A New Era of American Policing
About 700,000 law-enforcement officers are sworn to protect and serve the citizens of the United States. While their primary function is to deter crime, they also regularly act as social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental-health counselors, medical responders, information-technology experts, and paralegals — sometimes in the span of a single shift. It's a demanding job by almost any definition. In fact, due largely to job-related stress, law-enforcement officers have a life expectancy 22 years shorter than the average American.
Recent high-profile incidents involving police officers' use of force — George Floyd's death in May 2020 being the most prominent — have only compounded the challenges and stressors inherent to the job. Police are now subject to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny through an explosive mixture of smartphone video and social-media fervor. Although most officers will never fire their weapons in the line of duty, tragic incidents and media attention have led to calls for defunding or reimagining policing. These pleas for reform often come from the most heavily policed communities.
To balance these competing demands for public safety and the fair and equal treatment of all citizens, today's law-enforcement agencies have to find ways to be creative and agile. The history of policing demonstrates that departments will only be able to take on these challenges if they rebuild public trust and promote more cooperation with the communities they serve.
ORIGINS OF POLICING
The word "police" is derived from the Greek word polis, meaning "city." In the city-states of ancient Greece, aristocratic magistrates were responsible not only for maintaining public order, but for municipal upkeep and sanitation. A thousand years later, maintaining the king's peace in medieval England was the duty of a court officer called a "constable," aided by volunteer watchmen who took turns on night patrol. This system was less than ideal. Constables were accused of knowing little or nothing of the law. By the 19th century, police were responsible for lighting streetlamps, operating soup kitchens, and capturing runaway animals. Law enforcement was not a priority because sheriffs could make more money collecting taxes.
So while modern policing has roots in antiquity, it was not until the 19th century that the concept of a professional, uniformed, publicly funded police force began to take shape. In response to social unrest resulting from rapid urbanization and industrialization, British statesman Sir Robert Peel established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. With their blue uniforms, black top hats, and batons, these men became known as "bobbies" in honor of their founder.
Peel asserted that police should focus on preventing crime rather than addressing criminal acts after they occurred. To do this, officers would have to work in a coordinated manner, patrol large geographic areas, and be available day and night. Bobbies wore uniforms and displayed easily identifiable badges; Peel believed that citizens would think twice about committing a crime if they noticed a visible police presence. This approach to policing was vastly different from that of the watchmen who patrolled the streets in an unorganized and erratic manner.
Peel devised several principles to guide his officers: The primary purpose of the police, he asserted, is to deter crime and maintain order; the ability of police officers to perform their duties is dependent on public approval and community cooperation; the police must maintain a relationship with the public that demonstrates impartiality and respect for the law; the use of force should be a last resort, employed only when absolutely necessary to protect public safety; and finally, police effectiveness should be measured by the absence of crime and disorder, rather than the visible presence of police.
Peel's principles emphasize community cooperation, police legitimacy, and the impartial enforcement of the law. They continue to serve as a foundation for modern law enforcement, guiding police departments in their mission to protect and serve communities.
POLICING IN AMERICA
The criminal-justice system in early America was heavily influenced by the older English model. It displayed a lack of effectiveness in deterring crime. The watchmen, a group of community volunteers whose primary tasks were looking out for fires or reporting anything suspicious in the overnight hours, were not trained to prevent or control crime. Citizens frequently found them asleep or drunk on duty when they weren't altogether absent from their posts. The watchmen became increasingly overwhelmed and proved ill equipped to deal with the changing social climate in America.
In the South, the first publicly funded police agencies emerged in the form of slave patrols. In the Northern states, the first formal, unified police departments emerged in the mid-1800s, beginning with New York City in 1845, to take on work closer to Peel's London bobbies. Peel's principles also influenced the organization of police in the United States, including the use of identifiable uniforms and a paramilitary hierarchical structure. But there were three distinct differences in America: statutory limits on police power; local governmental control of police; and fragmented, overlapping service provision among several agencies with shared authority. These characteristics persist today, as do the historical challenges of "communication, cooperation, and control" associated with an interagency approach.
Current policing methods and practices are the product of a series of law-enforcement approaches that have evolved in the last few centuries. The advancements of a rapidly growing society and the associated need for new governing bodies, the industrialization of the nation, and developments in the physical, psychological, and sociological sciences have all heavily influenced — and continue to influence — police practices. The first era of policing in the United States (from the mid-1800s to the 1920s) was marked by a reciprocal political arrangement of questionable ethics. Police chiefs were hired by politicians in exchange for their social-service work and citizen outreach to encourage voters to keep the elected party in power. Hiring and training standards were near nonexistent, oversight and accountability were limited, and officers spent much of their time on neighborhood social activities that were unrelated to public safety or street patrol. Unsurprisingly, misconduct and corruption became rampant, and calls for reform followed.
These reform efforts, which were initiated at the turn of the 20th century, focused on removing the political influence from policing and professionalizing the occupation. Instead of serving as figureheads handpicked to leverage political power, the new wave of officers would be subject to hiring and training standards so they could use emerging technologies like cars and two-way radios to control and fight crime. Law-enforcement leaders benefited from increased discretion in the deployment of resources and the promotion of staff. Departments also developed more sophisticated ways of maintaining records, identifying suspects, and engaging in crime prevention.
The professionalization of police forces had a downside, however: It undermined the relationship between police and the public. Cars, radios, and specialized operations took the police off the neighborhood streets, which had been a key locus of their work. Citizens still desired the same non-criminal social-service assistance that they had historically relied on police to perform. But officers were now more focused on an enhanced, often heavy-handed approach to crime control. This police-public rift widened as the civil-rights movement began in the 1950s.
The social unrest, protests, and marches that followed through the mid-1960s featured regular clashes between police and the public. The law-and-order approach was buttressed by landmark Supreme Court rulings that expanded police powers (e.g., Terry v. Ohio in 1968 upheld a "stop-and-frisk" procedure). These developments further strained relationships between departments and minority groups who were protesting injustice.
In the 1970s, a spike in crime led to calls for stricter enforcement of the law and new policing methods. In this era of policing, a "tough-on-crime" response prioritized aggressive police action and lengthy prison sentences, emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation. Declaring an "all-out offensive" against drug abuse in 1971, President Richard Nixon sought to reduce crime by removing drug traffickers and users from society. This battle plan was carried out through harsh penalties for drug possession and distribution, mandatory minimum sentences, and asset forfeiture. What became known as the "war on drugs" was marked by several failures, however: It did not significantly curb crime, it neglected to address the root causes of drug addiction, and it resulted in overcrowded prisons filled with individuals who would have been better served by substance-abuse treatment. Furthermore, overly punitive tough-on-crime policies have been criticized for disproportionately affecting minority communities, exacerbating mass incarceration, and failing to reduce recidivism.
The "broken-windows" theory of policing, popularized in the 1980s, directed officers to crack down on minor offenses in the belief that doing so would discourage other crimes. The idea was that visible signs of disorder — such as vandalism, graffiti, littering, or broken windows — contributed to an overall environment that fostered more serious crime. This approach morphed over time into "zero-tolerance" policies, which mandated strict enforcement of laws and penalties for petty offenses. Zero-tolerance policing increased the risk of violent confrontations between law enforcement and low-level offenders. At times, the consequences were dire. One well-known example is the case of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American man who was arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed loose cigarettes in 2014. During the encounter, a New York City Police Department officer applied a chokehold to subdue him. Garner repeatedly told the officers that he could not breathe, but the chokehold continued. A video of the incident showed Garner losing consciousness. He later died at a nearby hospital. The phrase "I can't breathe" subsequently became a rallying cry in the debate about zero-tolerance policies, racial profiling, and police officers' use of force.
The limitations of these tough-on-crime, zero-tolerance policing methodologies have become more evident in recent years. At the same time, community policing has gained traction. This newer approach, which emerged in the 1990s, emphasizes collaboration between law-enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. It focuses on building trust and pursuing the joint development of crime-prevention strategies. Law-enforcement officials developed the initiative in response to drug and gang violence and other crises afflicting American communities. Many of these problems can be traced to our nation's rapidly changing social fabric, epitomized by family breakdown, declining religious and educational institutions, and tensions between immigrants and other minority groups. By fostering positive relationships between police and the public, community policing aims to encourage cooperation and leverage local resources to combat crime. While this approach is not without its challenges, it has proven effective in improving both public safety and police-community relations.
THE EVOLUTION OF POLICING
Taking into account this history of American policing, we can broadly classify U.S. law-enforcement operations into three distinct styles that demonstrate how policing methods and practices have evolved over time. The "watchmen" style, which was prevalent during the early days of policing, focuses on maintaining order with a high degree of discretion granted to officers. It often ignores minor offenses. The "legalistic" approach, which gained prominence in the 1980s and '90s, emphasizes strict enforcement and provides almost no discretion to police. And finally, the "service" method is a more recent development and focuses on meeting community needs, handling non-criminal incidents, and providing assistance. In practice, these styles overlap depending on the situation.
Beyond the development of new policing styles, police departments have evolved in other significant ways. After the 9/11 attacks, law-enforcement agencies were tasked with the new mandate of preventing terrorism, which requires an expanded role for police that emphasizes intelligence gathering and interagency collaboration.
Law-enforcement agencies have also increasingly assumed the role of social-service providers, handling problems that were traditionally managed by social workers or other community services. Police officers are often the first responders to mental-health crises, for example. This has led to officers being trained for Crisis Intervention Team programs, which emphasize de-escalation, an understanding of behavioral-health disorders, and trauma-informed techniques.
Additionally, officers are regularly called on to handle drug overdoses, which requires training in administering lifesaving measures such as naloxone and connecting users to treatment. Police also often respond to non-injury motor-vehicle accidents. Officers manage the scene, facilitate the exchange of information between involved parties, and complete accident reports. This role highlights the service aspect of their work, which extends beyond traditional crime fighting.
The expansion of responsibilities for law enforcement comes with an obvious cost. Officers spend less time deterring, responding to, and solving crimes — the tasks they are traditionally trained to do. At a time when police departments are facing staffing shortages, public perceptions of increasing crime, and historically low crime-resolution rates, it is more critical than ever that we prioritize the time and resources of law-enforcement officers appropriately.
Law-enforcement agencies have always been tasked with building an effective and professional police force. But they face unique challenges today, from heightened public scrutiny to the expansion of responsibilities, that make this increasingly difficult. Perhaps the most significant problem is burnout: Departments nationwide are experiencing a surge in resignations and retirements. They are also struggling to recruit and retain qualified personnel.
Some observers have attributed the burnout crisis to the so-called "Ferguson Effect," a reference to the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri. This theory links increases in violent crime to greater distrust and hostility toward police. In 2020 especially, rhetoric advocating the defunding of police became a rallying cry across the country. Even though these voices represent a minority view among the American public, they have had an undeniable impact on police forces. Officers are rightly concerned about their safety, perceive their job as riskier than ever before, and report record levels of job dissatisfaction.
As the pressure and demands become greater, many officers are leaving the force early and forgoing their pensions to seek new opportunities. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has called this exodus, and the difficulties of recruiting new officers, a crisis. Agencies across the country are dealing with this burden, and some jurisdictions have had no choice but to reduce candidate requirements in order to attract a larger applicant pool. Although this may prove effective for increasing the number of recruits, settling for subpar officers jeopardizes the integrity of policing and could undermine public safety. The decline of physical-fitness standards, for example, could lead to more officers using firearms if they are unable to restrain suspects.
Personnel shortages have also contributed to a decline in the resolution of criminal cases, a measure known as "clearance rates." Plummeting clearance rates are the result of several factors, of course, including policy failures in education, social services, public health, and economic development. In 2020, police solved fewer than half of the murders committed, continuing a steady drop since the early 1980s when officers cleared about 70% of all homicides.
Falling case clearance rates undermine both the efficacy and credibility of the criminal-justice system. Research has demonstrated that the likelihood of being caught is a much more powerful deterrent than the extent of the punishment. Letting crimes go unsolved also erodes public trust and confidence in law enforcement. And because community cooperation is essential to police work, deteriorating public trust has the potential to produce a vicious cycle that will lead to even lower clearance rates.
To confront these challenges, law-enforcement agencies must adopt new approaches that will not only ensure public safety, but encourage better relations with the communities they serve. Four innovations in particular are helping police departments strike this balance.
The first is new technologies. Law enforcement is constantly evolving, and innovative technologies are being developed to help officers do their jobs more safely and effectively. One particularly visible example is unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which have become an increasingly common sight in the skies above American cities. Equipped with live video feeds, infrared cameras, and radar, these powerful surveillance aircraft are an invaluable tool for reaching difficult-to-access areas without putting officers in danger. Drones are helping police with rescue operations, traffic enforcement, crowd control, covert surveillance, and crime-scene investigations. They can stay in the air for hours or days at a time, scan entire cities, or zoom in and read a license plate from 60,000 feet away. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly used a Predator drone in Minneapolis to monitor protests during the summer of 2020, obtaining footage that could later be used by the local police department. Drones can additionally serve as platforms for "cell-site simulators," also known as "Stingrays." These devices imitate cell-phone towers and trick phones into connecting to them, which can help determine a suspect's real-time location or intercept texts and phone calls.
Cloud-based, real-time 911 emergency systems, such as those developed by Carbyne, are giving law-enforcement agencies and first responders a new suite of abilities that were not possible just a few years ago. Traditional 911 dispatch systems rely on triangulating cell-phone towers to pinpoint a caller's location, which can slow down response time. These new systems, by contrast, use GPS technology to pinpoint callers' mobile-device locations instantly and forward that information directly to dispatchers. This level of precision allows for unprecedented cooperation with other emergency services, such as Real Time Crime Centers, to access the latest information about fast-developing situations. Cloud-based, real-time 911 systems also incorporate live video and instant messaging — crucial capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or for those who are in dangerous situations and cannot speak.
In the past few years, law enforcement has also sought to capitalize on groundbreaking advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Facial-recognition software, such as Clearview AI, allows police to take a picture of a person, match it with other photos of that person, and generate links to where those photos first appeared. This system — which is based on more than 3 billion images scraped from the internet — goes far beyond any existing mugshot database. Today, Clearview AI's facial-recognition software is used by hundreds of law-enforcement agencies, from local officers in Florida to the FBI and DHS. Data-analysis companies such as Palantir and Peregrine promise to operationalize the disparate data streams available to police. They seek to combine video from closed-circuit television cameras, drones, body cameras, and "a multitude of public and private video systems" to provide law enforcement with 24/7 surveillance capabilities.
While these systems are designed to help law enforcement protect public safety and produce better outcomes in emergency situations, new advances in technology come with new threats to civil liberties. Implementing AI systems responsibly will be crucial to preventing racial profiling and the emergence of an Orwellian surveillance state. The Fourth Amendment, which safeguards citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, has never been more relevant.
Law enforcement's swift embrace of new surveillance, robot, and AI technologies has highlighted the absence of a national framework for regulating how the government uses these tools. A patchwork of state and local laws is currently the only legal framework for protecting individuals' privacy. Congress might consider policies such as requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using a drone or setting limits on how long surveillance images can be retained. These regulations would set reasonable limits on government intrusion into the lives of citizens without undermining law-enforcement agencies' ability to protect and serve the public. Such steps would also ensure that Americans enjoy the public-safety benefits of these new technologies without allowing Big Brother to monitor, record, and track our every move.
The second innovation is co-responder or community-responder programs. Such initiatives arose out of the recognition that jails and prisons have become America's largest mental-health facilities. Every year, millions of individuals with mental illness find themselves behind bars; in fact, 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners, and 45% of federal prisoners have reported some type of mental-health or substance-use disorder. After the deinstitutionalization process of the 1960s shut down large residential mental-health treatment facilities, public officials failed to invest in community-based replacements. Many mentally ill people now end up in prison instead. A significant portion are locked up for committing non-violent, minor offenses that stem from untreated symptoms of their illness, such as disorderly conduct, loitering, trespassing, disturbing the peace, and petty theft. Between 21% and 38% of 911 calls are for non-urgent issues related to mental health, substance use, homelessness, and related concerns that could be handled by people other than police. Yet thousands of times a day, police officers are called upon to respond to such situations.
Co-responder programs represent a shift in the traditional policing model by integrating mental-health professionals into law-enforcement teams. In cities like Denver, programs such as the Crisis Intervention Response Unit have shown promising results. On these teams, a police officer and a mental-health clinician respond to calls involving mental- and behavioral-health issues. Co-responder programs free up police resources, decrease the number of unnecessary arrests, and provide more appropriate care for individuals experiencing mental-health crises.[correction appended]
In addition to crisis calls, co-responder teams can handle minor offenses where it is evident that the perpetrator's mental health — rather than criminal intent — is the root cause of the crime. By fostering a more compassionate and effective response to social issues, these programs have the potential to revolutionize the way law enforcement interacts with the community. In 2022 alone, the Behavioral Health Connect Unit in El Paso County, Colorado, responded to 1,563 service calls. Of these cases, 99% were diverted from jail, and 85% were kept away from emergency rooms. This reduced reliance on jails and hospitals as makeshift mental-health facilities for individuals who do not meet the criteria for mandatory psychiatric detention.
Co-responder teams are critical because no matter how qualified or experienced, police officers can be underequipped to handle a person experiencing a mental-health crisis. The presence of an armed officer can even exacerbate a mental-health emergency by triggering paranoid delusions or a schizophrenic episode, making the situation more volatile than it otherwise would be. An alternative approach, known as "community response" (or "civilian response"), takes the co-responder model one step further by removing the police officer altogether. In 2021, the local police department in St. Petersburg, Florida, collaborated with a neighborhood non-profit to create the Community Assistance and Life Liaison program to handle certain service calls that do not require a law-enforcement officer's presence. Instead, dispatchers alert community navigators to address instances of panhandling, truancy, welfare checks, mental-health issues, and neighborhood disputes. Not only does this model conserve police resources for more serious criminal incidents, it also reduces the risk of escalating situations by removing law enforcement from the scene.
The third innovation is deflection or diversion programs. Since the late 1990s, states and cities nationwide have developed promising new approaches to manage non-violent, low-level offenders outside the formal criminal-justice system. "Diversion" is a broad term that encompasses many types of off-ramps from the justice system. Ideally, it occurs before an arrest ever takes place. This type of diversion, known as "deflection," or "pre-arrest diversion," aims to redirect low-level offenders away from the criminal-justice system and toward community-based services that address the root causes of negative behaviors. These programs are geared toward individuals involved in drug-related offenses, homelessness, or mental-health emergencies on the premise that certain offenders are better served by treatment than by incarceration. By deflecting these individuals away from the formal criminal-justice system, pre-arrest diversion helps them receive interventions for their underlying issues — such as substance-abuse treatment or mental-health counseling — without the negative consequences associated with an arrest.
This approach has been particularly effective in Laramie County, Wyoming, where the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was implemented. The community turned to this program after realizing that the standard practice of prosecuting and incarcerating individuals with behavioral-health issues was not improving public safety. Local law enforcement experienced a revolving door in which the same individuals were repeatedly arrested and cycled through the justice system. Residents also noted that, in the absence of support or resources, people would likely revert to substance use or other destructive habits upon release. Given the escalating number of mental-health calls, violent crimes, and deaths from drug overdoses, the community recognized the need for a fresh approach. Since implementing LEAD, Laramie County has experienced a significant reduction in recidivism and contact with frequent offenders.
The Safety Net Collaborative in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a deflection model that provides treatment tailored for at-risk youth through multi-agency, cross-system cooperation. By blending funding streams, case-planning processes, and staff expertise across the law-enforcement, social-welfare, education, and mental-health systems, Safety Net breaks down the barriers that cause service fragmentation. Recognizing that police are the principal gatekeepers of the justice system, Safety Net employs specially trained Youth Resource Officers to act as case managers. They coordinate all outreach, prevention, and support activities and reframe the role of police from antagonist to advocate. This model stands in stark contrast to the usual protocol for police. Mental-health partnerships, for example, typically involve the officer handing off the juvenile with no further outreach from police.
The Safety Net Collaborative's sophisticated data-collection system has demonstrated a substantial impact on juvenile arrests, recidivism, and the use of services. In the city of Cambridge, juvenile arrests have declined at a statistically significant rate compared to local and national averages. Safety Net has also had an observable effect on juvenile recidivism rates: The program was able to connect youth with behavioral-health services more often than if they were arrested, serving as a first step toward treatment in many cases. The success of the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative proves that deflection can achieve better public-safety outcomes — and cost less for taxpayers — than other types of diversion.
The fourth and final innovation is increased use of citations in lieu of arrests. In the United States, there are more than 10 million arrests each year — the overwhelming majority for non-violent crimes. This has led to an overburdened court system and overcrowded prisons. Civil-citation programs have emerged as an important alternative to arrest, offering a proportional response to minor offenses like shoplifting, underage drinking, and marijuana possession. Civil citations are akin to traffic tickets that never become part of a person's criminal record if the terms of the citation are met. If the individual completes the required community service, restitution, or treatment, the case is closed and there is no arrest record. Research has demonstrated that the arrest and detention of non-violent offenders can increase the likelihood of future arrests due to the disruptive effects of police detention on employment and family life. Civil citations, by contrast, allow individuals to remain in their communities, maintain an income, and address the charges against them without the negative impacts of incarceration.
By offering a rehabilitative rather than a punitive option, civil citations enhance community safety, reduce the strain on our judicial and correctional systems, and ultimately treat individuals with greater dignity and respect. To take just one example, the Florida juvenile civil-citation program has reduced the likelihood of rearrest within six-month, one-year, and three-year follow-up periods. One study showed that youth who had received civil citations reoffended at an average rate of 4%, versus 11% in the comparison group — a nearly two-thirds reduction in recidivism. Law-enforcement in Florida's Duval County now issue civil citations about 90% of the time. This has reduced juvenile arrests within the jurisdiction of the state's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court by more than 1,000 each year, producing savings of almost $5 million annually. Arthur Burnett, a former judge on the D.C. Superior Court, has called civil citation "one of the most important innovations in the juvenile justice system, perhaps since the founding of the Juvenile Court concept in Chicago in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899."
THE FUTURE OF POLICING REFORM
As society evolves, so must our approach to policing. Implementing innovative police strategies reflects an understanding of the complex social dynamics that intersect with law enforcement. These new practices transform policing from a system of punishment to one of community engagement and support.
Policing reform will face an uphill battle in the coming months, particularly as the 2024 presidential-election cycle dominates political debates. Last year's midterm elections demonstrated how policing issues are typically broached by political campaigns: Candidates on both sides of the aisle chose to latch onto the increase in violent crime since the start of the pandemic and make protecting public safety a key part of their platforms. Across the country, candidates ran ads on radio, television, and social media focusing on crime and appealing to constituents' most basic desire to feel safe in their communities. Some even misconstrued state crime statistics to fit their narrative.
While this campaign fodder may drive online clicks and voters to the polls, it misses the mark policy-wise and undermines the capabilities of law enforcement. We can expect more attacks in the next year against many of the innovations that best allow police officers to carry out their duties to protect the public. But armed with the knowledge of evidence-based research, champions of accountable, effective, and community-oriented policing are well prepared to combat these misleading narratives.
Correction appended: The original text conflated the Crisis Intervention Response Unit with another Denver program known as Support Team Assisted Response (STAR), and incorrectly characterized the types of cases the unit responds to. We apologize for the oversight.[return to text]