Police Transformation: Moving From "US vs. Them" to "We"

Stephen M. Sachs,* June 15, 2020

The United Sates and much of the world has been reexamining policing in the light of demonstrations led by Black Lives Matter protesting the clearly unjustified deaths of people of color at the hands of police, and beyond that, discriminatory policing more broadly. Discriminatory policing has certainly been a matter of Red Lives matter as well as Black Lives Matter, with a higher percentage of deaths per capita at the hands of the police suffered by Native Americans than by any other measured group in the United States, as part of a great deal of more general racist police behavior in relating to Indigenous people. These discriminatory behaviors are themselves magnified manifestations of a more general racism, mixed with a less pronounced classism, in U.S. society that ultimately needs to be rooted out to obtain a just, balanced society. While the broader inequitable consciousness and behavior needs to be transformed as part of moving policing from an "us vs. them' to 'we" mentality and practice, there are a number of steps that I believe need to be taken to ameliorate the policing portion of the broader problem.

For too long, abuses by many police officers and departments in the United States have been acting against communities and their members, failing to carry out their function to protect and serve them. The most glaring injustices have involved a long chain of totally unjustified killings by police, while regular prejudicial treatment by many officers has been a major contributor to the marginalization and debasement of many people and groups.

The improper operation of too many police departments and personnel has led to calls to disband them. The problem with just doing that is that there are some functions that police departments have been created to carry out that are necessary for the protection and wellbeing of all communities and their members. The need for these functions to be carried out will be less in the well balanced, inclusive, equalitarian  society we seek to develop. But the need is especially strong for appropriate policing functions to be carried out publicly in our current, unbalanced, divided nation. Some agency needs to carry out these functions, whether it is reconstituted current police, or newly created bodies, such as was undertaken with some degree of success in Camden, NJ.

Camden disbanded its police department in 2012 because it was so alienated from the mostly African American community it served that it was ineffective, unable to prevent the people of that city from suffering from extremely high crime over-all, and the highest murder rate in the country in particular. By constructing on a more proper basis a county police department, which did employ many of the former Camden city officers in a thorough and careful hiring process, while taking steps to properly train officers, appropriately administer the department, and build trust with community members, a well working - if not perfect - policing operation with community support and cooperation was established, that lowered the general crime and murder rates for everyone's benefit. When the protests began around the United States, in 2020, over the police killing of George Floyd, in Camden the police chief and some of the officers marched in agreement with the protestors, not in too often violent conflict with them, as occurred in quite a number of municipalities.

What is required is a fundamental transformation of much of the policing in the United States, that ultimately goes beyond Camden. Currently, too many police agencies operate in an overly militarized way with an "us vs. them" mentality - as outside forces suspicious of and alienated from communities and their citizens, whom they are supposed to serve. A transformation is necessary to true community policing, with an attitude of "we."

An Overview of What Needs to Be Done

Transformation of the police from "us vs. them" to "we" operations requires several interrelated steps. First is making police accountable to the law and the people they serve. Police need to be overseen by civilian bodies that govern and review operations, and hear complaints against officers and decide what to do about them with due process. This includes both whether or not, and how to deal with individual officers, including supervisors, who may have acted or failed to act improperly, and whether to change policing policy. Punishment needs to be appropriate, if and as necessary, but so far as practicable, a restorative justice approach should be taken, with hearings serving  as boards of enquiry aimed at identifying and solving problems. Where officers are teachable, action should be taken to correct their behavior, including requiring training and probation. Penalties should be part of relearning, if and as, appropriate. Where officers are found not to be able to function properly in the community, they should be transferred to other work, retired early, or fired as is appropriate. Where officers' misbehavior violates the law, they should be prosecuted.

To keep individual officers accountable requires changes in procedure and the law. Some practices, such as chokeholds, should be made illegal. Legal bars to prosecution such as "qualified" immunity need to be reduced or eliminated so that officers who act recklessly, as well as clearly willfully illegally, can be punished. Political pressure needs to be on prosecutors to bring cases where there is probable cause. A culture change needs to be developed - which will take time - so that officers and supervisors will see that not preventing or correcting abusive policing reduces their relationship with the community and their effectiveness and brings blame upon them, while acting to keep policing proper enhances their community relationship, effectiveness and security.

Change in attitude will also need to take place in police unions, many of which in recent years have been blockers of needed change, including making it difficult to effectively punish extremely improper behavior by officers. Police unions have an important legitimate role to play in giving officers a voice in administration, and with the public, in protecting their legitimate interests and rights, including to due process. But, they need to come to see that preventing officers who have acted extremely wrongly from being appropriately disciplined or fired, is counter to the interests of the other officers, and the work of the department as a whole.

Attitude transformation requires proper recruiting, and training, that in many instances needs not only to be changed to a community policing approach, but also extended sufficiently to create a community oriented culture. Recruiting needs to be sufficiently thorough and attentive to hiring recruits who are qualified and open to working even-temperedly, collaboratively and evenhandedly in the community. People with previous bad behavior records, including officers who were fired from other departments for repeated improper conduct, ought not to be hired with clear indication that they have been rehabilitated. There are complaints that currently happens too often.

Changes in police approach are needed that should begin with training, emphasizing that police are "peace officers." They need to be trained to be problem solvers and peace makers, working with communities and their people. They should be educated to be able to interrelate well with  a variety of people from different backgrounds and in different conditions and states of mind.   Their first step, when possible, in confrontational situations is to deescalate them. In addition, police need to be trained in additional techniques between initially speaking to a threatening or disorderly person and shooting them, to make use of deadly force clearly a last resort, for everyone's security, including the officers.

Because an essential part of police training is on the job, with assignment to a partner after graduating the police academy, care should be taken in pairing rookies with experienced officers. It may be advisable to council the experienced officers on mentoring the rookies. The ongoing training that officers receive in many department needs to reinforce basic norms and procedures, as well as providing updating and corrective learning.

Some changes in police function and procedure are needed. The City of Albuquerque, NM for example, has created a separate department of Community Safety (ACS) of trained professionals such as social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention and diversion program experts to act as first responders instead of police, and for police arriving on the scene to call in to handle situations where a social worker, psychologist or other specialist is required.  Where police backup may be advisable, officers can be asked to be stand in reserve to support if appropriate.


There will be occasions when a swat team will be necessary, but swat operations should be minimized, being readily available, but only used in extreme cases. Where a situation threatens to become, but is not yet serious, the swat team is best kept nearby, but out of sight. If a situation is sufficiently threatening it is best to have the presence of the swat team provide a needed show of force, without employing it in action, as a step in restraint, hopefully leading to de-escalation. Only if it is clearly necessary, should the swat team be actively employed, and then only until the violence subsides. Police only need a small amount of military equipment in reserve, only for rare extreme occurrences, and should not have large supplies of them.

Better training and procedure for crowd control are also necessary. Much has been written by experts on how to undertake this. Far too often police do not do this well, too often by mishandling police have created a riot by attacking peaceful citizens and causing some of them to be so angry at the police that they kept fighting them for many hours. In other instances, peaceful protestors have been hemmed in by police, so that the police prevented them from obeying a police order to move, after which the peaceful citizens were attacked and a number of them falsely arrested. arrested. In even worse instances, officers have attacked peaceful crowds without provocation or any lawful order to move, sometimes already having surrounded the demonstrators so they could not leave. These are clearly cases of assault by police that should have been prevented by requiring officers to follow proper police procedure. When officers do act this way, they should be disciplined administratively and prosecuted.

Most of the time when there is a demonstration, officers should arrive in normal uniform and make it clear they are there to protect the rights of people to protest. If one or a few people act violently or destructively, officers should isolate them, seeking assistance from the peaceful people at the scene as appropriate, and avoid attacking the crowd in mass. If it is feared a protest or a large crowd may get out of hand, then a squad of fully equipped riot police can be kept nearby, but out of sight. The regular officers withdraw to put on riot gear, and return if needed. But officers need to be trained to control their anger and not use force when not, or no longer, necessary, and to return a scene to calm as quickly as possible.

Officers should be required to wear body cameras, and have them turned on when engaged in policing. This is not only to help ensure that officers act properly, but to have sufficient evidence to obtain convictions. This has become important, because in numerous recent cases officers' statements about what happened at an event have been shown to wrong from filming of the event and reliable witness statements. As a result many juries may not accept officers' testimony without such confirmation. It will be helpful if police personnel can come to see that such practices are helpful to them when they act properly.

The main thrust in police transformation should be toward community policing with officers working regularly in a small area collaborating with and problem-solving with community members. This should be proactive in preventing and solving problems, as well as reactive when an incident occurs. In large municipalities it is usually advisable to have the same officers regularly assigned to a reasonably small neighborhood precinct where they can establish and maintain familiarity and good working relations with the community. They can be supported by specialists, such as homicide and arson investigators, from a central office, who can be called in a needed. To the extent practical, it will be useful if at least some of the officers involved in community policing live in that community.

Team-work among police and community members, institutions and organizations should be ongoing, bringing in public and private social services as team partners as appropriate. For instance, if there is a problem with illegal drugs being sold to minors near a school. Police officers can meet with social workers, parents and teachers to dialogue on how best to solve the problem.

A good example of the successful collaboration this kind of community policing can achieve is the experience of turning a low income housing project plagued by crime in Indianapolis, IN into a relatively secure area. The transformation was accomplished by having the police meet with housing project management (which agreed to initiate and work with a tenants association, run by the tenants), the tenants association, and neighborhood organizations in the surrounding area. In addition, the mostly white police officers teamed up with local black ministers to go door to door to survey the largely black tenants on their concerns. Plans were mutually developed with the participants agreeing to take responsibility for various actions. Management hired a new security service and agreed to evict tenants quickly who were arrested for selling drugs, which was a major part of the crime problem. With the approval of the tenants, the police blocked off some vehicle accesses to the project to make it easier to monitor activity. This was important because much of the crime was caused by outside drug sellers and buyers coming into the project which had been a convenient place to do business. The police also obtained agreement of the prosecutor’s office to take swift action against those charged, and from federal authorities to act quickly against those arrested for gun possession. Tenants took responsibility for informing the authorities of criminal activity and situations which might lead to crime. Within a few months, the housing project had become so crime free that the major concern of the tenants was that the police would consider the area so secure they would stop working with the tenants and crime would return to the project.

There are numerous examples of this type of real community policing with teamwork bringing community and police cooperation, making police more effective, with better quality of life for the community and better working conditions for police officers who feel supported by the community.

To be effective, community policing must be developed properly over time, with officers having a say in how it develops and operates, as officers on the street have essential knowledge that top brass does not. For example, interviewing Indianapolis police officers about the initial launching of their community policing process found that the officers were unhappy with its being forced on them from headquarters. Their complaint was two-fold. The officers did not appreciate a major change in their work being forced on them. But they also quickly observed that there were problems in the implementation, that were immediately obvious to them, but not to the top brass who did not work the streets.

Among the problems was that the incentives for police officers were not changed with the shift from a rapid response patrol model to a community relations approach. Officers, were now ordered to spend time observing the neighborhoods in which they worked, and talking to residents about crime and safety related issues. But they were still being evaluated on the basis of how little time they spent on any task, and how quickly they moved on to the next call. It was only when the top officers in charge of the program talked with those carrying it out that the contradictions were removed. The new program then began to function well with a corresponding rise in how the police people involved felt about it. It should be noted, that even the U.S. armed services  has found it extremely valuable to do regular team evaluation and improvement of operations practice between field operations and drills.

Police do not operate in a vacuum. Current problems in policing are largely amplified symptoms of imbalances in the larger society. To be fully successful, police transformation will have to be part of a larger socio-economic political transformation to a more just society, in which it can be an important aspect.

Achieving positive societal transformation requires extended and thoughtful effort. At the present time numerous pressures have come together that may be sufficient to begin the process. Events have caused people to build up strong emotions that can be channeled to bring about needed change. People rightly want long overdue action. But they need to step back enough to dialogue about what actually needs to be done in particular locations and circumstances. The following came to me on the occasion of the  nationwide demonstrations against police killings and discriminatory action against people of color, and hearing that much of the violence and destruction of property  that occurred was carried out or instigated by those who wish to undermine the protests.

  Prayer for Getting To Peace  6/1/20

I pray that those doing violence and harm will stop,

That those inflaming the violence

And acting viciously and destructively

To undermine peaceful protestors

Will cease or be restrained.

Now that recent events have so magnified

The many imbalances and inequities

In our society

So that they are plain  for all to see,

May all of us open our eyes

That we may work together to correct the wrongs,

Turning justified anger into collaborative energy

For just social transformation

In our mutual interest,

With the long term persistence

Of active patience

To continue to take the necessary steps

In the extended process

Of realizing an inclusive, balanced,

Harmonious society,

Recognizing our unity

In the strength of our diversity.

*Stephen M. Sachs, is professor Emeritus of Political Science, IUPUI, Senior Editor of IPJ and Coordinating Editor of the journal Nonviolent Change. He has undertaken considerable research on participatory society, including community policing. Much of this is presented in a discussion of how contemporary societies would better function if they did so according to Indigenous values concerning politics, economics, relating with the physical environment and education, in Volumes III and IV of Stephen M Sachs, Bruce E. Johansen, Betty Donohue, Ain Haas, Donna Kay Dial, Sally Wagner, Jonathan York, Christina A. Clamp, Don Grinde, Amy Fatzinger, Walter S. Robinson and Phyllis Gagnier, Honoring the Circle: Ongoing Learning from Indians on Politics and Society to be published in the summer of 2020 by Waterside Productions.


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