Books

What’s the solution to the policing debate? Two authors weigh in

To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. Norm Stamper. Nation. 309 pages. $27.99.
To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. Norm Stamper. Nation. 309 pages. $27.99.

So, how do we stop this?

When white police officers are slaying unarmed black men and armed black men are ambushing police officers; when Black Lives and Blue Lives and All Lives are hailed or derided as movements or dog whistles; when America’s first black president must acknowledge the “racial hatred” coursing through the country; when color lines bleed into battle lines — in this moment, to say that we need “police reform” is as obvious as it is insufficient.

And yet, judging from two new books on the policing debate, even agreeing on the problem is daunting. I can’t recall ever reading works that purported to examine the same reality but reached such contrasting conclusions as “To Protect and Serve,” by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, and “The War on Cops,” by Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald. These authors don’t just present conflicting worldviews — they inhabit different worlds. Their only overlap is in their call to heed the needs of “the community,” that most elastic of American political abstractions.

Wherever Stamper gazes, he sees police forces caught in a destructive culture “that serves as a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation, brutality, unjustified lethal force and excessive militarism.” To fix this, he writes, we need federal standards and certification for police conduct as well as a hyper-local approach to policing, in which local leaders help develop policies and programs; participate in oversight; and take part in recruitment, hiring and promotion of cops.

Mac Donald, by contrast, sees little wrong in the actions of America’s police, and the tragedy in Dallas in which five officers were fatally shot by a man who “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” lends urgency to her voice. The fact that there have been fewer attacks on officers during the Obama years than under the past four presidents is only partially relevant, since Mac Donald sees the “war on cops” as a battle over reputation, policy and ideology as much as anything else. She decries the notion that African Americans are treated any worse by law enforcement as a “dangerous lie” and explains away any disparities as a matter of smart policing and grim arithmetic: Since black Americans commit a disproportionate share of murders and other violent crimes, she argues, the police must focus on their neighborhoods.

Drawing on his 34 years as a police officer, including six as a big-city chief, Stamper reflects on his successes and failings, shows a touching faith in the power of new training programs, and displays deep skepticism of the bureaucracy and incentives inherent in his profession. “When something bad happens in police work — for example, a cop shoots a fleeing, unarmed man in the back — the tendency is to fixate on the incident,” he writes, “often ignoring the organizational structure that produces the culture that gives rise to the event.”

Stamper is particularly incensed by the cursory manner in which officers are evaluated. Cops on the beat are encouraged to amass a record of productivity, usually through traffic tickets, arrests or field interrogations, he explains, effectively transforming officers into “hunters” and citizens into “prey.” When he asked senior officers how they measure the performance of their charges, this was a typical response: “I look at their ‘productivity,’ review their reports, check their sick leave, complaints and commendations.” In other words, Stamper writes, “one of society’s most sensitive and consequential lines of work goes essentially unsupervised.”

He laments the endless layers of police bureaucracy that undercut accountability and make it hard for problems to be addressed quickly and effectively. (The word “Kafkaesque” makes its obligatory appearance on page 11.) Stamper deplores the tendency of cops to cover up colleagues’ misdeeds. What law enforcement agencies need today is “an army of proud, unapologetic in-house snitches,” he declares. “In my professional experience,” he says, “there are too many cops who become habituated to lying.”

His solutions are a grab bag of the smart, the dubious and the unlikely. He calls for better training in “de-escalation” techniques, which help cops control their fear on the street and ease tensions in face-to-face encounters. (Stamper’s list of “seven things cops should never say” is memorable, if only for its reminder that telling someone to “calm down!” invariably yields the opposite result.) He also wants cops to be better trained in recognizing and understanding mental health problems because the lack of proper screening and treatment in America has “made cops and corrections officers the ill-suited, de facto source of protection of and service to the nation’s mentally ill.”

In “The War on Cops” — so subtle with a badge in crosshairs on the book cover — Mac Donald is almost grudging in her admission of any misdeeds by American police. “To be sure, any fatal police shooting of an innocent person is a horrifying tragedy, and police training must work incessantly to prevent such an outcome.” And later, she adds, “of course, police departments must constantly reinforce the message of courtesy and respect for the public.”

Mac Donald invariably takes the police’s self-assessment at face value, regarding any external requirements as onerous, unjust and ideologically motivated. The book is replete with attacks on journalists, activists and anyone else who questions police behavior toward African Americans. She calls out “the elites’ investment in black victimology,” the news media’s “thrill of righteousness” as it “lovingly chronicled” every protest against police violence, and the “codependency between reporters and rioters.” Her opponents aren’t just wrong, they all must be liars with a left-wing agenda.

Mac Donald is best known for her promotion of the “Ferguson effect” — the notion that police officers are pulling back from vigorous law enforcement because they fear being branded as racists and that U.S. crime is rising as a result. Although crime is increasing following a decades-long decline, rates remain historically low. In the book, she acknowledges that the argument is “hotly contested,” but she stands by it. (FBI chief James Comey has given some support to the idea of a Ferguson effect, while Attorney General Loretta Lynch has dismissed it entirely.)

The book’s message is harsh: There is nothing wrong with black America that is not the fault of black Americans. If black drivers endure more traffic stops, it’s because they must speed more. If there are disproportionate numbers of black Americans in prison, that’s just an accurate reflection of perpetrators of crime.

These books have found receptive audiences in distinct media universes: You’ll hear Stamper interviewed on “Democracy Now” and cited by NPR, while Mac Donald chats with Rush Limbaugh and wins raves in National Review. This is not to suggest a pick-a-side equivalence; Stamper is far more enlightening, mainly because he incorporates his own experiences into his arguments, he does not demonize those who see things differently, and he re-imagines not just the oversight of police forces but also their purpose and ties to the communities they serve.

Ah, yes, the community. Both authors claim guidance from it. Stamper emphasizes that the police and community are one or should be; Mac Donald quotes “unrepresented” people who appreciate police action.

Any solutions for policing in America — or even diagnoses of the problem — must emerge from those most affected, but will officially convened “community conversations” or White House meetings among civil rights leaders, law enforcement and local officials really channel their concerns? It’s hard to know who embodies a community, or even who speaks for a growing, amorphous movement. In the meantime, just as the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, even well-intentioned authors will cite “the community” for theirs.

Carlos Lozada is reviewed these books for The Washington Post.

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