Can Policing Be More Democratic?

Can Policing Be More Democratic?

Barry Friedman, director of NYU's Policing Project thinks so.

Barry Friedman, professor of law and politics at New York University, grew up the son of a deputy inspector general for the federal government, which may help explain his interest in investigation. After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree magna cum laude from Georgetown University, he began teaching constitutional law and criminal procedure. In 2015 Friedman launched NYU’s Policing Project, its aim to “maximize the effectiveness of policing, and minimize the risks, by applying time-honored techniques of democratic governance.” He is the author of the books The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution, and Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission.  He recently co-authored a chapter on Democratic Accountability and Policing in the Academy for Justice “Reforming Criminal Justice” report. We tracked Professor Friedman down at his NYU office—NYPD Precinct 6.

What sparked your interest in policing policy?

I taught criminal procedure for several decades and I always wanted to write about the topic. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I became more serious about it.  People were full of ideas that the government should have more leeway, but when they learned the facts they were appalled by how much leeway the government already had in terms of policing. My book unites what people see as two completely different issues: first, surveillance issues that are at stake in the Snowden episode and, second, street policing issues of the kind we saw in Ferguson. Those were really the seminal events that motivated the work.

It’s remarkable how often the ordinary citizen is under video surveillance these days. We’re constantly being watched. It feels creepy at times. Does it pay off in terms of public safety?  

One point of the Policing Project is that we have made a great error in governing policing issues differently than everything else in society. In most areas people agree on what policies are going to be followed. In policing, those decisions are made by police officials alone. Surveillance that should be a societal decision. It’s more than just [surveillance cameras]. There are stingray [mobile phone tracking] devices, internet hacking tools. That the decision to use those tools is not made on a societal level is a grave error. As to whether they work, we also don’t do cost-benefit analysis around policing practices, as we do elsewhere in government.  That is something we are trying to change at the Policing Project.

Do you go out on ride-alongs with the police in various cities?

We’re out in the field with police all the time. At the Policing Project we work hand in hand with communities and policing agencies to bring them together and give the community a voice in how it’s policed. Many of our staff regularly spend time in police department conference rooms and on ride alongs.

How eager are ordinary beat cops to discuss reform? Is there push back about the ways they’re evaluated?

I wouldn’t claim that every officer out there thinks everything we propose is a good idea, but they really do want to contribute. When you approach people in a collaborative way they will let you know their ideas— and we’re happy to hear them. For example, we were out in Los Angeles working on a project that the Police Commission had asked us to conduct about when to release body camera video after an officer-involved shooting. We not only went out to the community at large but also held meetings with officers. At one meeting a S.W.A.T. guy launched into a discussion about cops being second-guessed. But at one point he stopped and said, “I want to thank you for being here. I was in the military for 10 years and nobody ever asked my opinion about anything. We’re grateful that you thought enough to come here and ask us what we thought.”

The Policing Project has looked into the use of body cameras in New York and other cities. Recently a New York Times article noted a Washington, DC, police study that found body cameras have “almost no effect on officer behavior.” Was that surprising?

First, to correct what might be a misconception, the Policing Project is not for or against body cameras. We’ve done projects helping jurisdictions figure out what the rules should be regarding their use, and we are very much in favor of democratic policing or front-end accountability, meaning that the public should have a voice in how it’s policed—body cameras included. The Washington study is troubling because you would have thought that the single thing body cameras would do is have a tempering effect on encounters on the street. The study seems to suggest not, but it would be wrong to jump to any clear conclusions based on that study.  In part, they’re using a certain set of indicators that are not complete. For example, they can’t tell you if stops were constitutional or not, or even the severity of a use of force. We have to keep learning. I do worry about the amount of money we’re spending on body cameras, and not hearing clearly from residents about how those cameras should be used. I also worry about the cameras being part of the “surveillance state.”  Part of the learning process is how to use the tool in a better way.

The prevailing view of most New Yorkers is that Rudolph Giuliani’s 1980s “broken windows” policing initiative—cracking down on minor offenses first—began the city’s turnaround. Today, some say New York seems to be slipping back into the bad old days. Others maintain that police are letting vast numbers of minor offenses slide, and yet the city has never been safer. How do you reconcile those two views?  

I think that what’s been shown in New York is that you can keep a city safe without the incredible amount of intrusion into people’s liberties that went on in the past, like stop-and-frisk. And do so without the erosion of community trust that came with that. We talk to members of the NYPD and they’re very proud of that result. There are two views of policing that are at war with one another. One says let’s just throw armed individuals—the police—at crime as aggressively as we can. The other view believes that frequent use of force only alienates the community and eliminates cooperation with law enforcement. We need to study those issues and we need to do it in an evidence-based, dispassionate way, instead of engaging in passionate, heated arguments that lack evidence.

Depending on what media you follow, you might see the police portrayed as either hopped up, militarized psychopaths or misunderstood, underpaid scapegoats. How do they appear from your perspective?

There are hundreds of thousands of police in the United States, and police are people. They come in many varieties of personality. Most of them joined their departments with the most remarkable of intentions. When I go out with them I meet incredible people doing a job I could never do. We’ve been unfair to them because we’ve failed to provide guidance up front, adequate training, and have failed to take into account the difficulties police officers face. All the ills of society are thrust upon them. They’re left to deal with homelessness and drug addiction. Until we come to grips with the job we’re not going to get this right. I’ll tell you how off the rails policing has gotten: there are plenty of places in the country today that are calling for abolishing their police force altogether.

And put in its place, what?

That’s not clear. But these are serious people who view policing as an evil that has torn neighborhoods apart. They don’t see the benefit, and that’s scary.

—Interview by Patrick Cooke

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