For the past few years, I’ve taught a seminar on the sociology of the police at Colby College in Maine. My students, mostly progressive, ask me whether there’s anything they can do to help solve some of the serious problems that exist in policing, such as racial inequities in the use of force, the overpolicing of minority neighborhoods and rogue officers who lie to justify arrests. Today, young people all over the country are asking the same question.
Here’s the answer I give my students: Consider becoming a police officer.
To many progressives, the suggestion to join the police force may be counterintuitive, even offensive. If your belief, based on what you’ve seen or read or experienced firsthand, is that policing is a racist, oppressive institution, why would you want to become a part of it? But if there were more police officers who cared about the things progressives support, like minimizing police violence, finding alternatives to incarceration and ensuring the right to peaceful protest, we’d all benefit.
One of the main challenges when it comes to controlling police behavior is that by necessity, police officers are granted a great deal of discretion. They deal with so many widely varying and ambiguous situations that even the most intricately laid out rules can’t always specify how they should respond. Officers must follow applicable laws and policies, but they’re also expected to use their own good judgment, as informed by their training and experience. When that judgment isn’t good — when it’s clouded by racial animus or implicit bias, for example, or a greater sense of loyalty to one’s peers than to the cause of justice — problems arise.
Yet the discretionary nature of policing also presents an opportunity: We could seed the occupation with people whose judgment reflects progressive values. (Years ago, I briefly served as a police officer, moved to do so by some of these concerns.)
A new generation of progressive-leaning officers would hardly be immune to, say, racial bias. But these officers might be open to scrutinizing their behavior for evidence of bias. They might be more apt to call out institutional racism in their departments, insist on the employment of de-escalation tactics, be active bystanders who intervene if they see their fellow officers about to do something grievously wrong and use their discretion (within the limits of the law) to arrest primarily serious offenders, doing their part to reduce mass incarceration.
Progressive-minded officers could be more inclined as detectives to consider exculpatory evidence and to abide by broad constitutional safeguards. Ascending to supervisory and leadership positions in their agencies, they could push for programs like restorative justice and community trust-building. They might press their unions not to be so recalcitrant when faced with demands for reform and accountability.
None of this means progressive police officers would be soft on crime. The idea that public safety is essential for creating a society in which everyone can flourish and that there are some people who truly are too dangerous to be allowed to walk among us, at least for some period in their lives, is neither conservative nor progressive. It’s common sense.
To be sure, progressives entering policing today wouldn’t have the easiest time of it. For one thing, they’d find themselves outnumbered. A 2016 survey by Police Magazine found that 84 percent of its readers favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. While conservative views are not monolithic among America’s 700,000 state and local law enforcement officers, the rightward lean of the occupation is pronounced, and progressive officers are not always made to feel welcome. (Despite growing diversity in policing, it also remains dominated by white men: Nationwide, women comprise only about 12 percent of police officers, racial and ethnic minorities about 27 percent.)
Not long ago I spoke with Zoya Griffith, who was an officer in the New York Police Department from 2005 to 2014. A Black woman from Brooklyn, Ms. Griffith went into law enforcement because she wanted to provide higher-quality, more-respectful policing than the kind she’d experienced growing up. She told me that while she didn’t spend much time talking politics in the station house, her community orientation and commitment to playing by the rules did not endear her to her colleagues.
Officers who speak up about unjust practices in their departments are sometimes even punished for doing so. When 12 officers in the New York Police Department, all people of color, protested an informal quota system for arrests and summonses that they believed was directed especially at minority groups, they were given poor evaluations and unfavorable assignments.
Examples like those lead critics to argue that it’s the institution of policing that needs to radically change, not the ideological makeup of police officers. Research by the sociologist Peter Moskos shows how quickly youthful idealism among new recruits can be replaced by cynicism, suggesting that even progressive officers could get swallowed up in the us-versus-them subculture of policing that exists in too many departments.
But there are reasons to be more optimistic. A study by the sociologist Kimberly Burke suggests that officers committed to ideals of democratic policing may have a broader perspective and a durable moral center that help them steer clear of some of the subculture’s traps. And the recent wave of progressive district attorneys such as Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia offers an encouraging parallel. Like progressive police officers, this sort of prosecutor is working from inside the system to change it — modifying the bail system, keeping minor offenders out of prison and jail, investigating wrongful convictions and prosecuting police officers for criminal misconduct.
I’m not saying you have to be progressive to police well. While conducting research on what good policing looks like, I’ve come to know many officers who are apolitical or moderate or conservative and who offer exactly the kind of professional, humane police service that everyone wishes for. My point is simply that progressive-minded officers would bring something valuable to the job.
Americans are now facing one of the most difficult labor markets in generations. At the same time, police recruiters report that fewer viable applicants are putting their names in, not least because of policing’s increasingly tainted reputation. If you’re a young person who cares about social justice and are willing to put your body on the line for it, becoming a police officer might just be the right thing to do.
Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.
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