Police Need a New Professionalism (Fortunately, It’s Already Hiding Inside Many Agencies)

In cities across the United States, violent crime rates are at record lows as are the numbers of civilians killed by police action. Yet police agencies are facing a spike in hostile protests over stop-and-frisk tactics and racial profiling. In South Africa, crime rates have been falling for years and the technical sophistication of the Police Service has never been higher, yet public respect for the police is in the toilet. In Turkey, police corruption, once flagrant, is now rare, and the use of physical force has virtually disappeared from interrogations; yet fear of the police is growing. In Rio de Janeiro, a widely praised police unit that occupies the slums once controlled by violent gangs has made many of them safer than they have been in a generation, but the results of a survey of officers working in those slums released this week reveals that the residents are growing increasingly hostile toward the police there. Why?

Why—when crime is falling, corruption receding, technical mastery growing, torture disappearing, and safety rising—are the residents of all these places distrustful of, or outright angry at, the police?

Police are still chasing a false image of their own professionalism, conceived a half century ago. The professionalism of the 1950s and 1960s, made popular in American television shows like Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, and S.W.A.T. held out a promise that following the law, mastering sophisticated weaponry, and pledging loyalty to the organization would bring professional discipline and, with it, public respect. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

By the 1990s, political leaders and reform-minded police executives had recognized the problem. The so-called “professional model” of policing was distancing police from citizens and squelching their ingenuity. In the competition for the most rapid response, police departments lost sight of the right response to a call for help.

Community policing—collaborative partnerships between law enforcement and the individuals and groups they serve—became the new creed: professional policing out, community policing in. Bill Clinton built a big part of his 1992 presidential campaign around his pledge to add a hundred thousand community police officers nationwide, and the African National Congress enshrined community policing in the 1996 constitution of the new South Africa. 

But community policing was no match for the allure of professionalism. Community policing became a specialized unit, a vague philosophy, and a funding stream from Washington or London, but most of what police agencies around the world did everyday still looked a lot like the old, professional model. The real investments were made in new computers, vehicles of every sort, weapons, and surveillance. Yes, police almost everywhere became more adept at following the law, and most made gestures toward community policing. These were meaningful—but not sufficient—achievements.

Only a new professionalism can replace the old professionalism. Community policing is an invaluable foundation for a new professionalism, but it is not—and never was—a complete package, able to guide detectives as well as patrol officers, and able to inspire police dealing with financial fraud, gun running, or political corruption.

What is that new professionalism? In an article last year Jeremy Travis and I suggested that police professionalism requires four commitments: to accountability, to legitimacy, to innovation, and to national and global coherence. Professional police are accountable for the cost of policing, the level of crime, and the conduct of the police themselves. Professional police attend not just to the legality of their actions, but to the public perception of those actions as legitimate. Professional police cultivate innovation and learning throughout their agencies. Professional policing is nurtured coherently in national, regional, and global networks. Building that new professional culture of policing will take time and effort, and it will also take money.

Last year, my predecessor at Open Society, Aryeh Neier, began an effort to create a new, global program on police reform to support more professional, rights-respecting policing. I encouraged that effort as a member of two Open Society advisory boards, and now we are bringing those plans to fruition. Of course, the Open Society Foundations will continue to support human rights advocates documenting misconduct and pressing for reform and our efforts to expand the information about crime and policing available from governments and in media of all kind will continue. But we will also increase support to NGOs, academics, and police organizations themselves willing to define a new professionalism in practice.

The answers are already in the police agencies. I’ve seen them in the genius of police officers I’ve worked with in Brazil, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Nigeria, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. The answers are also in society, in organizations like Nigeria’s CLEEN Foundation and the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, whose conference I attended this week. Most promising of all, the answers lie in partnerships between police agencies aspiring to a new professionalism and the people they police.

There will always be a certain degree of force in policing. What matters is whether policing—when it asserts its authority—makes democratic progress possible or impedes it. Professional policing enhances democratic progress when it accounts for what it does, achieves public support, learns through innovation, and transcends parochialism.

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The balance of professionalism and community policing is very fragile. It would be hard for police to predict when a local drug-addict may become a more serious threat. That is why psychology is so important for policing. I hope that we can find a good balance here in the U.S.

missing the most important commitment ... to heart-centeredness.

without that, the rest is just policy.

First a good advocacy for clearing the environment of wrong attitude and politics, then selection of the right people with right basic integrity, intrinsic motivation, and at last the education to professionalize.
You only will be a Master of Police when you have the right attitude, skills learned by elderly policemen.
There is still a lot of difference between countries ...
Only international law, advocacy, global performance of humanitary help of international policemen can help give the right example.

The main problem in Latin America is the lack of professionalism in the civil goverment of the police. Penal Populism is growing and erodes any new model of community policing. In that sense, security should move from the electoral debate to the public policy one.

I am a dissertation fellow of the Drugs, Security, and Democracy Program (SSRC/OSF) and I have spent the last year conducting research on police reform and police-society relations in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. After considerable time studying past and present efforts by policymakers and police institutions to achieve both professionalism and greater proximity to their respective communities, I celebrate the new OSF initiative on police described in the article. I thought it might be useful to propose for consideration a number of observations that emerged from my fieldwork which might inform our thinking about police reform processes.

First, it is important to recognize that societal attitudes toward the police and police performance are far from coherent and often contradictory. Even as numerous advocacy groups and community organizations in New York City have joined together to form Communities United for Police Reform -- an initiative intended to reform discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices -- a recent poll found that only 51% of New Yorkers oppose the NYPD's stop-and-frisk approach, with marked differences in levels of support and opposition across racial and ethnic lines. Similarly, while media reports and work by NGOs have continued to raise concerns about the high rates of police killings of civilians by the Military Police of São Paulo State (a figure that exceeds the number of civilians killed by all the police forces in the United States combined), participants in dozens of community meetings I attended throughout the City of São Paulo repeatedly celebrated police killings of alleged crime suspects, under the old logic of "bandido bom é bandido morto" (a good criminal is a dead criminal). This heterogeneity of societal preferences greatly complicates decision-making over security policy and police reform. Efforts to reform the police should not only focus on police institutions themselves, but also work with societal actors to build consensus about desirable security policy and police practices, as well as the appropriate limits to be placed on the latter. Without such consensus, the success of police reform processes will be highly limited due to ongoing struggles between opposing political and social sectors, and may even result periods of "counter-reform," as demonstrated by the pendular nature of police reform in Buenos Aires Province.

Second, it should be noted that two of the key shortcomings of community policing initiatives in a number of Latin American countries has been their implementation within incompatible contexts of militarized police forces, and the failure to make the community policing orientation a transversal element permeating all sectors of police institutions. As a result, community policing has been relegated to specific units whose officers are often seen as soft on crime (and even less "macho") by their counterparts in more conventional policing units characterized by traditional police philosophy and practice. The internal struggle between these dueling philosophies compromises the implementation and undermines the success of such efforts.

Finally, it is essential to recognize the dynamic nature of the politics of security. Even the most uncontroversial processes of police reform are not immune to the volatility of local crime trends and the often sensational headlines that accompany them. Recent increases in crime rates in New York City may take the debate over stop-and-frisk practices off the agenda during next year's mayoral elections. Similarly in Sao Paulo, a recent spike in violence, including a dramatic rise in the number of police officers killed, has compromised the ongoing program Abordagem Consciente, which hopes to reform the nature of police stops and improve police-citizen relations. Although there are no easy fixes, these factors should be taken into account when undertaking meaningful police reform.

I have worked on, or studied, police reforms in a number of countries and during the course of that work I have seen first-hand how “community policing” was viewed by police organizations as merely an adjunct to “normal policing” and not as a call to transform the very manner in which policing services were delivered.

I completely agree that in those jurisdictions where political actors don’t direct police action or interfere with police decision-making there is ample space for police organizations to consider and incorporate accountability, legitimacy, innovation and coherence into their operations. But Chris: what about countries (i.e. South Asia or former Soviet sphere) where political interference in police decision-making is so rampant that the conversation surrounding police “professionalism” is rooted in a 1920s mindset (and not 1950s)? Does your analysis hold true for those contexts where the political will to permit even modest police independence is absent?

The police as we know it today, is relatively recent, about 200 years.

So I think the relevant question in most of the countries is "Police is something necessary? If so, how can it serve the majority, work effectively without hurting democratic rights?"

Why are the police disliked? I can think of several reasons off the top:

1. Too much time spent on victimless crime - drugs, vice, traffic...

2. Power corrupts

3. Those with money get off; those without do not.

4. Too many harmless people are wasted in jail

5. The mentally ill are treated as criminals

6. The police are undereducated. They should have at least a BA

7. Law enforcement and justice have become a for profit industry

8. ...

One of the crucial factors in this issue is the role of police unions. They have become extremely powerful politically in many countries and can strongly influence political decision-making on matters related to criminal justice systems. Police Unions are notoriously resistent to change and lobby hard for increased resources, police powers and penalties. Most governments avoid police reform because they are fearful of the political backlash - unions are very good at running campaigns that increase community fears about safety whether it's real or otherwise. You only have to look at the spread of 'zero tolerance policing' policies across many sectors that received political support to see how police can manipulate public concerns about safety to their benefit. The issue needs to be addressed by more openness and accountability that is driven from actors outside the policing system (this would be resisted strongly by police btw). Police need to be made accountable to the community - not just their bosses and politicians. Systems need to be developed to ensure that mechanisms are installed at all levels (local level, divisional, regional and state) whereby police performance, professional standards and ethical standards are monitored.

The argument for a new professionalism among police institutions across the Global South -- as well as the United States -- is one that I definitely endorse. And it is certainly critical to consider how policing "makes democratic progress possible or impedes it." But I would add that in order to fully understand the potential for police institutions to realize the "new professionalism" underscored in this article, it is equally as important to indentify how democracy makes such a form of policing possible or impedes it.

As a Post Doctoral Fellow with the Drugs, Security, and Democracy Program (SSRC/OSF), I have been fortunate to spend time conducting research on the politics of urban violence and citizen security in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. As part of this research I've learned that policing and police reform efforts do not occur in a vacuum but are instead always crucial elements of broader political processes often rooted in longstanding historical divisions along the lines of socioeconomic class and political and economic power. And so identifying the conditions that allow policing to strengthen or erode democracy requires that we examine how distinct types of policing favor or threaten these often deeply entrenched political, social and economic interests.

The principal of any police force should be to protect and serve the tax payer.Once the the tax payer is truly protected then and only then will the tax payer respect the police and other laws.We are long passed the stage where the police force should be run by private corporations,so that they can become more competitive and proficient.

You are on target here. Maybe this is the point that will tip police toward this New Professionalism. I think I describe it in my book, “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police” and the work that Mike Scott and I are doing with our "Qualities of Police in a Free and Democratic Society." (See http://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/on-this-we-stand-qualiti...). Let's keep this conversation going!

Thanks Chris, for this contribution. I am now working on police reform in Kenya, and am wondering what this new professionalism encompasses here. The focus now is on enhancing police accountability in particular, and for very good reasons. However, there is little debate about what 'professional policing' exactly means to the Kenyan public: what exactly do they want from the police (rather than what they don't want). Let's continue the debate.

Police act illegitimately due to their crime obsession. They have to realise themselves, as also make citizens realise, that crimes are of different kinds and only a small number of types are amenable to a slight reduction through police efforts. Detection of unknown offender cases are similarly dependent on clues available. Only when they focus on their peacekeeping role, including management of crime (not crime-fighting), can they remember to be accountable, respectful, responsive and human rights oriented.

This article makes the claim that in the United States, the number of civilians killed by police is at a record low. Is there a citation for this? It's also difficult to find a statistic showing how many police killings are wrongful deaths as opposed to justified homicides, which might also be useful in considering why policing seems to be receiving less respect--though making the determination of what constitutes a wrongful death could be problematic.

No, they need to go back to the oldest professionalism, Peel's Principal's.

1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient.
7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions, and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.


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