Crime touches millions of Americans every year. What affects more people? Police behavior.
Countless daily moments of interaction, personal and impersonal, determine whether a person trusts or distrusts the police. And in hundreds of cases a year, that determines whether a person lives or dies.
Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, USA TODAY Network reporters from newspapers across the country spent three months talking to 100 people working to create more just police forces: citizens, activists, cops and police chiefs, legislators and lawyers and judges, academics and researchers.
From individual choices to local agency policy, from state law to federal law, to technological advances that change the behavior of the people they serve, we learned how the police force of the future likely will evolve along multiple inflection points — especially in smaller American communities outside of the largest urban centers.
Among the 100 voices who spoke for this project were family members of victims of fatal police violence, as well as those traumatized by a heavily militarized show of force. Their ideas for the future were fraught with the knowledge that although things could be made better, victims of past violence will never come back, and some trauma will never completely heal.
More: 'We must act now': House passes police reform bill named for George Floyd
Firing from 35 feet away, David Wells of the Stockton, California, Police Department hit his target once in the face and seven times in his extremities, according to the district attorney’s report on the August 2016 killing.
The 30-year-old father of four, Colby Friday, wasn’t the person Wells was looking for, as it turned out.
The Stockton officer was investigating a domestic violence incident and decided to approach Friday at Peñas Supermercado. The officer’s initial mistake, and then his decision to shoot at a fleeing person, cost Friday his life.
The victim was the type of person who kept the family together. He was a good dad to his four children, his mother said. He took time off from work to escort them to school each year on the day of the annual Million Fathers March.
Officer Wells was
cleared of wrongdoing by the D.A.’s office.
Then, this past summer, Wells and two other officers
discharged their firearms into the vehicle of a Black homicide suspect, killing him. The incident is still under investigation. Denise Friday That’s not your position to be the judge, jury and executioner on the spot.
“That’s not your position to be the judge, jury and executioner on the spot,” said still-grieving mother Denise Friday, who is suing the police department for the shooting of her son in 2016.
More: What is systemic racism? Here's what it means and how you can help dismantle it
Congress gave citizens the right to sue police in 1871, passing a law that said local governments and agencies could be sued if they didn’t protect Black people from racial violence like lynching. A century later, the Supreme Court ruled an officer couldn’t be sued unless a plaintiff could expect to convince a jury that excessive violence was used and the officer was aware that he or she was violating standards of police behavior.
In other words, ignorance of the law is no excuse — except for police. It’s called “qualified immunity.”
Whether they think that police violence is a systemic problem or one of “bad apples,” a number of our 100 voices agreed that measures taken to improve police accountability will have to be part of policing’s future.
Troy Williams, a former cop from
Fayetteville, North Carolina, and member of a N.C. House select committee providing advice on police reform, said policing could be improved through more transparency about officers’ actions. That includes police body-cam footage being part of the public record. It also includes removing qualified immunity, and adding stronger licensing and disciplining of police behavior. The committee sent a list of 13 recommendations for the North Carolina state legislature to consider in 2021. Troy Williams Whatever I’m doing as a cop ought to be transparent enough that anyone can see it.
“Whatever I’m doing as a cop,” said Williams, “ought to be transparent enough that anyone can see it.”
More on Fayetteville police reform: Have Fayetteville police officers gone back to old ways?
Burke County, Georgia, Sheriff Alfonzo Williams has released body cam footage as part of a series of changes he wants to implement on the ground in his jurisdiction.
Within 24 hours of an August 2019 police shooting, the sheriff’s office released the body-camera video and the deputy’s name to the media. Williams said law enforcement agencies should not be allowed to use an excuse, such as “the video is part of an ongoing investigation,” to avoid releasing it.
Burke County Sheriff Alfonzo Williams stands in his office in Waynesboro, Georgia. Michael Holahan, The Augusta Chronicle
At least one expert says, however, that releasing body-cam video won’t change officer behavior. Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Research Forum, said that even in that situation, police using excessive force have gone free from punishment and will continue to do so as long as training remains the same. “The police officer was doing what he or she was trained to do,” he said.
Many of the people who spoke to us for this story agreed that future police must be trained differently, especially when it comes to the use of force.
Police training expert Gerald Takano believes most police violence comes during moments of high stress. Standard use-of-force models fail officers by overburdening them, Takano said. They require officers to consider too many possibilities in real-time, sometimes having as many as 36 options to weigh, suppressing some basic instincts that would result naturally in an officer stepping back or de-escalating.
Expert and former officer Gerald Takano's model, called "Branched Force Decision-Making," simplifies decisions to two options in any given moment, and focuses on de-escalation and factoring in emotions. Charles E. Leftwich
Takano said he’s developed a safer and more intuitive use-of-force model. The Branched Force Decision-Making model is completely binary, meaning that at no point do officers have more than two options to choose from.
An officer deciding not to shoot doesn’t mean all’s well that ends well. Just the presence of highly armed, tactically outfitted police officers can set the wrong tone. Many of our 100 voices called for some version of de-militarizing the police to levels appropriate for specific assignments or beats.
“Sometimes the mere presence of a weapon can escalate the situation,” said Desiree Weber, a political science professor in Ohio.
More: Amanda Gorman shares racial profiling incident: 'This is the reality of Black girls' Desiree Weber, political science professor Sometimes the mere presence of a weapon can escalate the situation.
Weber has spent time researching the effectiveness of school resource officers. She has been told having an armed officer in a school protects students in the case of a live shooter. Research, however, doesn’t support the conclusion these officers are effectively stopping school shootings, she said.
University of Maryland researchers found, in a nationwide survey of 270 high school and middle school principals from 2003 to 2008, that schools with resource officers reported more serious crimes, more minor crimes and higher rates for student expulsions than schools without that officer presence.
For seven years, Weber worked at a Chicago nonprofit that took her to local high schools. She’s seen how a heightened police presence can be intimidating to students, she said.
Valerie Slater is the executive director for RISE for Youth in Virginia. RISE for Youth In Wooster, Ohio, armed uniformed officers stand by metal detectors and screen students as they enter the building. In larger schools, officers are used to enforce order between class changes. “Just that presence can, I think, have quite a chilling effect,” Weber said.
Valerie Slater agreed. Slater is the executive director for RISE for Youth in Virginia, and said improving the future of police relations, especially when it comes to children, starts in the schools.
Police are making themselves at home in schools, she said, and it’s not a good thing. When police are in schools, they often get caught up in petty and minor disciplinary issues.
Tyler Whittenberg, a South Carolina activist, said investments need to be made so that “there’s someone who can provide mental health services who’s available in that building.”
For Whittenberg, removing police from schools, hiring restorative justice practitioners and investing in addressing students’ needs over criminalization or exclusionary discipline should be the goal.
Investment at the front end, seeing children’s needs are met, is not police business — it’s just where the money should go.
Tyler Whittenberg is an activist from North Carolina, and chief counsel for justice system reform with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Provided.
When the police found
Jewelian Johnson, they saw a young Black man under the influence, sitting alone, armed with a knife. What Johnson saw in what he thought might be his last minutes alive were white cops.
We know most of what happened next without being told: Orders were given to Johnson, and he was noncompliant. Bystanders pleaded with police on his behalf. A white officer approached him, one hand out while the other reached to his side.
But on the night that Jewelian Johnson could have slit his wrists if left alone or could have died by police gunfire for not dropping his knife, the officer instead handed him a business card and encouraged him to get help.
Jewelian Johnson I was extremely thankful that he was there, period, because I don't know if I would have still been here if not.
“I was extremely thankful that he was there, period, because I don't know if I would have still been here if not,” Johnson said. “He gave me his card and said, ‘I know this is how it looks, right. This is what it shows on TV, me being a white officer, you being a Black kid. But that's not how I want it to go down.’”
That officer checked on Johnson later to see how he was doing.
More: Latest protest brings ‘joy’ to some that Stockton is waking up to injustice
First-responders on the scene didn’t treat him like a criminal but like a person in crisis; as a result he is now finishing up his degree in political science at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He made headlines this summer as a co-organizer of marches and events protesting police brutality and advocating for education reforms.
He survived, and it wasn’t luck. It was proper policing. But are armed police the proper people to respond to a mental health crisis or drug-induced crisis?
Johnson calls for more open dialogue using an intersectional approach, such as conversations between white cops and members of communities that have been historically underrepresented or discriminated against.
Dozens of the 100 voices who spoke to USA TODAY Network reporters said the future of police would have to involve community policing.
Augusta Attorney Keith Johnson believes body cameras and a national use of force doctrine should be adopted by Congress to create uniformity. KEITH JOHNSON
That starts with hiring and training a force whose diversity is more in proportion with the diversity of the community, said many of our experts, including Keith Johnson, a local defense attorney in Augusta, Georgia, who thinks a more diverse force will help weed out bad officers.
the chief of police of Springfield, Illinois, says the return of neighborhood patrol officers is an inevitable piece of a more just future police force. Reenah Golden of Rochester, New York, a theater owner and activist, stressed that in any community policing model, the community defines the terms.
“This will be a safe place,” Golden said. “And we get to decide what ‘safe’ is.”
Reenah Golden This will be a safe place. And we get to decide what ‘safe’ is.
Many of our 100 voices said that the future of policing should include decriminalization of mental health issues and drug addiction. People will be reached earlier with non-punitive treatment, saving lives and getting them off the treadmill of the justice system.
Adam Peterson, a patrol officer for the Sioux Falls Police Department in South Dakota and a recent Officer of the Year, believes those issues are more than the police can handle alone, and punitive measures are not the answer. “We can’t arrest ourselves out of the situation,” he said.
A piece of the puzzle, many of our voices said, is not to teach police to do more and more, but to tailor the first response to the situation. Alternative units that respond to mental health or addiction-related crises are an important part of the future of police, and in small cities across America they are showing success.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, Stephanie Booco responds as a mental health professional to calls needing her expertise, with a police officer backing her up.
More: Am I OK? How to do a mental health check
Edward Elum, a Massillon, Ohio municipal court judge, said the justice system of arrests, jail or prison time and probation doesn’t help those with mental health issues or addiction problems, and they don’t help the community. “I get to sit in the middle, and it’s a carousel going around. If we don’t get them help, it’s a revolving door.”
Add juvenile justice to the list of things that need to be approached differently, said Beth O’Toole, the former assistant attorney general of South Dakota.
O’Toole was part of a state legislature-established team that worked for years to rejuvenate juvenile justice standards, leaning more toward deterrence and rehabilitation rather than arresting and jailing youth, a shift that’s taken some adjusting, she said.
That reform came in 2015, after South Dakota realized it locked up more kids than nearly every other state.
Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing,” says that alternative units and systems, properly employed, will minimize the size of police forces so much that they may not even have a future we’d recognize.
Already there are some alternative systems of responders such as CAHOOTS in Oregon that have been around for decades and could be expanded across the country. CAHOOTS, a non-police organization of community first-responders, has only requested police help 150 times in 23,000 answered calls. “This kind of alternative system is the future of ‘police,’” Vitale said.
“The vast majority of things police do today can easily be replaced. And what’s left at the end of that process is an open question.”
Alex Vitale says that police reforms could completely change how departments look in the future. Provided. Read the previous installments of Justice In My Town