Words matter. In every cultural change or social crisis, we use words to explain, motivate, inspire, or challenge.
I work in police reform and facilitated President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. I also facilitated forums for the Department of Justice and, most recently, the Task Force on Federal Priorities in Criminal Justice Reform.
Police reform is rife with catchy phrases and terms to summarize a position or action. Common law enforcement nomenclature of today: de-escalation; defund the police; community policing; fair and impartial policing; guardian; warrior; procedural justice; cultural competency; and officer safety and wellness.
Since the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, we have been called to reimagine policing. Called by reformers, activists, politicians, and social change theorists.
To imagine is to envision something that doesn’t yet exist. I’ve seen numerous interviews with police chiefs who say things like, “We invite the community to help us reimagine policing.” Or, “It is time we reimagine policing.” The very phrase would suggest these police leaders are reform-minded and progressive and acknowledge the culture of policing needs change. So, is it just the image that needs to be changed, or is it the structure, mission, and organization that need a new vision?
If “reimagine” is the work of the future, then it would suggest we might need to unload and evaluate previous efforts to reimagine policing and the images which have defined policing for the past 200 years, including slave patrols, patrolman, peace officer, hero (after 9/11), officer, constable, and many more. Most of these terms, if not all, would emphasize the authority of police and their legitimacy is secured by control, not trust.
Many images of policing have reinforced the role to protect and serve. Some of the imagery proffered by police today remind me of Mr. Rogers with a gun: Basketball cops; public health officers; friendly cops; rescue cops; even gender sensitive officers, just to name a few.
Police brutality is the flip side of that. Or an authority anchored in control, coercion, and power. For many citizens, an encounter with the police provokes fear, anxiety, anger, and the possible loss of life. Those perceptions are anchored in experience and influence people’s response to the police. It is cultural, and cultural conflict emerges as a consequence.
In the Task Force on Federal Priorities in Criminal Justice Reform, Mark Holden argues we need to change the culture at the Bureau of Prisons, and that cultural change could begin with renaming it the Bureau of Rehabilitation or Corrections. Holden is Executive Vice President at Koch Industries and a task force member.
“Imagine,” he said, “if we change the name, we might change the behavior of everyone involved, and we would therefore change the culture.”
The phrase, “sanctity of life,” is an interesting development in discussions about reimagining policing, and it’s beginning to influence the culture of policing. All decisions in the field should be about preserving life. Sanctity of life should be the foundation of de-escalation, use of force, and how we approach all calls for service. You can see evidence of this in policy and, hopefully, in training within law enforcement.
Reimagining policing must be anchored in realities of policy and practice. The cultural shift that emphasizes protection and service must begin with the fundamental mission that all of life is sacred, and all policing should be about securing and protecting all lives within our communities. If sanctity of life was embedded in policies, training, and evaluation, we could produce policing that removes fear, intimidation, and coercion.
These efforts must be more than promoting new language.
The language of reimagining and sanctity of life must be tied to behavior and cultural change within policing organizations. Otherwise, we trivialize the current reform movement, and there will be no meaningful progress.
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