The Vexing Obstacle to Police Reform: A Cop’s Miserable Life

A deluge of 911 calls, little interaction with solid citizens, an “Us vs. Them” mentality—it’s breaking the country’s police forces. A veteran reporter explains why the blue have a bad attitude.

There’s been no shortage of commentary on the wrenching reckoning underway for American policing, especially since George Floyd’s murder. But much of what’s written about policing betrays an embarrassing lack of familiarity with real cops, what they do all day and how it affects them. My two years of night police beat and ten years of beat reporting on law enforcement—including “ride-alongs” with cops in multiple cities, Washington and New York among them—has led me to unsettling conclusions, and questions that will require some societal soul-searching.

Yes, there are a lot of bad cops. It’s not just a few “bad apples.” But here’s something more uncomfortable: I’m convinced that many of them don’t start out bad. Instead, they slowly turn bad because of  the twisted, unhealthy conclusions they draw from their time on the force. It’s what noted police psychologist John Nicoletti calls “too much, too long, too many, too ugly.” How to intervene in that descent into darkness—and too often, brutality—is a crucial question—but one not necessarily prone to legislative remedies or a simplistic narrative that comports with either the Black Lives Matter movement or Police Benevolent Associations.

The devolution of cops in big cities—and that’s where most of the crime happens—begins with patrol officers doing little but responding to 911 calls. That may sound to those who’ve never worn a police uniform like no big deal, just part of the job. Not so. The 911 system seemed like a good idea when it was created in the late 1960s for emergency calls. But Americans got addicted to instantly available cops. By 1996 there were 268,000 911 calls daily and now there are 600,000, many of which are not related to crimes in progress or an imminent emergency but to non-threatening disorderly conduct problems or taking reports on car accidents or burglaries that occurred hours or days before.

Yes, a few cities have made progress with “differentiated response” that routes some 911 calls to EMTs or social services or makes an appointment for a cop to drop by later. Some departments have civilian employees take routine reports or they employ counselors to deal with mental health problems. But policing is a balkanized profession—there are almost 18,000 police agencies in the United States.

So, most everywhere cops are responding to 911 calls. And because response time remains a key metric used for pay and promotions—woe be the police chief presiding over slow response times—cops are under pressure to stabilize any situation they find and get back “in service” to respond to the next 911 call. They’re doing triage, responding to symptoms rather than solving problems—and they know it.  The patrol car will be back later this week to deal with that abusive marriage or that mentally ill person or that drunk or that drug dealer or that noise complaint, and nothing will change. In cop-speak, these are repeat customers.

“One thinks of 911 as a major advance in American law enforcement, but it had several less than beneficial consequences,” write former New York and Los Angeles top cop Bill Bratton and Peter Knobler in their new book, The Profession. “In our haste to get to every call and handle them quickly, cops began to lose the intimacy of their relationship with the neighborhood they were policing.”

And one consequence is that cops now have little interaction with the neighborhood’s solid citizens—the school kids, the local businessmen, the ladies sitting on the stoops. No time for that. Since 911 calls drive everything, the overwhelming majority of folks cops deal with on a day-to-day basis are going to be agitated. They’re angry. Frustrated. Traumatized. Injured. Drunk. High. Some are dying. And some are violent. In crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods, a disproportionate percentage of these folks, for complex reasons that no doubt include racism, may be people of color.

It’s a toxic stew. I was alarmed when I participated in “ride-alongs” of a creeping agitation and frustration that  gradually overtook me over the course of an eight-hour shift—a desire to take some sort of “action” that that might address the utter futility of this mind-numbing routine. And I knew I was going back to an office the next day. For cops, it’s Groundhog Day—that same routine day after day for years.

From there, it’s just a short distance to verbal abuse or pulling someone over just for something to do or executing a “tune-up” for some wiseass that involves a whack or two with that big flashlight or a high-speed pursuit that is far more dangerous than whatever law might have been broken.

And pretty soon, cops only hang with other cops. They sit opposite each other during dinner breaks at Applebee’s so they can watch each other’s back. They always carry their gun, even off-duty, because you never know. There’s a second gun around their ankle. Because life is perilous. Because no one else understands them. No one else realizes how many “shit-birds” are out there. There’s only us. And them.

In too many urban police departments, the “us” is still overwhelmingly white while “them” is seen as Black due to a lingering and dangerous “diversity deficit.” That’s the gap between the percentage of a city’s population comprised of people of color and the percentage of that municipality’s police department that are minorities.

Urban police departments have grown more diverse in recent years, but the percentage of white officers still commonly exceeds the percentage of the white population.  There’s a continuing struggle to close the gap as older officers retire. Chicago’s population is 33 percent non-Hispanic white, but the police department is 47 percent white. Despite active recruiting efforts, the number of Black officers in Chicago dropped by 178 over the past year. Boston is 44 percent non-Hispanic white, but 65 percent of the cops are white. The New York Times reported last fall that of 467 police departments with at least 100 officers that reported data for both 2007 and 2016, more than two-thirds got whiter relative to the city’s population during that time period.

This is troubling for both cops and residents. Research shows that greater diversity among cops improves trust, at least modestly, in neighborhoods of color. But in cities where the demographic mismatch lingers, citizens often see the police as an occupying army while some white cops adopt a siege mentality. Even with pleasant weather, cops will typically keep their patrol car windows shut because they’re afraid of having something thrown at them.

Psychologically, the “inputs” are all bad. Crime is terrible. We can’t make a difference. We’re 911 robots and nothing else. This neighborhood is filled with dirtbags. Everyone hates us. No one has my back except for my partner. What it all adds up to is this: The biggest problem with American policing is cynicism. A whopping dose of bad attitude that is likely to get worse during an officer’s career.

What to do? It’s clear to me from years of covering them that cops need way more psychological intervention—and they need it on a rigorously enforced basis. In some departments, a certain number of citizen complaints triggers intervention. In many departments, any officer involved in a shooting must meet with a police psychologist. But that’s not enough. Requiring patrol officers to meet with a trained police psychologist every quarter would seem like the minimum to break the spiral of cynicism. Regular get-togethers in peer support groups run by cops trained in such therapy might also short-circuit bad attitudes. Wellness check programs for cops, where they literally check in on each other’s mental health, how they’re coping, etc., are growing as well. Every cop movie and procedural drama shows cops resisting mental health services. This trope is still too often largely true although things have gotten better over the last decade. Despite pledges of privacy, cops fear that “seeing the shrink” will be weaponized against them by supervisors or in litigation. Some fear counseling makes them look weak in what is often still a warrior culture. Unions may resist firm counseling requirements as part of collective bargaining agreements.

Many officers are just quitting, particularly since the George Floyd murder escalated scrutiny of the profession. A surge of cops hired in the 1990s are reaching retirement age.  They want out. D.C. Police Union chair Greggory Pemberton told The Washington Post this Spring that nearly 150 officers have resigned just since June 2020. In Minneapolis, some 200 officers have quit or taken extended leave since Floyd was murdered. In Seattle, a record 180 cops left the department in 2020, and 66 more had left in the first five months of 2021. A June survey of almost 200 departments by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that retirements between April 2020 and March 2021 were 45 percent higher than in the previous comparable year. In city after city, departments have dipped below authorized strength. The Baltimore Police Department is authorized for 2,638 officers, but currently has 2,388.

Good luck finding replacements. Even before the Floyd murder and subsequent “Defund the Police” protests, a 2019 PERF report  called the recruiting situation “dire.” Most departments, the report said, “are sensing a crisis in their ability to recruit new officers.” An International Association of Chiefs of Police survey, also from 2019, found that 78 percent of agencies reported difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates. An accompanying IACP report on the “crisis” in recruiting said police agencies “strongly believe that public perception of law enforcement limits interest in the profession and is a sizable barrier to effective recruitment.”

Even as police departments struggle to get applicants in the door, they need to be raising the bar and looking for recruits with a wider set of skills, said the PERF report. Today’s cops are expected to deal with a host of social ills, including rising numbers of de-institutionalized mentally ill and homeless persons displaced by demolition of single-room-occupancy hotels for inner-city redevelopment projects. These aren’t new problems, but they are worse. Look only at the surge in the numbers of homeless in cities like Los Angeles. Police departments “need a more diverse set of officers who possess key skills such as inter-personal communications, problem-solving, basic technological expertise, critical thinking, empathy and ‘community-mindedness,’” says the PERF report.

A post-pandemic tight labor market full of better-paying, safer jobs will make recruitment that much harder. There are intriguing challenges in police work that should theoretically appeal to thoughtful, educated problem-solvers. Meanwhile, technological advances and the current focus on police reform have indeed planted thoughtful seeds of procedural and structural reform that give cause for optimism. Over the past decade or so, for instance, cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Jose, and Denver have taken pressure off 911 with a new 311 number for non-emergency municipal services—like for handling a dead animal or an abandoned vehicle. There’s an increasing realization as well that too many problems have been dumped on the cops, so police departments are working more and better with social service and health care agencies to deal with the homeless and the mentally ill. So-called violence interrupter programs that use social workers or former gang members to intervene with at-risk young people—like in Richmond, California—have shown promise. And dozens of police departments are training officers in de-escalation techniques that may reduce the need for violence. Despite its well-publicized problems, the NYPD was an early adapter, reducing police shootings from 994 in 1972 to 35 in 2018.

But more research is needed to prove the effectiveness of some current proposals. And the pace of change is glacial. Asking an educated young person considering career choices to buy in is difficult if responding to 911 calls still dominates the job. And if the profession remains under white-hot scrutiny, even if completely justified. Problem-solvers or not, every couple of weeks, cops will be called to a bar fight and will find themselves confronting a drunken 400-pound biker swinging a pool cue. How does that sound?

So, in a profession crying out for reform and a more thoughtful approach, and badly in need of enlightened recruits, the path forward is pock-mocked with obstacles both daunting and not widely understood. Ask yourself: Do you know any young person who wants to become a police officer?

Me neither.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Gordon Witkin

Gordon Witkin is a veteran law enforcement reporter who later served as national affairs editor at U.S. News & World Report and executive editor of the Center for Public Integrity.