectiveness at the expense of good relations with citizens and critical results. In lower-class neighborhoods where this strategy is widely practiced, police are often seen as enemies because of their hard-line approach to minor offenses and failure to prevent real violence, demonstrated in cases like those of Walter Scott and Philando Castile.

The second and most apparent issue afflicting police forces is the widespread implementation of policies designed solely to generate revenue, usually in ways that most would consider to be dishonest or unfair. Using speed traps on streets to capitalize from locations where it is difficult to follow the speed limit may not be illegal, but it is certainly unjust and only creates resentment towards law enforcement. If the well-being of the police force in question depends heavily on money made from the citizens it’s supposed to be protecting, officers will become conditioned to viewing communities as financial opportunities; the countless urban areas across the country that are bogged down in needless regulations (with large fines if broken) serve as a perfect example of profit based policing.

Rather than being created to serve the purposes of police forces and governments, laws should exist primarily to serve the needs of the people they affect and maintain the primary goal of security—something that is often overlooked by those who let greed blind them to the immoral nature of the policies and regulations they support. It’s no question that police departments need funding, but gaining it in underhanded ways actually works against those responsible. If citizens feel as though they are being tricked into breaking the law or taken advantage of, they are more likely to disregard laws they believe to be unfair and hold authority in contempt. Turning communities against those meant to protect them only serves to decrease cooperation and effectiveness of law enforcement in critical situations.

I haven’t covered every single problem that afflicts America’s police forces, but simply highlighted what I believe to be the main features of the system that create conflict with citizens and cause law enforcement to become corrupted. The claims I made obviously don’t apply to all cases, but are simply common features of police forces across the nation. Rooting out the broader issues will allow smaller, less important problems to be taken care of afterward; changing the widespread standards that are counter to the goals and values of law enforcement will allow for the later handling of problems on a case-by-case basis. Establishing law enforcement as a fair and effective institution will keep innocent citizens safe and allow for a more peaceful society—an improvement that America could use now more than ever.