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The Chauvin Verdict and the Future of Policing in America

Apr 24, 2021

  • There is a lot wrong with policing because there is a lot wrong with society.
  • For communities of color, the Chauvin verdict is one winning skirmish in a centuries-old war that shows no signs of slowing.
  • There will be no one-size-fits-all solution but several key changes have been proposed.

“We came to the job to change the world only to have the world change us.” —Bruce Sokolove, Law Enforcement Consultant, Field Training Associates

I was planning to write the final piece in my series about cops and therapy. Then the Chauvin verdict came in and I haven’t been able to think about much else.

I don’t know Derek Chauvin, but I do know this. Police work changes people. Some of them are damaged beyond repair. This is not an excuse for Chauvin’s or any other law enforcement officer’s egregious behavior. It is simply an ugly reality.

The Problem

There is a lot wrong with policing because there is a lot wrong with society. Systemic racism has been with us for a long time. It didn’t start with cops and it won’t stop with them. This is hard for many of us white people to see and even harder for many of us to admit. It requires our attention, our concentration, our willingness to listen to the experience of people of color without becoming defensive. We may not feel ourselves to be part of the problem (in truth I believe we are, even if we don’t often see how exactly), but we are certainly part of the solution. In many ways, things have gotten better. But better is not yet good enough and the consequences of historical inequities don’t just fade away with time.

The Reaction

Watching the Chauvin trial provoked a mash of emotions in me. As a police psychologist, I’ve met hundreds of decent, hard-working officers. I’ve seen the job wear away at their shiny badges. I’ve seen what repeated exposure to trauma, tragedy, and unbelievable cruelty can do to a once-open heart. I’ve seen how the testosterone-fueled culture of policing can obliterate individual differences. I’ve observed what happens when peer pressure and the push for productivity can force well-intended officers to choose between serving their colleagues and their agencies or serving their communities.

The Verdict

Does the verdict in the Chauvin case indicate things are changing? For communities of color, the verdict in the Chauvin trial is one winning skirmish in a centuries-old war that shows no signs of slowing. 

The effect of the verdict on the police community is as varied as the human beings who wear the uniform. There’s relief, resentment, and fear. Morale is low. Recruitment is challenging. Even those who applaud the verdict feel demoralized, frightened, and tired of being called racist just because they are cops. 

The Solution

The solution, if there is one, is complex. There will be no one-size-fits-all. Systemic racism exists in all aspects of society. Police cannot fight poverty, fix gaps in education, housing, healthcare, and employment. Neither can they alone deal with the scourge of drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness.

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes activity at the administrative level to correct historical wrongs and rebuild trust between the police and communities of color. This has been going on for years. The Chauvin verdict and the sentencing to follow has the potential to embolden these efforts or derail them. Only time will tell if these changes will become the national norm and if the rank and file, who are on the front lines not in conference rooms writing policy, will embrace them.

On April 22, as I was working on this post, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published an online letter, titled It Is Beyond Time. The letter implores Congress to act on meaningful police reform legislation. It includes an offer to sit down with any congressional leader to talk through the various legislative components that IACP believes will reform and improve policing and bolster trust between police and their communities. I encourage you to read the entire letter at theiacp.org. Here’s a summary of the key proposals.

  • Adopt the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force
  • Mandate participation in the National Use of Force Database
  • Develop national standards for discipline and termination of officers
  • Mandate participation in the National Police Office Decertification Database
  • Enhance police leadership and culture
  • Implement improved recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices
  • Enhance the ability of police agencies to implement effective discipline

If I could add to this potentially powerful list of reforms, I would want to reconsider the trajectory of a police career. No one should do this job for twenty to thirty years without a break. Officers need sabbaticals and the option to change departments without losing rank. They need opportunities to change careers at shorter intervals without financial penalty, training for new jobs, and support for re-entering civilian life. 

What’s Next?

Do I feel optimistic about the future? That depends on what day you ask me. There are days when I feel like hanging up my shingle and never reading another newspaper. But there are more days when I feel positive change is in the air. When I see people of all races engaged in a campaign for equity and fairness in our social institutions. A democratic society needs police. In an ideal world, police take risks so that the rest of us—regardless of race or social status—can feel secure.

For a deeper dive into this topic, please join me and my fellow police psychologists in a free, open-to-all panel discussion we are calling Police Psychology in an Era of Social Unrest: Counseling Cops in a Post George Floyd World. The date is June 25, 2021, 10-12 Pacific Time. Find more information and registration here.

References: Wilkerson, I. (2020) Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. New York, Random House.

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