Police reform is not a new topic, but after the death of George Floyd the debate surrounding reforming police departments and policing methods has been reinvigorated. Nationwide protests for the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund police departments have spread across the country. With so much commentary from both sides of the political aisle, certain important facts about police practices are often lost in the noise.
Frank T. Manheim, an affiliate professor and distinguished senior fellow since 2003 with the Schar School of Policy and Government, wrote a study with a team of student researchers in 2018 pointing out that New York City was crime-ridden and the police force boasted a negative reputation before various factors assisted proactive policy makers to turn the department around. There were some 2,250 murders in New York City in the early 1990s, and by the late 2010s that number was less than 500 on average. Police shootings of suspects also decreased significantly. So what changed?
“Federal law may limit bad practices but can’t fix problem-ridden departments,” said Manheim in a recent interview. “New York’s history offers a more decisive answer to effective policing. The city was the murder capital of the United States until a dramatic drop in violent crime, as well as police killings per population, was achieved by police commissioners Raymond Kelley and William Bratton.”
However, good leadership in police departments is not the only factor that brings about change.
“Another critical factor,” said Manheim, “was support of police leadership by city government. With first-rate leaders and intelligent support from city authorities, police departments can be turned around. Without these two factors, progress may be hard.”
Manheim began a federal work-study program in 2016, completed in 2018, to study crime in Virginia localities, and is soon to finish a similar program for the study of Maryland. Manheim’s research team of Schar School students Daniel Mitchell, Timothy B. Bullock, and Jahtanya S. Scott, was able to conclude in the Virginia study that community history, characteristics, and police performance are other major influences on the crime rates of a given locality.
Manheim’s team’s findings show that community characteristics play an important role in citizen-police relations. This is likely due to the fact that wealthier communities have the resources to hire better officers. And individuals in wealthy communities have the resources to pursue legal recourse for an officer’s abuse of power, whereas individuals in impoverished communities do not—only worsening their community’s relationship with local police.
Impoverished citizens often face additional hurdles in pursuing legal recourse due to income disparity, but certain judicial doctrines shielding law enforcement from civil liability are making the problem worse, such as the doctrine of “qualified immunity.”
“Qualified immunity is a doctrine of the Supreme Court, created in 1982 to shield police officers from legal liability for the unjustified damages they cause others in the course of their work, damages that ordinary citizens would be liable for if they did the same thing,” said Roger Pilon, the vice president of legal affairs at the Cato Institute. “The doctrine makes it extremely difficult to hold officers liable for even egregious abuses of their authority.”
Policy research such as Manheim’s confirms that intelligent legislatures supportive of change that enable strong police leadership seeking similar change will certainly reduce systemic department-wide issues. Judicial reform that allows individual officers to be held accountable for their actions will also help to fix damaged public-police relationships for the future.
Fortunately, these issues are not nearly as widespread in Virginia. According to Manheim’s findings, the Commonwealth ranked sixth lowest in violent crime in 2016 and dropped to fourth lowest in 2019. It was the only state out of the Northeast to be in the top-five safest states. That is due, in part, to supportive local legislatures, excellent community members, and strong leadership from police executives, such as Schar School alumna Erin Schaible, Fairfax City’s chief of police.