Commentary: Policing Doesn’t Work That Well – Why Shouldn’t We Change It?

By David M. Greenwald

On Tuesday night, in a meeting that went into the wee hours despite the fact that the council removed items from the agenda and didn’t even include the police, 162 people called in.  That may be a record, although I do remember going until 1 am in January of 2009 on a resolution about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which drew people from both sides.

By one count, there were 137 calls supporting the reforms proposed, 22 in opposition and three that did not state a clear position.

This is a delicate discussion as we have seen from the results in Minneapolis.  The city council there jumped too quickly into too amorphous a call for defunding the police that led to police leaving and disengaging—and with the lack of police presence, crime has surged.

A November Washington Post article reports: “Homicides in Minneapolis are up 50 percent, with nearly 75 people killed across the city so far this year. More than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many as in 2019. And there have been more than 4,600 violent crimes — including hundreds of carjackings and robberies — a five-year high.”

However, it might not all be about disengagement by the police.  Some experts also believe it is in part due “to the lingering anger over the slaying and the effects of the coronavirus, including job losses and the closure of community centers and other public spaces.”

That is probably a warning to be cautious with change, but also to be cautious about jumping to unproven conclusions about causation in a dynamic situation.

Locally, while there is strong support for change, there was also pushback.

Elaine Roberts Musser noted, “I am deeply concerned about many of the suggestions.”  Three in particular she noted: “Prohibiting the use of physical force against fleeing subjects who have committed minor crimes,” where she noted that “allowing thieves to walk out the door unimpeded. Even if the police are summoned, by the time law enforcement arrives, the thieves are long gone.”

Second, she noted, with nuisance and code enforcement, “what happens if these calls turn violent because it turns out the person is armed? Unarmed responders are being asked to face a potentially dangerous situation with no weapon.”

Finally, “Demilitarizing the appearance of officers” she noted the ambiguity of the plain clothes officers of Picnic Day.

We have pushed perhaps hardest for the CAHOOTS model, which we discussed at length yesterday.  That seems to be a relatively easy call.  The model calls on a non-profit organization working in partnership with cities and other locales to be first responder for mental health calls.

Because they have successfully operated for 30 years, we have good data here.  For example, they allowed Eugene and Springfield to save a huge amount of money—$15 million annually.  They soak up about 20 percent of the calls in that locale, 24,000 a year and only about 150 require eventual police back up.

There is a lot of defensiveness about changes to policing—naturally we can see some of that in Minneapolis where police disengaged in the face of criticism.  Similar scenarios have played out in other communities.

But while officer-involved shootings get a lot of attention, little attention is paid to the fact that policing overall is not very effective.  We actually lack evidence-based study of policing overall—how to improve it.

Consider, if someone is killed, what is the chance that the killer will be caught?  In a lot of areas it is almost a coin flip—nearly fifty-fifty.  That means about half of all murders go unsolved.

If someone is actively breaking into your home, what are the chances of the police arriving in time to protect you?  If you are robbed on the street, what are the chances of the police intervening?  Or even finding the person after the fact?  To put a local spin on this, if someone steals your bicycle, what is the chance of getting it back?

As you can imagine, the chances are pretty low to either stop or catch perpetrators in a whole host of situations.  And we know that even when police do arrive, often their response escalates rather than de-escalates a crisis.

So why do we continue to engage in models that may not work particularly well when it comes to either stopping crime when it occurs or catching a perpetrator after it happens?

The point about CAHOOTS is instructive because police are being asked to respond to situations where they have no particular expertise.  Mental health calls are particularly hazardous because normal authoritative commands are unlikely to be followed, and police may lack the training to de-escalate them as they occur.

In the comments yesterday, I noted two incidents I observed first-hand, one where a teenager was on a roof threatening suicide and the police were ill-equipped to attempt to talk the teen down—ultimately they jumped, though from a height insufficient to cause much damage.

In another incident, a teen was holding a saw, threatening self-harm, the officer was unable to reason with the teen and put them in handcuffs.  This time it worked.

But as we have seen, in many incidents the police come in hot, and are unable to resolve it without the use of tasers and sometimes deadly force.

That seems like an easy call for reimagining what the public response should be.

But fear of change and resistance by police officer unions has led to a difficult situation, where we know across the country a whole host of practices do not work, and we should rethink which situations call for armed police response and which could be better resolved through other means.

Moreover, we should also think about how we train our officers and whether the skills that worked perhaps 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago, are not what we need today.  That’s a tough conversation that is likely to provoke recriminations and more slowdowns, but it is one we desperately need—not only at the national level, but locally.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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50 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    “Commentary: Policing Doesn’t Work That Well”

    This is a delicate discussion as we have seen from the results in Minneapolis.  The city council there jumped too quickly into too amorphous a call for defunding the police that led to police leaving and disengaging—and with the lack of police presence, crime has surged.
    “Homicides in Minneapolis are up 50 percent, with nearly 75 people killed across the city so far this year. More than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many as in 2019. And there have been more than 4,600 violent crimes — including hundreds of carjackings and robberies — a five-year high.”

    Obviously non-policing doesn’t work that well either.

  2. Bill Marshall

    Another system has worked, and still does in some rural areas… need some laws changed to do it…

    All residents armed, open carry… and mandatory training on de-escalation skills…

    Less concern about response times… ‘response’ can be immediate… it is already legal to defend one’s home from an intruder… just a ‘logical’ extension…

    Hard to undo one mechanism with another not clearly in place… so far, it’s all “talk-talk” about alternatives… nothing concrete…

    As long as we are “thinking outside the box”, my ‘modest proposal’ should be considered in the ‘mix’… implementation could be ‘swift’… would cut down on “court costs”, stimulate the economy in certain sectors, and reduce incarceration rates… might even reduce COVID transmission…

    Seriously, it is good to have a solid ‘plan B’ before abandoning ‘plan A’… good questions are being asked… they should not be dismissed… they need to be heard, and openly discussed, without pre-conceived, formulaic “answers” … status quo certainly has flaws… old expression, tho’, “better the devil you know”… or, “measure twice, cut once”…

    1. Tia Will

      Seriously, it is good to have a solid ‘plan B’ before abandoning ‘plan A’”

      This is true as stated. However, although I have been involved with these issues over a number of years, it is my experience that not even the most ardent police critics are not urging abandonment without alternatives. It is also my experience that change rarely occurs without the willing participation of the group holding the power, in this case, the police. Also on the basis of years of experience, the police are very slow to embrace the need, let alone the processes for entering into change. This has been true of the City of Davis as well.

      1. Bill Marshall

        the police are very slow to embrace the need, let alone the processes for entering into change. This has been true of the City of Davis as well.

        Are we talking about just ‘law enforcement’, including in Davis, or other City depatments/functions?

        Seems like Davis PD is open to, but not yet ready to embrace, change… from what I’ve read…

    2. Richard McCann

      Studies show that increased gun ownership leads to increased deaths and no real increase in public safety. The National Research Council conducted a metastudy 15 years ago showing these results. So your proposed solution would be ineffective and probably counterproductive. (The study by the Florida State researcher is a piece of statistical junk that I’ve looked at.)

      1. Bill Marshall

        To be clear, I do not, and have not owned a gun.  However, if I or family member was threatened with personal injury, I’d not hestitate using lethal force up to the point that the threat subsided… beyond that, it would be murder.  Might be capable of that in the ‘heat of the moment’, if a loved one died… hope I never have to test that hypothesis…

  3. Tia Will

    On the issue of police defensiveness “naturally we can see some of that in Minneapolis where police disengaged in the face of criticism.”

    Why is this “natural”?,

    My opinion on police disengagement will likely be unpopular. We have a situation where police are authorized to use deadly force and yet they cannot stand verbal disagreement with their actions and so choose to break their oath to protect their hiring communities through slowdowns. Before you defend their actions, let’s apply this to another situation:

    Let’s say because doctors and hospitals have been accused of profiting from COVID-19, instead of offering facts to show that is not the case, or devising systems to prevent that from happening, they decide to just hold a work slow down allowing broken bones to go unset, heart attack and stroke victims to die, and needed surgeries to go undone. How many of you now defending this particular police response, or blaming it on the critics,  would defend the same strategy from your doctors?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Actually, Tia, we have seen that from nurse, other medical unions… slowdowns and even strikes… rare, but seen in CA and elsewhere in the country… one of the reasons I oppose ‘Unions’ (organized, mandatory dues, paid ‘organizers’) of any profession, particularly in the public or quasi-public sectors… the medical professions are not ‘immune’ to unions and resistance to change… and they are not very open to the public telling them to change… physician, heal thyself (your profession) before (or at same time) as telling others what they MUST do…

      Same with teachers, etc.

      1. Richard McCann

        Bill

        If you oppose collective bargaining by labor, I assume you also oppose collective bargaining by capital through corporations. They also stage their own versions of economic coercion like through lockouts and firings. Otherwise you’re just advocating tilting the bargaining advantage to a particular class of individuals, who generally already have an advantage.

  4. John Hobbs

    Ah, Davis, never miss a chance to to assault Unionism.

    99.9% of cops have either committed a crime under color of authority or failed to report another cop’s crime(s). They are allowed to use deadly force at their discretion and face a nominal Q&A incident report and a few administrative leave days with pay.

    Why would they willingly rock the boat?

    Fire ’em all and train new ones who are high IQ, empathetic and moral. The National Guard can deal with criminals until the new cops are ready to hit the streets.

    1. Alan Miller

      99.9% of cops have either committed a crime under color of authority or failed to report another cop’s crime(s).

      Now there’s a stat! 😐

      Fire ’em all

      Now there’s a goal! 😐

    2. Richard McCann

      99.9% of cops have either committed a crime under color of authority or failed to report another cop’s crime(s)

      While only a tiny percentage of cops have committed a crime, it is a much higher % that have failed to report a crime by other officers. And worse yet there is a significant plurality that tolerates these crimes as evidenced by the statements of their police union presidents.

  5. Alan Miller

    And we know that even when police do arrive, often their response escalates rather than de-escalates a crisis.

    That’s a really over the top statement.  I don’t disagree with it, as such, and I’ve seen it happen, even been on the receiving end.  But I’ve also seen police use de-escalation techniques, even been on the receiving end.  The issue is to apply those techniques consistently in appropriate situations.  No matter what, we don’t want to condemn the great progress that Davis police and many other departments have made in this area, because no matter what, there are still gonna be armed police, and having them well trained in de-escalation is as important or more important than building new public safety structures.

    1. Ron Oertel

      If people believe that it benefits them to “escalate” a confrontation with police, they may choose to do that as well.

      Knowing that attorneys, videos, the media, and blogs may “help” them do so.

      1. David Greenwald

        I think for the most part it doesn’t benefit people to escalate a confrontation with the police and for the most part such escalations occur either due to impairment, mental illness, or in the heat of the moment.

        The question is how the police should handle it – remember resisting arrest and evading police are additional crimes that escalate liability. That doesn’t mean that the confrontation needs to occur at a specific time.

        1. Ron Oertel

          In general, maybe cities should allow some cases to go to trial – rather than settle.

          As you’ve advocated, in regard to challenges to development proposals.

        2. Ron Oertel

          The ones in which there are legal challenges.  I’m sure that some do go trial, already.

          Seems to me that there are wide variations regarding interpretation of confrontations, even when videotaped. I think we saw some of that regarding the Picnic Day event, even though some commonalities of interpretation were present.

          1. David Greenwald

            The problem with doing that is that it is in no one’s interest. The plaintiffs would have to wait perhaps ten or more years for it to drag out, the cities would face potential huge trial and other costs. Both sides want to settle – swifter justice, controlled costs. Litigation is generally not going to be a truth-seeking process. That’s why you need independent investigators.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Tried to add that I think we saw some differences in interpretation regarding the event in Davis in which a young doctor was “challenged” by an older woman, as well.  (Though not a legal matter, it did involve the police.)

          I’ve seen other (similar) examples on the Internet lately, as well. In which the person who was holding the cell phone camera believed that they were “shining a light” on someone else, without realizing that they were also shining a light on their own (off-camera) behavior.

          But in response to your 3:44 p.m. comment, perhaps cities will need to allow some cases to go to trial, rather than enable a continuing incentive to initiate lawsuits. (As you’ve advocated regarding challenges to development proposals.)

        4. John Hobbs

          “In which the person who was holding the cell phone camera believed that they were “shining a light” on someone else, without realizing that they were also shining a light on their own (off-camera) behavior.”

          Just a reminder, Ron, and I don’t mean to drone on about it, but the US and California courts have affirmed the first amendment right to take photographs in public, even of people who don’t like it. Even from a drone above public land…

        5. Bill Marshall

          I think for the most part it doesn’t benefit people to escalate a confrontation with the police ….

          Or, anyone else… but if one side ‘escalates’, they have no reasonable expectation that the other will ‘submit’… takes two to provoke, takes two to un-provoke… applies to others, not just police…

      1. Alan Miller

        I’ll grant you that.  But if I’d used the argument “And we know that even when police do arrive, often their response de-escalates rather than escalates a crisis.” it would be just as accurate, but have an entirely different implication, no?

        1. David Greenwald

          I think it’s a fair point. My point was attempting to address the need to do a better job of de-escalating conflicts. Sometimes they do that well, but sometimes they don’t – and it’s the times they don’t that we are attempting to address here.

  6. Alan Miller

    But fear of change . . .

    Call out!  Call out!   Fear of change alert!  Fear of change is a cheap rhetorical technique whereby the perpetrator accuses people with a different opinion with this blanket shaming of having a so-called ‘fear of change’. 

    It’s the Davis Way! 😐

  7. Ron Oertel

    That may be a record, although I do remember going until 1 am in January of 2009 on a resolution about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which drew people from both sides.

    In my opinion, this is not a city matter – especially in a city of some 60,000 people on the west coast of the U.S.

    I’m not sure why people think it is, but I wouldn’t even have it on the city’s list of agenda (if it were up to me).

  8. Alan Miller

    As if on cue, to continue the discussion from today and yesterday on the value of the phrase, “Defund the Police”, Barack Obama pretty much made the same argument I made, and TW agreed as well.

    What is mind-boggling is that the four congresspersons known by some as “The Squad”, amazingly decided to attack the former President for his views.

    https://nypost.com/2020/12/03/on-defund-the-police-obama-clearly-right-squad-is-wrong/

    I find their reaction sad and pathetic.  One of the things I respected Obama for that I thought he was a great mind in bringing together the views of opposing sides, acknowledging and digging into understanding each, and seeking how to bring these sides together to work out differences.  He did this in several speeches I heard him give – and I wish he had somehow been able to channel this talent more effectively – as for all the hope I had for him I did not think he was a great President.  A great man in many ways, but not a great President.  Still, I think he retains that skill I outlined above, and the angry progressive rants of the four congresspersons make Obama sound like he might as well be Donald Trump in their eyes.  Do their eyes even have the capacity to see shades of grey?

    By the way, the first source I read this in was a progressive-leaning outlet that made it sound as if Obama was against police reform because they hardly quoted him at all and only quoted the congressperson’s attacks on what we had-to-assume he said.  Typical.

    1. Ron Oertel

      He did this in several speeches I heard him give – and I wish he had somehow been able to channel this talent more effectively – as for all the hope I had for him I did not think he was a great President.  A great man in many ways, but not a great President.  

      I agree.  Certainly the best president in terms of speeches, but did not seem to understand how to “make a deal”.

      Maybe he should have read the “Art of the Deal”?  (Just kidding about that part.)

      I’ve heard that LBJ knew how to make a deal, even if he was ultimately politically-incorrect.

      Obama was a centrist, as is Biden. Nothing wrong with that.

      The “hope and change” slogan was pure b.s., and I knew it at the time. Seems like people read into-that whatever they wanted. (In that sense, it was brilliant.)

       

      1. Alan Miller

        Certainly the best president in terms of speeches, but did not seem to understand how to “make a deal”.

        We had a commenter on here years ago who used to go by the name Barack Palin for those of you over 40 😉   Maybe they were close, but from the above the actual perfect President would be the mash-up Barack Trump.  Hate to see what that avatar would look like 😐

      2. Keith Olsen

        Certainly the best president in terms of speeches,

        LMFAO, Obama um was ah uh the uh best um um president in uh terms of um ah ah speeches.

        Reagan by far gave better speeches.

        1. Ron Oertel

          He was pretty good, too.  But, he had “training” in that.  😉

          But you’re right about those “pauses”, in regard to Obama. Maybe he was thinking about what to say (and the best way to express it), rather than just say it (as Trump does).

          I guess we’ll see if Biden’s election results in less divisiveness (among politicians – as in Reagan’s day). Seemed like a different batch of politicians, at the time.

  9. Richard McCann

    Elaine Roberts Musser noted, “I am deeply concerned about many of the suggestions.”  Three in particular she noted: “Prohibiting the use of physical force against fleeing subjects who have committed minor crimes,” where she noted that “allowing thieves to walk out the door unimpeded. Even if the police are summoned, by the time law enforcement arrives, the thieves are long gone.”
    Second, she noted, with nuisance and code enforcement, “what happens if these calls turn violent because it turns out the person is armed? Unarmed responders are being asked to face a potentially dangerous situation with no weapon.”
    Finally, “Demilitarizing the appearance of officers” she noted the ambiguity of the plain clothes officers of Picnic Day.

    1. No citizen should be trying to stop a fleeing suspect. They are putting themselves at significant physical risk by doing so. And deadly forces is NEVER, EVER justified in a property crime!

    2. Police in almost every European country as well as Australia, New Zealand and much of Asia are unarmed. They are able to resolve these situations without firearms.

    3. Being in uniform is not the same as militarizing an officer. The delivery person arrives in a uniform without it being militaristic. A uniform quickly identifies the role of an individual. Adding weaponry and protective gear militarizes the uniform.

    1. Ron Oertel

      No citizen should be trying to stop a fleeing suspect. They are putting themselves at significant physical risk by doing so. 

      I agree, but I don’t think it works out that way.  Maybe even more so, in high-crime areas (where minorities might be the victim).  I recently saw a video where a porch-pirate was “confronted” by a homeowner, who had repeatedly been victimized.  I think that the homeowner may have ultimately committed a crime against the thief, but was not charged.  (Not sure, but I think the owner was a black person, and the perpetrator was white – if that matters to anyone.)

      It’s a different story, regarding businesses (where employees have no “ownership” in the outcome). In that case, it’s much easier for employees to just let it go. There’s a lot of videos of this occurring in places like San Francisco. Right out in the open, with no fear (not even of being recorded).

      In any case, it’s a myth to pretend that property crimes will always remain free from violence, regardless of what you or I think should occur. (Fat chance.)

    2. Alan Miller

      Adding weaponry and protective gear militarizes the uniform.

      Not clear – are you just clarifying that ERM was reading this wrong, or advocating that Davis police not carry weapons and protective gear?

      1. Ron Oertel

        I have an “unhelpful” clarification/suggestion (for my own amusement):

        They show up in a MRAP, but they’re wearing civilian clothes.

        And maybe, bullets without guns (as reported, as I recall regarding one of the picnic day revelers)?

      2. Bill Marshall

        John… the 3-martini lunch (with or wo the olive veggies)… 1978… was an intern taking measurements @ a murder scene… head detective was 2-3 sheets into the wind (~ 2 PM)… yeah, rare, but have seen it happen… disgusting, at the very least… not Davis, rather Bay Area … blocks from where I grew up…

        Your comment is not indictive of ‘normal’, but cannot be dismissed as ‘speculative’… seen it, heard of it elsewhere, as well… that stuff has happened, and in isolated cases probably still does…

  10. Ron Oertel

    It’s difficult for me to envision a scenario in which a small business (like Redwood Barn, for example) in which an onsite owner would not attempt to intervene, if someone was stealing from the store (e.g., unarmed, and without presenting an intimidating physical presence). Maybe it’s a judgement call, but I’ve seen videos which seem to match that scenario (e.g., at retail stores in San Francisco), where employees have been instructed to not intervene.

    In any case, it’s violent crime which apparently has been increasing (e.g., in Sacramento).

  11. Don Shor

    “Prohibiting the use of physical force against fleeing subjects who have committed minor crimes,”

    I haven’t read the proposal, but I trust Elaine Roberts Musser is not misrepresenting this. If that sentence or anything like it is in the proposal, there is no question that it needs to be removed.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Heck, Families First used physical force to stop a ‘client’ from wandering off campus by ~ 75 feet… saw it, and the Families First folk threatened  me when I verbally intervened, and told them I’d call PD… I de-escalated, and immediatly called Davis PD… so much for the positive response from ‘social workers’… the client (maybe 15-17) had been tackled, was being sat on by a SW “professional”, (with three other staff standing around, two smoking), on the bikepath, and bleeding from the mouth… yeah, good model… I lost no sleep when Families First closed down… actually, slept better…

    2. David Greenwald

      What they are trying to address is the situation where the person has committed at most a minor crime, is resisting arrest, or attempting to flee, and the police respond by using disproportionate force. I think the killing of Walter Scott would be a prime example. One way to address it would simply be to identify the perpetration through photos or video, and then charge them later.

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