In a nation where social and ethnic tensions span centuries, it should be no surprise that America the melting pot becomes a cauldron at times. Ferguson’s recent tension is a case in point – but one with a historic silver lining, if we can grasp it. Recently, the U.S. Attorney General has announced that the Justice Department will launch a direct investigation to examine the embattled town’s policing practices. The findings are likely to spawn a need for innovative fresh solutions.
As an educator whose professional life has been dedicated to historically undervalued communities, I’d been contemplating this rare and opportune moment we are in. My meditation took me to an epiphany in one of the most unlikely of reflective sanctuaries – my local fitness gym, where I overhear —
“I’ve been working in the city for over 7 years,” says a middle-aged man wearing the type of smirk that signals the start of friendly banter. Another out of the trio senses a bit of competition and raises the ante. “The city?! That’s nothing. Neither of your precincts are as busy as what we see out in my borough!”
These three minority men, I was gathering, were police officers here in the city where I live. I’d seen them around before in the gym. Quite frankly, there was nothing particularly off-putting, or “militaristic” about them. In fact, these were the type of guys I’d have a beer with, argue sports, or lend a spot if they needed help on the last bench press. They were your perfectly typical “guys in the gym.” And here they were ribbing, as guys are wont to do, over matters of superlatives.
The youngest of the three finishes a set of abdominal crunches, and continues:
“You know…I mean, really, why do the people working in the ‘lazy’ precincts get paid as much as we do? I think if you work in a busy precinct, you should get paid more because you do more, right?”
Hmm… Could he be on to something? Demystify the veneer of the uniform and badge and what we have left are three rather ordinary employees, stressing about work, like many of us do. Overhearing this conversation as one among ordinary folks, it’s hard not to commiserate over such a glaring organizational inefficiency. But what good does it do to put any police officer in a busy precinct without a clear measure for how to identify and grow top talent for busy precinct demands?
For example, I mentioned figuring out that these three men were local police officers. Being completely honest, I already knew about one of the three. A few weeks prior, I overheard a very different kind of kvetching from the same person who’d later claim to have the toughest of all precincts. “It’s not OUR fault,” he said to a non-police friend, “Eric Garner didn’t die from police brutality, he died from eating too many damn twinkies…” Back then I walked away, before my anger reinforced the stereotypes that killed Garner days ago. Today, this story should underscore the talent dilemma we face in many difficult-to-staff public sector roles.
It’s a talent issue. And for this, police as individuals are not solely to blame. Police, like us, are human beings with shortcomings. More importantly, we must not forget that police are also employees of a publicly funded organization. This means it’s not enough to restrict the discussion to matters of personal responsibility or firing any single person. When an individual dons the uniform and badge, it becomes an organizational onus. If the aftermath of Ferguson awakens us to talk about the problems, the answers absolutely need to be systemic ones.
An often repeated mantra in education circles charges that we cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results. I’d propose that the same holds true for our other public sector services, including law enforcement.
Pulling a page from some of the most common reforms in education, here are three reasonable ideas to think about:
- Stimulate the market for higher quality officers in the most challenging precincts by trying incentivized pay structures. Give your best folks a reason to serve the communities most in need. And in exchange for higher pay, ask for higher accountability to a unique framework of highly effective policing in communities where trust between citizens and law enforcement has corroded. This leads to my second suggestion.
- Revamp police evaluation. Again, if we continue to do the same things, we should expect the same results. Today’s evaluation frameworks should be modernized from frameworks of compliance (proper documentation, etc.) to a more outcomes-driven set of measurable competencies that, for one, includes community and stakeholder input (cities like Laurel, Maryland provide an example of what this might look like). Ultimately, ongoing professional training – long after the Academy – will be key. But evaluation may be the stick opposite the carrot to crystallize these ideas into reforms that reshape how police serve communities.
- Leverage “fresh” and external perspectives to maximize efficiency.Funding for these initiatives should not be an impediment. Some of the most effective schools, districts, and charter management organizations I’ve seen constantly find creative ways to do more with less. It’s sad to know that so many of our public sector services are cash strapped, but this is the name of our game in public service. Finding more from within also helps circumvent the political will required to generate more funding by tasking the taxpayer.
Perhaps as a society, we’re not accustomed to thinking of the police as regular folks, and more importantly, as employees working within an organization we directly hire. It’s time to shift this paradigm. We owe this to cities like Ferguson, where trust between the community and police has been tragically broken. We owe it to ourselves, lest all of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods become fertile grounds for unrest.
Figuring out how to optimize our public sector, including law enforcement, can be done. Let’s get started.
About the Author
Carlon Myrick is a Director of New Partnerships at The Achievement Network. A former schoolteacher, Carlon is passionate about staff, program, and curriculum development in the education sector. He is a graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.