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What Police Are For: A Look Into Role Of The Police In Modern Society

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What are police really for in this country? What role do we expect them to play in our society? How do we expect them to do it? How do we measure if a police department is successful? Questions being debated across our country right now and questions we are going to put next to Barry Friedman. He's director of the Policing Project at New York University Law School.

Barry Friedman, welcome.

BARRY FRIEDMAN: Good to be here.

KELLY: Let's start there in America. What are the police for? It's such a simple question and yet such a complicated one.

FRIEDMAN: Very complicated. The answer is pretty much everything. What we've done in this country is adopted a one-size-fits-all way of dealing with any social problem that hits the streets. And we send basically armed people to deal with it.

KELLY: Do we ask too much of the police, throw them into situations they are not trained to handle, not equipped to handle?

FRIEDMAN: Many of them. You know, a raft of social problems from substance abuse, homelessness, mental illness, but even things like perhaps, you know, something obvious like taking a report after a traffic accident. There's just this huge range of things we ask police to do that, in many ways, are unsuited to their primary training as force - users of force and the law.

KELLY: All right. So how do we measure if they are successful? How do we measure the success of a police department? Are there agreed-upon metrics?

FRIEDMAN: The country is adrift on this very question right now. You know, I would've told you if you'd asked me 10 years ago that we were measuring enforcement actions, stops, frisks, arrests - and we've realized that that has a deleterious effect, though those things are still measured in some places. But then when you take that away and ask, you know, what should you measure? People are at a bit of a loss.

KELLY: What do you think we should be measuring for trying to look at a police department and ask, how are they doing?

FRIEDMAN: So I'll tell you sort of a interesting story in this regard. We run a project on the ground in Chicago trying to improve police community relations. And we were debating this entire question with members of the community. And people talked about waves, like how many - how often do people wave at the police or how often did the police wave back? So we're looking for some kind of measure about positive interactions, about working with the community to solve problems, attending community meetings, the things that would integrate them more into the community and solve the community's real issues instead of enforcing against the community.

KELLY: Does spending more money buy you a better police force?

FRIEDMAN: So that's a terrific question. There's a tiny bit of scholarship that suggests that if you spend too little money, you get into trouble, that a strained police force is a dangerous police force. But there's very little evidence that we have that you get better policing with more money.

KELLY: Does it buy a safer community? Can we measure that?

FRIEDMAN: So it's even difficult to measure safe communities. We can measure crime, though the crime statistics are notoriously unreliable. There's a new app that some police departments are using called Elucide (ph) that does an ongoing measure of community trust in the police or their feeling of safety in the neighborhood. And those are good measures, though hard to get a handle on. You know, I feel like I'm abandoning you all the way along the way, but this is representative of where we stand right now.

KELLY: I'm listening to you, and it sounds like we don't really know if the money that we are spending on policing as a country is being used effectively. And we don't really even have agreement on what the police are for. Those seem like two awfully huge open questions to have out there as we as a country consider what the role of police should be.

FRIEDMAN: I personally find it mind-boggling. And I've worked in this space for a long time. I think we need to have a very serious conversation in this country about what we mean by public safety and public safety for everybody, and then ask whether the police or the right folks to be achieving that in every instance. And as much as we are hearing from an angry street right now asking those sorts of questions, the thing I'll tell you is the police will not fight with those questions, either. They too would tell you they're being asked to do too many things and pushed into too many situations for which they are not apt.

KELLY: How much of this do you think is on police and the people running police forces, and how much is on the legislators and other people overseeing these departments?

FRIEDMAN: It is on us. We have completely failed to regulate the police in every area of government. We adopt rules and procedures and policies with democratic input and transparency. And then we have a set of metrics for those. And the police, we've basically said, keep the peace. Solve crime. Go forth and do it any way that you want. And there's just this vacuum of regulation that is absolutely stunning.

KELLY: Are you optimistic that things will get better?

FRIEDMAN: I wouldn't do the work that I did if I didn't manage to find optimism every day. But it's been a very depressing time at present. And all I can hope, as I think many people hope, is that we take this moment and make it really a moment where we start to turn the corner and do some hard work.

KELLY: Barry Friedman, thank you.

FRIEDMAN: My pleasure.

KELLY: He's professor of law and director of The Policing Project at NYU Law, also author of the book "Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.