A Department of Justice report finding that the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department was rife with racial bias highlights broader problems in American policing. But it also serves as a contrast to a significant but less-sensational development: cops in some cities have begun to walk more softly on their beats.
The Justice Department report on police in Ferguson, where the death of Michael Brown last August led to months of raucous protests, came two days after President Obama released a slew of recommendations from a federal policing task force, including using less confrontational tactics and reining in creeping militarism.
But even as those recommendations sink in, there’s evidence that, at least in some neighborhoods, beat cops are already implementing reforms designed to promote more empathetic in dealings with the public. That shift has, in a very short time, contributed to a “watershed moment” for policing in the United States, says Lewis Walker, a Western Michigan University sociologist who studies policing trends.
To be sure, a lot of beat cops shrug at efforts to eliminate ticket quotas and to curb street searches as “liberal mumbo jumbo,” says Peter Moskos, a sociologist at John Jay College in New York who turned his experiences as a Baltimore beat cop into the book “Cop in the Hood.”
Yet police chiefs in cities such as Atlanta and Kalamazoo, Mich., are making profound changes. And for all the station house grumbling about cops being blamed for society’s problems, the emerging reforms do, at their heart, touch a libertarian, anti-statist streak found among many American cops, where focus on arrests for minor drug violations and crimes like “manner of walking in roadway” are seen as counterproductive state meddling, say Mr. Moskos and others.
“Officers on the whole are well-intended, they don’t feel they’re intentionally targeting anybody, just being hypervigilant in those neighborhoods and digging,” says Kalamazoo Police Chief Jeff Hadley. “But there are unintended consequences to that type of policing, which is why police departments have begun to challenge assumptions in terms of style and how implicit bias plays into our decisionmaking.”