What Makes a Good Cop

“​​Police should not police themselves.”

Black-and-white photo of riot police facing protesters
Riot police at a 2020 protest (The Atlantic; Ismail Ferdous / Agence VU / Red​ux)

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “​​What is the best way forward for Americans who want to improve policing and the criminal-justice system?”

James contends that shootings by police mostly aren’t the products of “bad apple” cops:

Like a plane crash or a nuclear-plant mishap, they are the emergent result of training, hiring, dispatch, supervision, and more, all of which can be improved. An “event review,” not a “performance review” of the cop who pulls the trigger, allows for resident participation and expert input. This is not a substitute for discipline and punishment of violators. It assumes that the discipline of a lone violator is a bad place to stop if prevention is the goal.

Maryanne describes what made her late brother a good cop:

My brother Paul, a police officer for 37 years, died this past Thanksgiving Day. At Paul’s wake, the constant stream of fellow officers and staff demonstrated he was loved by all, but those to whom he was the field-training officer spoke about him in a tone of reverence. Many of your readers will suggest taking a hard look at how officers are trained. I would urge a hard look at who they are trained by. Can they demonstrate not just what to do but also how to be? Here is a story shared on Paul’s memorial website by one of his trainees:

“Paulie taught me the value of words over force. There is one particular incident I’ll never forget involving … a mentally unstable young man … who had real fighting skills. The guy kept repeating he would count to three and ‘kill all of us.’ He would get to two several times, which caused Kline and I to prepare for battle. Paulie, with his hands in his pockets and his calming demeanor, would say just what the kid needed to hear to interrupt his violent thoughts and reset. Eventually, the kid succumbed to Paul’s verbal judo and no force was required to bring the incident to a close. I’ll never forget that, or Paul, for all the other good he did. As a trainer years later, I always remembered that and tried to pass it along thanks to him. RIP Paulie. You touched many lives!”

My eulogy for Paul provided some additional context for how a beloved police field-training officer came to be the person he was and why that served his trainees and the community:

“The quality I’ve heard over and over again about Paul was that he was ‘nice,’ which is not the typical description of a cop; usually you hear good cop or bad cop, and nice cop may seem out of the norm. Often I suspected I was latching onto the word nice because he was my brother and of course I was biased. Yesterday at the wake, my biases were confirmed and I kept hearing story after story of what nice meant to his fellow officers and staff, that what most defined Paul were not the occasional events that resulted in his commendations or awards but instead his ‘thousand small acts of kindness.’”

Between the time Paul was married to his former wife and when he met and married Wei, the true love of his life, he found a very good counselor. Paul was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. As with many recurring adulthood patterns, the counselor saw there were roots in childhood, but a lot of it was fuzzy, and so they encouraged Paul to “go talk to your sister.” During that time we spent hours upon hours piecing together our childhood. Like many families, ours was touched by a depressed and alcoholic parent. The normal ebb and flow went between apparent calm and total chaos that kept us always on guard, not knowing which it would be at any given moment.

Bit by bit, we pieced together all the fractured moments to re-create many of the events we weren’t allowed to talk about and often told to ignore as if they hadn’t happened at all. At certain points, true to Paul’s nature, as all the memories of craziness and chaos began to emerge, he would just get me laughing and laughing, often by inserting the phrase “How in the world did we ever grow up to be fairly normal functioning adults?” The evidence and statistics were clearly not in our favor, and things easily could have gone in another direction.

But we had figured out how to cope. Paul’s role in our family was the “disrupter,” so any of you who marveled at Paul’s particularly skillful and effective methods for diffusing “domestic” calls who think he learned this at the police academy would be only partially correct. The truth is Paul started honing those skills from the time he was about 6. He transformed the coping and challenges of a child into kindness and helpfulness as an adult.

A few of you who had Paul as your field-training officer shared stories of Paul’s ability to use “Words, not force” in his work, and I will be forever proud that “Words, not force” is what you most wanted to share about what you learned from him. But now I’d like to share my favorite story that Paul shared with me … Of course it takes place in the police station.

Near the end of his career, after Paul had transferred from the street to the desk, one day a woman walked in … Paul sensed the signs of an alcoholic and he was sure this would have no small part in why the woman was there. The woman said that her teenage daughter hadn’t come home the prior night and she wanted to report her as a runaway. Paul took all the information and tried to reassure the woman that he thought her daughter was probably okay and just decided to stay over at a friend’s house. All the while, he was thinking to himself that he understood exactly why the daughter didn’t want to be at home.  

I can’t recall what the girl’s name was, but she needs a name for this story, so I’ll call her Amy. A while later, a teenage girl came into the station, walked up to Paul at the desk and just said “I need some help.” I suspect she was a little taken aback when Paul said “I bet you are Amy. Your mother has already been here, but you’ve come to the right place, and you’ve come to just the right person.” He took Amy to the back of the station and just sat and listened to her. It was no surprise to Paul that his assumptions were correct: This was a teenager struggling with a parent who was struggling with addiction.

He assured her there were safe places to share her story and get the support she needed. So they went over to the computer, where Paul helped her look up group meetings in the area. With a list in hand, Amy made a promise that she would go to the meetings, and also that she would go home. I think about Amy a lot and hope that she found the support she needed and grew up to be a “fairly normal functioning adult.” I can’t know any of that for sure, but I do know in my heart that when she left the police station that day, she felt a little more empowered and a lot less alone because she met Paul.

Scott is a criminal-defense attorney and longtime critic of flaws in policing and prosecuting:

For those of us who have spent decades trying to figure out and then implement reform, the past few years have been brutal. There was a rare window of opportunity for change, when the public wasn’t screaming for ever more laws, ever harsher punishments, and fewer alternatives to the historical (and failed) belief that we could punish our way out of violence, drugs, and crime. Instead, the activists took the field, indulging their fantasy ideological solutions that would neither work nor be accepted by the majority of Americans as viable solutions requiring trade-offs everyone could live with.

Simplistic solutions such as “defund,” based on ideologically bound understandings of the problem, never stood a chance. As soon as the next “wave” hit, as it surely would, the pendulum would swing and we would be back to the tried-and-failed more crimes, less due process, and harsher punishments. And here we are. We squandered a once-in-a-generation (or more) opportunity for serious reform where all stakeholders reached consensus and the best, if imperfect, fixes were accepted by a majority of Americans and to everyone’s benefit. Instead, we’re back where we started and no one was saved.

Robert urges an emphasis on accountability:

Eliminate qualified immunity, which renders all but the most egregious, outrageous conduct unaccountable. It is a long slog to change attitudes, but by making punishment more likely, we can change behavior. In an ideal world, we would also be able to foster a police culture where misbehavior is seen as an unacceptable stain on police as a whole and something that every effort is made to eliminate. Culture change is difficult to impossible to impose from outside, but it can occur.

I am a retired physician, and I remember the ’70s and early ’80s when physicians circled the wagons to defend malpracticing docs but gradually began to realize that malpractice hurt people and made everyone else look bad. The profession ceased to tolerate physician misbehavior. I can’t say how to make that happen in the police, but it’s where they need to go.

MC recommends more sunlight:

This issue is not about the failure of police departments but of the weak policing of them. I don't think policing can be improved much except by forced transparency and external enforcement of humane standards. Officers have to be more afraid of the consequences of brutality. Mandate body cameras that can't be disabled, monitored by an external office that doesn’t normally work with police officers. Footage becomes publicly available, with identities suppressed.

We’re horrified at police brutality whenever another video shows it. There’s nothing more horrifying than how obvious it is that this behavior is normal for the ones inflicting the violence. We must bring the eyes of the public into all the dark places where that treatment was learned and practiced.  

Jay wants police to be more active:

Improved policing begins with actually enforcing the law as written. We’ve deemed law enforcement of smaller crimes such as shoplifting, graffiti, and small theft “optional,” then wondered why larger crimes continue to soar. There’s little justice for criminals nor for victims in a system in which policing is optional, understaffed or harassed and harried into inertia.

C. is a white cop who is married to a Black police dispatcher on a college campus:

This question haunts me because of my job, because of my wife's job, and because any children we may have will have to interact with American police as mixed-race individuals.

One morning, we had a dining-hall employee pull into our department’s parking lot. She had been on her way to work on campus when her ex began following her in his car. She stopped at our department to scare him off, and to make us aware that he might show up at the dining hall to further harass her. We got information on the ex and found out that he had a warrant for misdemeanor assault (on the employee). The employee went on her way to work, and we followed to hang out in the area and keep an eye out.

The ex didn’t wait long, and parked right near the employee before she had even gotten out of her car. My shift partner found him first, and when I got on scene, the ex was outside his vehicle shouting toward the employee in her car. She was having a full-blown panic attack, breathing and crying so loud I could hear her through the closed car windows. And the ex had their child in the car. Couldn’t have been more than 2, and he wasn’t in a proper car seat; he was standing on the backseat looking out the window.

The ex was focused on the employee, ignoring my shift partner, and started freaking out at how much she was freaking out. I was likewise concerned about her, so I went ahead and radioed for medics to be dispatched. I could tell my shift partner was trying to get in a position to handcuff the ex, but he kept sidestepping, trying to keep an eye on the employee and still shouting toward her.

I knew if we went hands-on as the situation stood, it was going to be ugly (the guy was tall, like 6 foot 2, while my shift partner was a paltry 5 foot 5 and I’m an average 5 foot 10). So I got his attention and told him, “Look, I have medics on the way to check on her, but we can only do one thing at a time, and we have information that you have a warrant out. We’re still waiting for confirmation that the warrant is current and valid, but that’s what we know right now. If you would have a seat in our cruiser while we wait for that info, we can have medics check her out.”

The guy just stopped. Then he said, “Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. I got a warrant.’ He turned around and put his hands behind his back. My partner cuffed him and got him in a cruiser. I went to check on the employee, while our sergeant, who arrived during all this, retrieved the child and brought him to his mother. Medics showed up a bit later, and made sure the employee was okay.

Now, standard operating procedure when arresting someone with a warrant for a violent offense is to get them in a position where you can cuff them up real quick before they even know what’s happening, and then explain the situation. It’s supposed to prevent the individual from even trying to fight the arrest. In this situation, though, the guy was already amped way up; we had a woman that legitimately might need medical attention and a 2-year-old toddling around the back seat of a car. If we'd gone hands-on with no explanation, he would have struggled, and we would have had to fight to get him under control while his ex hyperventilated herself into passing out and his son watched from the car. It was going to be a bad day all around. So instead, I treated the guy with respect and explained the situation point-blank. And he let us arrest him.

My shift partner, later, told me he didn’t really like the way I’d handled it, and that we should’ve cuffed him before we told him about the warrant. I got a guy that brought his 2-year-old son with him to harass the mother of said son to let us arrest him for assault of that same mother. And my partner didn’t like the way I’d handled it. If that isn’t an indictment of police standard operating procedures and culture, then I don’t know what is.

Taylor argues that the best way forward is a relentless focus on creating and scaling up alternatives to police:

We should be thinking about crisis-response teams (Denver's STAR program relies on social workers to respond to calls), getting police out of traffic enforcement, and civilian systems for “welfare checks” (that often compose up to 70 percent of a jurisdiction’s 911 dispatches).

These programs take armed police out of the equation, in circumstances that most often escalate into police harassment, intimidation, abuse, and murder. They reduce harm, without any need for police-culture change, effective retraining, or functional internal accountability mechanisms.

But rebalancing public-safety budgets to rely far less on policing has not advanced, in part, because people with legitimate concerns about their safety cannot envision the world where police are not the first responders. "What happens when I call 911 if it’s not the police responding?” Before we will have the political space we need to then limit police to a narrower role, we need to build up these alternatives in a visible way and show they are effective, giving time for them to become a routine part of a multipronged public-safety structure.

Jaleelah urges a more active citizenry:

Monitor the police in your community. Go to city-council meetings and town halls. If police unions are blocking formal oversight, monitor them on the ground. If you see an officer yelling at a civilian, stop and record. If you see a barista threatening to call the police to remove a homeless person sleeping on a bench, try to mediate the disagreement.

Police officers may oppose civilian interference in their work. If that is the case, they should lobby their unions to make policy changes that will engender confidence in their intentions and capabilities. Until that happens, ordinary Americans’ on-the-ground surveillance is the only thing that can keep cops accountable.

D. H. argues that a lack of public understanding of what police work entails is an impediment to better policing:

The George Floyd situation was as close to indisputably wrong as any police-caused deaths in the past decade or so, and captured on videotape. It was clearly outrageous to keep him face down, handcuffed behind his back, and to continue to kneel on his neck while he was experiencing difficulty breathing.  

Other situations are not so clearly wrong, thus there is less outrage. Trying to shoehorn every deadly encounter with police into the same category as the George Floyd situation has probably hurt the cause rather than helped it, because people get outrage fatigue. We live in a violent society beset by an upsurge in violent crimes (at least in the Portland area). At this juncture, defunding the police feels more like giving free rein to criminals to prey on society, and encouraging vigilantes and militia to take policing into their own hands. “Defund the police” was one of the worst liberal rallying cries ever. The gun scourge in this country makes it feel very unsafe for officers and the public alike.

With the constant barrage of vitriol expressed toward the police, who would want to become a police officer? Who at retirement age would want to remain on the force? If they do not feel supported by the public, some may not feel highly motivated to protect and serve. How many quiet-quitting police officers are out there, and can you really blame them?  

We cannot work up sufficient outrage to take meaningful steps to prevent mass shootings, so why would anyone think a society numb to school and church shootings might remain outraged enough to effect meaningful change to the police organizations that must respond to those?  

I can understand how the fear of corrupt and/or brutal police could cause a rational person to resist arrest, as could impaired judgment from mental illness or intoxication.  However, if one chooses to resist arrest, that choice will be met by force (police violence) aimed to quickly overcome that resistance and gain control of the situation. Once force is employed, situations become much more volatile and outcomes worse. But, if police do not use force, then noncompliance will be encouraged. Getting the level of force right is more difficult in real time in the field than it may look after the fact.

I am not a police officer, but before retiring, I frequently represented them in civil-rights actions seeking money damages in federal court, and have a pretty good grasp on their perspective. They do have a strong sense that the public does not understand what they are called upon to do, and how they are trained to do it, and why they are trained that way (answer: survival). The way forward is thorny. The public needs to know what is and is not lawful police conduct. There is a lot of misinformation in the press, and the public deserves accurate information about persons armed and authorized to use force against them.  

Police should not police themselves; indeed, no group should police itself.  Recruiting diverse panels of retired judges, public defenders, prosecutors, academics, and others knowledgeable about the law and police procedures to take testimony, gather evidence about serious police conduct complaints, and issue public reports of their findings might be a start. It could help the poor and ignorant obtain representation in meritorious cases, publicly identify transgressing offices, and discourage frivolous lawsuits where the facts show the conduct was justified. Of course, that would cost money, and panels of experts can be wrong, biased, or even corrupted.  

Timothy believes that guns are a big part of the problem:

Improving policing is a tough problem as long as America remains a highly weaponed society. The police can’t respond to a traffic situation, a domestic situation, or even a missing-child situation without fearing for their lives. Hence, they react as if any situation is or will become violent. With the proliferation of drugs, their fears are increased. There are many situations where certain drugs increase a person’s sense of violence while deadening their awareness to pain or injury. That makes it really tough on the police.  

Jon concurs, and wants police officers to advocate for more gun control:

An acute manifestation of America’s gun insanity is that police departments, chiefs, sheriffs, and unions are not the most vocal supporters of gun-safety measures and laws to get guns off the streets. Where everyone (including, apparently, 6-year-olds) can possess a deadly weapon, police are not irrational to bring a sense of caution, or worse, fear, to almost every interaction, heightening tensions and leading to faster and deadlier escalations. This has contributed to more militant, violent, confrontational policing.

JD worries about the mental health of police officers:

I believe that the majority of those who undertake careers in law enforcement are motivated by a desire to make a positive difference. Over time, however, the soul-killing impact of repetitively dealing with humanity in its worst moments erodes empathy and altruism and generates resentment, hostility, fear, and an overarching effort to exert control.  

While our culture has made great strides in acknowledging the impact of PTSD on our veterans and others who experience trauma, only rarely does such understanding extend to law enforcement. As a former medical educator in a family-practice residency program, I recall the utility of Balint training in assisting medical-school graduates to maintain empathy and professionalism in the context of medical practices requiring them to encounter 15-20 persons a day, each seeking the best of medical care. Balint training created a context where peers could share the best and worst of their days in a judgment-free setting and, in the best of outcomes, permit them to renew their commitment.

Thanks to everyone who sent responses, whether or not I had space to print them––as ever, lots of great ones went unpublished. See you later this week.