Focus on Who Police Are, Not What They Do

To improve its police force, New Zealand used humor to attract a whole different kind of cop.

New Zealand police stand guard at the Auckland Pride Party in Auckland, New Zealand.
Cam McLaren / Getty

Every year, American police officers kill roughly 1,000 people. By comparison, New Zealand police officers kill, on average, about eight people per decade. Even if you adjust for the differences in population size, the gap in police violence is staggering. If American officers killed at the same rate per capita as those in New Zealand, about 50 Americans would die every year at the hands of the police.

This week, voters in Minneapolis decisively rejected a proposal to replace its much-maligned police department with a new department of public safety, and the rest of the United States remains fiercely divided over police reform. Some progressives cling to the faltering movement to defund the police, others suggest better training or accountability, and many Republicans insist that no reform is necessary. For years, there have been calls to expand the use of body cameras, to create more citizen-oversight panels, and to adopt more de-escalation training. All of those reforms are useful and can reduce avoidable police violence. But while American discourse has been focused on what the police do, New Zealand decided to improve upon its already-low levels of police violence by focusing on who the police are.

Several years ago, Doraville, Georgia, a small town not far from Atlanta, posted a disturbing police-recruitment video on the main page of the department’s website. The video (which has since been taken down from the department’s site, but remains online) opens by flashing the Punisher logo, a reference to a fictional vigilante whose tactics routinely include kidnapping, torture, and murder. Then a military vehicle screams into view, and officers in assault gear toss smoke grenades out the hatch before briefly exiting the vehicle to shoot their targets with military-style weapons. The entire video is accompanied by the song “Die MF Die” by the heavy-metal band Dope.

Anyone who went to the department’s website while contemplating joining the force would have been greeted by that video. It’s an unapologetic celebration of military tactics and the use of deadly force. For anyone who hoped to be part of a department devoted to public service and community policing, the video would be enough to dissuade them from applying. For other potential recruits who saw policing as being part of an occupying army that uses violence to lay down the law, the video would affirm that they had found the right department.

As I discovered in my research, the profession of policing is heavily skewed by a self-selection bias. Just as tall kids are more likely than short ones to try out for the school basketball team, certain kinds of people are more drawn to policing than others. Helen King, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, told me that authoritarian personalities are disproportionately drawn to the uniform. “If you’re a bully, a bigot, or a sexual predator, policing is a really attractive career choice,” she explained. This doesn’t mean that police officers are overwhelmingly bullies and bigots, but it does mean that many bullies and bigots like the idea of being a cop. To put it bluntly, white men with authoritarian personalities are disproportionately likely to be drawn to policing.

Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, has shown that police officers commit domestic violence more often than the general population, and that “as a result of their training and their state imprimatur, police abuse of partners is more problematic and more potentially dangerous than abuse by civilians.” The Atlantic has noted that violence against women is more of a problem in police departments than in the NFL, where domestic abuse has routinely made headlines. Other recent research has examined the presence of “functional psychopaths” in police departments.

Military veterans are also disproportionately represented in policing. Although 6 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces, 19 percent of police officers are veterans. Military experience makes sense for SWAT teams and some police operations, but the skills necessary to occupy Fallujah are not always the same as those needed to patrol Ferguson.

New Zealand recognized the potentially dangerous police self-selection effect and decided to tackle it head-on. The national police service—a centralized body that governs policing across the country—launched a recruitment scheme designed to attract people who normally would be much less likely to consider becoming an officer. The campaign leaned heavily on humor and featured an array of officers from diverse backgrounds. That was particularly important because people from the country’s indigenous Maori community were far more likely than white New Zealanders to be killed by police.

In one of the comedic recruitment videos, police officers chase an unseen perpetrator. Two women—both from ethnic minorities—kick off the video by doing flips and barrel rolls through a warehouse. A Sikh officer bursts through a door, followed by a female officer turning to the camera and telling recruits that they can make a real difference. Another officer spells out whom they want to apply: “those who care about others and their communities!” He sprints past an old man crossing the street at a glacial pace, then doubles back to help him. After a series of amusing gags, the cops catch up to the perpetrator: a cute little border collie with a handbag in its mouth. “Do you care enough to be a cop?” flashes on-screen. The video went viral. It’s been viewed nearly 2 million times; there are 5 million New Zealanders.

Kaye Ryan, a senior official for the New Zealand Police, explained to me that the video was intended to draw in the kinds of people who would make great officers, but who might never think about becoming an officer on their own. “It’s not that we don’t want the white men,” she told me. “It’s just that they come anyway.”

Another set of recruitment videos called “Hungry Boy” used hidden cameras to see how civilians reacted to a visibly malnourished child looking for food on the streets. The videos highlighted the people who stopped to help the boy, implying that they were the kinds of people whom the police were looking for; those who didn’t stop need not apply. The point was clear: It’s easier to hire good apples than it is to train bad apples to behave better.

After the PR campaign was launched in 2017, not only did a wider range of personality types apply, but applications from women and ethnic minorities dramatically increased too. In the past three years, the number of women in the New Zealand Police increased by 34 percent, the ranks of indigenous Maori officers grew by 23 percent, and the number of cops with Asian heritage expanded by 87 percent.

When Kiwis encounter an officer in uniform, they’re far more likely to represent local demographics than police in the United States, where hundreds of major police departments are, on average, about 30 percent whiter than the communities they patrol. This lack of representation in departments compounds the recruitment self-selection problem, because people are most likely to apply for jobs when they can see people like themselves already in the ranks. An overwhelmingly white department in a heavily Black community will struggle to recruit Black officers more than a more demographically reflective organization.

New Zealand’s model—and its social problems—are substantially different from those in the United States. There is no centralized recruitment effort in the United States, so some police departments do much better than others at reaching out to a diverse array of applicants. Moreover, with the prevalence of guns and of violence in America, it’s unrealistic to imagine that police officers will be unarmed (officers in New Zealand generally don’t carry guns, but they do keep them in their squad cars), or will always be able to de-escalate as often as they are in much of the rest of the world, where civilian guns are scarce. And, given the track record of police violence against minorities in the United States, a glitzy recruitment video isn’t going to be enough to persuade skeptical members of ethnic minorities to seek a badge in their city or town.

But at the moment, our debate is stuck, paralyzed between “defund” and “do nothing.” If we’re going to fix policing in the United States, we need to move beyond the stale arguments that focus only on police behavior. Instead, we need to think much more broadly about police identity and actively seek to recruit good people who are repulsed by the kinds of videos featured by the Doraville PD—and are drawn to serve not because of the power associated with a badge and a gun, but in spite of it.

This essay is adapted from Klaas’s forthcoming book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.