Police Reform: Far More than “Training” and “Accountability” are Needed

By Peter Mancuso

On February 7th, President Biden in his State of the Union address spoke of the need for “police reform.” He offered only “training” and “accountability.” This is far too little in terms of systemic change.  The news that everyone is missing is that in societies with low crime rates, the criminal justice system has very little to do with controlling crime.

CELLS IN ATTICA STATE PRISON. Courtesy of religiousleftlaw.com

We have 2.3 million people incarcerated, (200,000 plus serving life or virtual life sentences) worst in the world, both in raw numbers and in ratio of population.  Changing the very primary role of police officers from “Crime Warriors” to “Community Guardians” is essential. Child protection and youth development will do far more to reduce crime than any number of arrests and prison sentences.
American law enforcement has become an enterprise, with large and small companies selling everything: from prison construction and management, to bullet-proof vests, to more (and “less”) lethal weapons, tactical training and everything you can and can’t imagine.

After years of rummaging, I finally laid hands on perhaps what was the most ambitious attempt I’d ever undertaken to address the primary ill of American policing on a national level, its inability to truly reduce crime without having to resort to our draconian prison system. What I had been searching for was a copy of a fourteen page essay I had written to President Bill Clinton while the U.S. Safe Streets Act was still under congressional discussion, thirty years ago.

I went further, back then, photocopying then mailing five-hundred copies of that paper (each with a “comment form” and an envelope addressed to the then President) for each recipient to pass on their reactions to my essay. I mailed a copy to the U.S. Attorney General, all fifty State Attorneys General, all U.S. Senators, Police Commissioners/Chiefs of our largest cities and many leading Criminal Justice scholars throughout the U.S.

What I implored in that paper was that the extra funding that the Safe Streets Act would provide to reduce crime should not be spent on more police officers doing the same things and more prisons to lock up more people. What I observed was that American policing was on a fool’s mission. That no increase in officers doing what they are tactically trained and encouraged to do, make more arrests, will ever reduce crime.

This is not my whimsical belief. The late Sir Leon Radzinowicz, a world renown criminologist, had reached that conclusion after years of researching criminal justice systems and crime rates around the world. He observed and concluded that where crime was lowest had little to do with the respective criminal justice system.

The Safe Streets Act became law when our prison population was one-million; which was then up from nearly 200,000 in the late 1970s and 52,000 in the mid-1950s. Now it is at 2.3 million. What will it be thirty years from now? Will we continue to have “Crime Warriors”? Or, will we have achieved democratic policing emphasizing crime reduction through child protection and youth development as the primary police role to reduce crime?

Peter Mancuso BA ‘76, MA ‘79, Criminal Justice is a Distinguished Alumni of John Jay College. He was the recipient of the Award for Public Service from The Fund for The City of New York. He was a Police Officer, Detective, Patrol Sergeant and Chairman of the Police Academy’s Social Science Department, the NYPD’s liaison to the Vera Institute of Justice (Community Policing) and was the NYPD’s Assistant Director of Training.

Cells in Attica State Prison. Courtesy of religiousleftlaw.com