Twenty-first century policing in the United States is facing what may be one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Leaders may experience an urgency to change policy or shift a narrative as a solution, but they may lead to new problems that, in turn, emerge into broader, more complex issues with even more profound implications.
Whether police administrators acknowledge or embrace it, this transformation is a naturally occurring phenomenon set in motion not only by certain events that have sparked anger, but by underlying and inevitable social shifts that will produce certain inescapable outcomes. It is therefore far better for law enforcement leaders to actively participate in the evolution of law enforcement’s future as 21st century law enforcement in the United States has a far broader and more complex mission than ever before.
Looking deeper into what law enforcement in America is facing, distinct realms can be identified, all of which involve imprecise problem definitions with equally imprecise solutions. And they underlie the ability to protect citizens from crime and terrorism, and require an increasingly extraordinary ability to identify contributing factors, apply solutions and adapt to shifting conditions. This requires emphasizing responses that produce desired results and reducing those that do not.
Emanating from recent high-profile officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents, daily mass media accounts feature videos of officers purportedly abusing their authority entrusted by the very communities who feel affronted. As a result, a strain on relationships between law enforcement organizations and communities has materialized. Even within those communities whose relationships would be characterized as durable, law enforcement organizations have experienced tension resulting from incidents occurring elsewhere in the country.
Adding to the hypersensitivity are numerous examples of incidents in the media showing an officer’s conduct in a given situation. Some examples depict officers who are clearly acting outside the scope of authority, resulting in criminal indictments, while others depict legitimate uses of force recorded out of context. There are important distinctions between these situations, but in the mass and social media, they are collapsed within the collective singular category of police misconduct.
Law enforcement leaders have the opportunity to build new relationships and improve relationships that need strengthening, which is a crucial realization considering the increased and constantly evolving levels of diversity in most US communities. To address these emerging issues, the near-30-year-old concept of community oriented policing (COP) is being re-emphasized. Today, repurposing COP and new concepts such as procedural justice are being discussed by those focused on effective police reform such as the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to ensure police and the communities they serve understand each other’s needs and expectations.
It is therefore important toensure crucial foundations of mutual understanding and respect are established before controversial incidents involving law enforcement occur in the community. This foundation becomes critical when terrorist activity or violent behavior emerges among groups or individuals intent on causing harm. In addition, while enforcement trends and theories may evolve over time, the relationship between police and community will serve as the basis of stability during times of inevitable transition.