How can restructuring police oversight build a community of trust?

How can restructuring police oversight build a community of trust - GBF BLogAmerica needs a quantum leap in law enforcement evaluation, given both the tremendous amount of dedicated police officers throughout the country and the numerous losses of life due to police brutality, negligence, and racism in a small segment of the ranks. A structural change that addresses the gaping wound that exists between the police within themselves, and the BIPOC communities is necessary and overdue.

This is not an indictment on the police force throughout the country in general or for that matter in any one area in mass. It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of officers are serving for the benefit of all of us as citizens.  In this article, we will focus on the narrow violations that have repeatedly occurred to try to greatly reduce the incidents that are so devastatingly tragic.

There’s a recurring feeling of us vs them in small segments of the police force, where a lack of transparency has created a systemic chasm between marginalized minority communities and police policies and their tactics. It is not a time for small changes. Real reform that heals wounds and builds trust is needed to dignify and revitalize the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In thinking about what we could do to help the system become better from the inside out, we need to consider a confidential, ongoing peer-review evaluation. This would allow the police a confidential and safe way to rank their fellow officers, colleagues, supervisors, and the Chief in degrees of racism, prejudice, and their ability to maintain an objective, neutral perspective under pressure. 

Who wants to be a snitch? 

You might think there’s no way police officers would be honest and open about how racist or prejudiced their colleagues and heads are. But there’s a psychological reason for that. It’s called the in-group bias. Almost invariably, all groups are united by a sense of loyalty, so much that in this becoming an extreme it is both a fault and dangerous. 

Whether it’s a group of doctors, lawyers, politicians, or even your own friend circle, there’s a strong sense of admiration coupled  with a silent but understood oath of not “betraying our own.” Anyone who “betrays” the group would be opening a chasm of fear and guilt, even when it’s done with integrity and honesty.

This kind of “loyalty” to those who exist in our own “group” has a mass hypnotic effect, to the point where it becomes difficult to see and act on behalf of the needs or qualities of people outside of the group. There’s often a fundamental insensitivity to the differences between outsiders and our own group. 

The manifestation of those insensitivities may present itself as verbal slurs or references. They arise from passed-down prejudice or traumatic experience,  limited exposure or ignorance of outside groups. Attitudes that spark harm toward those labeled as “other” become nurtured by and within like-minded cliques. This can lead to disastrous incidents between the police and minority groups.

Justice and Equality Trump Extreme Loyalties

That’s why, despite the simplicity and ingenuity of a confidential evaluation, it hasn’t been explored even as we continue to witness suffering, racial injustice, and brutality.

To call out mistakes, attitudes, and injustices perpetrated by our own requires courage. It also requires a  passion for justice and equality for people outside our group. Such courage is not an innate instinct for most, yet this time in our history demands such passion and commitment, especially from the police. We need to value the truth that rises above loyalty to the higher imperative of justice and equality. 

It is natural to wonder, “Who am I to evaluate my brother or sister? But there’s a critical need to discern between protecting and serving life vs blind and misguided loyalty. We have to explore this question and its answers to prevent needless injury and deaths. 

The need for a safe and confidential way of expression

Police officers see firsthand the prejudice, slurs, and misbehavior of their fellow officers. However, if we need them to report the truths that actually reflect their conscience, we need to offer them a safe and confidential way of expression. 

Without anonymity, reporting officers are inevitably going to fear a halt in career advancement, job loss, and ostracism as an outcast from the “in-group” that constitutes a large part of their identity.  It may also create guilt and definitely fear even though it might be one of the most courageous acts of integrity that an individual officer might ever make in their life. 

To evaluate from their conscience is the only way to live up to their oath to protect and serve the greater community.  It also protects the whole profession for the betterment of the force and the greater public.

How can we transform police oversight to improve community trust? 

Every community is different, made up of a unique blend of races, religions and ethnicities that each deserve to feel safe. The way to incorporate a confidential police peer-review framework is to create a collaborative committee that includes community leaders, impartial third parties, elected officials, and police chiefs. The people different communities choose to have at the table of their local oversight committee will be unique and crucial to the success of evaluations. This, in turn, will prevent dangerous incidents and provide a reviewable record of evidence if and when an incident occurs.

Oversight committees have been a large part of law enforcement communities throughout much of the United States, more so since the 1991 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. In addition, there are hundreds of oversight communities supported nationally and even internationally by The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). However, these diverse oversight bodies haven’t had the benefit of ongoing officer peer evaluations to provide critical, firsthand information.

How else could we, as a community, ever hope to broadly assess and gain insight into officers’ on-the-job attitudes, thoughts and actions but from those with whom they serve? But, more importantly, until we change policies and gain incomparable insight from the critical evaluations from dedicated officers, the prevailing attitude of “protecting their own” will inevitably continue.

Bringing about change through the peer-review

A peer-review process would increase the chances of discouraging officers with inbuilt prejudice or aggressive tendencies from acting out on their impulses since the chance of exposure dramatically increases. At the very least, this can stop and reduce such behaviors or, in the most optimistic cases, motivate them to seek help. 

This process would also offer enormous protection for the most devoted police officers. Their excellent work would be acknowledged, and they won’t be clustered in the same group as those who act on racist or violent attitudes and tendencies. This is a big psychological boost if implemented safely. But, unfortunately, the systemic protection of violating officers is the very thing that prevents fellow officers from reporting troubling behaviors, conversations, and attitudes.

The accountability and vulnerability that communities need can only come through policies that support a fundamental change in the discernment of officers. That change has to come from all angles, including police unions, community leaders, and elected officials.

How to build and implement a confidential review system? 

Here’s a basic step-by-step that could be used as a framework to create the peer-review:

The peer-review needs to be part of an objective rating system that evaluates prejudice by each officer. Each question on the review would add points toward a total score based on the equivalent to a 1 to 10 rating system. The oversight committee would determine the score percentage that requires discipline along with the corresponding disciplinary action.

Examples of behaviors that would reduce points:

  • Demonstrated insensitivity to different racial, religious, ethnic, and/or sexual orientations 
  • Racial slurs
  • Expressions of a desire to harm minority community
  • Unnecessarily aggressive direct behavior

Most of these actions are warning signs that reveal deeper issues that could steadily and dangerously evolve into violence. 

For example, racial slurs communicate an underlying sense of superiority over another race. A sense of superiority combined with a violent attitude becomes even more pronounced through verbal expressions of fantasizing about doing harm, which most frequently indicates an anger with distorted perceptions until harming another person feels like inflicting justice. Once that anger and aggressive behavior are directed toward a group as a whole, the perpetrating officer acts out the belief that each person of a particular racial group is more likely to be scary,  inferior and guilty.

That’s when we witness a perversion of justice when an offending officer evaluates someone as less than, projecting fear and anger onto an undeserving community. Essentially, the officer becomes a loaded canon. The importance of the early identification, confrontation and elimination of these types of behaviors cannot be emphasized enough.

Peers on the police force are the first to detect, hear and see these thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. As part of the evaluation system, officers would review each officer with whom they work directly, including the police chief.

But confidentiality and how it is reported is key to it being a viable alternative. 

The deposit of the surveys would go in a secure box with no names or ability to open it until all the officers have put in their answers.  There need to be safeguards like this put in place to allow for transparency without confidence being broken. The review results are for the analysis and scrutiny of the police chief and the oversight committee only.  Along with confidentiality, having an empowered and independent third party free of local ties and perspectives can provide an impartiality that elicits trust from the community and police. 

All complaints of direct abuse of authority need to automatically trigger an internal investigation with third-party notifications where all involved officers have a consequence for consciously or unconsciously concealing or blurring the truth.

Another important element to consider when keeping confidentiality is a secure way to deliver the evaluations. This will ensure the protection for those who are vulnerable, namely officers who report unjust behavior and the police chief, who will be required to carry out disciplinary actions as well as be the receiver of peer reviews. The committee could, and very likely should, take steps to prevent revenge reviews by not allowing those with scores below a certain percentage point the opportunity to review other officers or the police chief.

There needs to be a certain time period perhaps every 6 months to a year where all officers give their 1-10 rating in each question proposed.  The details of what constitutes the various points are clarified in writing.  For example one might be hearing an officer say racial slurs, two might be repeated slurs, three would be for a general discriminatory attitude and so forth.  

The governing committee would also determine the consequences of a poor review, such as:

  • Warnings
  • Probationary periods
  • Reassignment of a low-scoring officer to partner with a high-scoring officer 
  • Reassignment to a job that does not interact with the public
  • Dismissal

In addition, the police chief or his highest-ranking officers should not be considered an unbiased entity or the right person to dispense discipline until there are established standards and consequence levels. For example, a minor first offense carries a 60-90 day suspension, a required course on de-escalation techniques or inside duties of 14 to 30 days upon return from suspension.

Building a community based on trust

One of the primary goals of such a system is to provide a clear, safe way to identify racist attitudes while building loyalty to the greater community. This also protects marginalized groups from those who cannot abide by the established standards.

Representation is vital for the committee to increase public trust. Similarly, who should have access to the reviews and the scores? Discussing and finalizing that would better hold the police accountable. These reviews would act as an evaluative tool and a revelation of motivation and predisposition to assess consequences.

Bridging the gap between marginalized groups and the police is integral for public safety, development, and growth. As a result, there is greater trust, cooperation, and decreased violence. All in all, this peer review system is an effort to create a more just, transparent, and caring police force in our country. This would benefit not only the morale inside the world of police officers but create a much-needed bridge between the police and those that they serve.

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