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  • Writer's pictureJerry Ratcliffe

Change in policing is like an ocean current

I've been a scuba diver for more than 25 years. Been lucky enough to dive beautiful places like the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea and Easter Island. One thing I've experienced is that what you see on the surface bears little relationship to what's underneath. I've rolled into the water in the middle of a tropical squall off the coast of Borneo with the boat pitching violently, to find tranquility 20 feet beneath the waves.

I have learned that surface conditions tell you little about what is really important. People think that the waves are what carry weak swimmers away, but it is actually the current. And the current is usually invisible from the surface. The waves are pretty and can be temporarily impressive, but they are driven by the wind, fickle and changeable. You often end up expending a lot of energy to bob up and down in place not going anywhere.

The current lies beneath the surface, sometimes a powerful force invisibly pushing people and ships out to sea, or onto rocks. I have been swept along by a current so powerful in the Galapagos islands that I wasn't able to hold onto anything or arrest my progress. On the surface, there was no clue as to the forces at play.

And that is my analogy to change in policing. On television and social media, we are seeing a lot of waves. There are a lot of crashing sounds and it looks like impressive change, but it seems to be just that. Noise. Waves.

Real change in policing is like an ocean current, invisible and beneath the surface, yet still powerful.

And on reflecting across more than 35 years involved in policing, change has been happening. Most current (no pun intended) commentators just have not seen it. They have ignored the current and only seen the waves going this way and that. In many countries and police departments there has been a underlying current that has moved the police in the right direction. Many police departments are now working more closely with marginalized communities, embracing bodyworn cameras and other mechanisms of oversight, and democratized their crime and incident data. I'm currently working on a project with SEPTA transit police department in the Philadelphia region to improve their response to people suffering an opioid overdose. A new breed of progressive police chiefs, like Chris Magnus, are balancing public safety and crime prevention with a realization that as inequality in society increases, police will have a greater social support role.

The most recent nationally representative survey of US law enforcement agencies found that nearly all officers have access to less-lethal weapons, 70% have directives or policies on cultural awareness, and 95% have written policies or procedural directives on racial bias in policing.

There is still so much to do. Most police departments do not have written community policing plans, nor are the majority of officers required to report when they point their firearm at a citizen. The mechanisms for police oversight and accountability remain haphazard and ad hoc, lack an evidence base, and are poorly implemented, lacking community support.

And yes, policing is slow to change, especially in the US where the oversight usually comes from city managers who know nothing about policing, powerful unions inhibit change that would benefit their good members, and paying too much attention to the 'waves' can result in a lack of clarity on what direction to take and change for the sake of change. Focusing on the waves just leaves you bobbing up and down in the water, not really going anywhere.

But I would caution against too much pessimism. The currents are strong, if invisible, and they are in the right direction. Younger officers and progressive police leaders are now more vocal, and they represent a positive future for an important organization in the community. As Rod Brunson has pointed out, most communities do not want less policing, but the right policing. Policing scholars are working closely with police officers seeking an evidence base for their profession, and a movement towards evidence-based policing will continue to help steer the current in the direction of the right policing. Real change in policing is like an ocean current, invisible and beneath the surface, yet still powerful.

Like many involved in policing, I've been a little disheartened of late. But I try to look back on the change over the last 35 years that I have witnessed, and remember that the current is the real force.

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