The Problems with U.S. Policing Need More Light—and Far Less Heat


I spend at least 40 hours a week working for a non-profit devoted to improving policing—mostly in the U.S. I’m also a former pastor of 13 years and a seminary graduate. That mix shapes how I look at the recently re-ignited controversies surrounding U.S. policing and leads me to four observations.

1. We obviously can’t do without police.

The Christian worldview recognizes some realities of human nature and society.

  • There isn’t a person on earth “who does good and never sins” (Ecc 7:20).1 This has profound moral consequences, but …
  • Human beings still have law “written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15) and can tell right from wrong most of the time.
  • God has authorized human government to use force (Rom 13:4) “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet 2:14).

For those who understand the world this way, it’s obvious that we can’t do away with police. We might restructure police departments to focus more on public safety and community service. We might call them something else in order to rebrand. But in the final analysis, human beings are going to continue to break laws, sometimes in extreme ways. We’re going to continue to have agents of the government who are authorized to intervene and take these violators into custody. We’re going to continue to have individuals who are authorized to use lethal force against aggressors in order to prevent others from being killed.

But is it possible that police are making crime and violence worse?

Given the complexities of human interaction and clashing cultures, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that, sometimes, law enforcement causes crime. Cops are flawed human beings, too, and the city councils, mayors, county and state legislatures, and governors they work for are “unrighteous,” just like the rest of us.

Highly-publicized, poorly-executed police interactions with minority community members can lead to more violations and more poorly-executed interactions (more on that later).

None of that erases the fact that human individuals need the restraint of humans acting as a society. Without that, human existence is, as 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”2

2. Police Reform has been going on in the U.S. for a long time.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has been working to make policing more professional, fair, disciplined, and ethical for more than 100 years.3 Many other organizations have been working for years as well. A few I’m familiar with:

In addition, many state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) organizations have long labored with similar goals. Federal efforts have not been trivial either. These should be well known examples:

Let’s not forget, too, that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division wasn’t born yesterday (1957) and hasn’t been sitting on its hands in reference to policing for the last several decades.

Anyone who googles “ethical policing,” and scrolls a bit will also find a good number of multi-year local police agency efforts to improve procedures and training.

Politicians, media personalities, and celebrities who declare that it’s “time to do something” reveal a profound ignorance of the ongoing police reform trends in the U.S.

A fact you’re unlikely to hear on the news or see in a headline: Police shootings are not increasing and have probably been on the decline for years.5

3. Police reform has been moving slowly, but that’s mostly a good thing.

We’re seeing a lot of impatience with police reform these days. I sympathize. I really do. In the midst of all the information noise, it takes some work to get to a somewhat accurate view of what’s happening. And we’re all starting that effort from different entry points. As a white male, my journey to Understanding-Policing Land launches from a very different shore than the average minority individual in a big city or large suburb.

The narrative someone starts out with is where they are, and they probably never chose that context.

But there’s a vital truth in all this that doesn’t depend on a political affiliation or policy agenda, or view of social justice. It’s older than all that. It’s the old wisdom that haste makes waste. The phrase may be traceable to a 16th century white guy (look for John Ray) but you can find the concept at least as far back as Proverbs 19:2. I’m sure there are versions in many languages and cultures.

The progressive mindset has a bias in favor of change. The idea that society needs to keep evolving from worse to better is mostly assumed, so “change is desperately needed and is sure to help” is the default lens for looking at almost any social problem.

They’re not entirely wrong. Life is better than it used to be in a lot of ways in a lot of places. Plus, conditions change and we don’t thrive unless we change to some extent with them. The seasons teach us that. Aging teaches us that.

But wisdom teaches us that change can be disastrous if we don’t take the trouble to understand some things first, as well as we can:

  • What is, in fact, actually happening?
  • Why are things the way they are/why have we “always done it this way”?
  • What might be the unintended consequences of making a change?
  • What sort of change best fits the nature of the problem?

Police reform might be advancing too slowly, but I’m skeptical. For the most part, when it comes to change, slow is good.6

The only way to ensure that change in policing is actually progress is to follow a patient, evidence-based path.

4. The current minority-advocacy + media + police-misconduct dynamic is complexly self-defeating.

The policing-related headlines in my feeds are more discouraging than usual lately. So many voices are bent on stoking the flames of grievance and discontent. There will be more errors made by police. Some of them will be cases of blatant disregard for life. Some might even be truly racist. The current emotion-focused, fact-negligent rhetorical dynamic from advocacy groups, news media, corporations, and politicians virtually guarantees that there will be more riots, destruction of property, and related injuries and deaths.

And that will just make the whole mess worse.

The demonstrably false “cops are hunting down black people” narrative is making matters worse in at least five ways:

  • Black Americans are increasingly afraid, resentful, and angry, which fuels increased hostility and resistance during encounters with police.
  • White cops are increasingly afraid of black suspects, leading to escalation during encounters.
  • Fewer good people want to become police officers. This increases pressure on departments to hire below standards, increases workload for current staff, increases the fatigue of current staff, all of which increases poor decision-making in encounters with suspects.
  • Among leaders and the general public, higher levels of negative emotion inhibit the kind of clear thinking essential for real improvements.
  • Higher levels of negative emotion fuel protests and riots, which fuel even higher levels of negative emotion, further inhibiting real solutions.

We’re in a downward spiral, characterized by far more heat than light—and so far, the majority of influencers are still feeding the spiral.

My prayer is that the voices of reason will find ways to be heard above the din and that they’ll prevail. It can’t happen soon enough.

20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.

21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.(Prov 26:20-21)


1 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2 Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan.

3 See Full disclosure: IACP is my employer. Opinions expressed here are my own and not those of IACP or any other individual or group.

4 The founding date comes from,, and other places.

5 Even Vox admits this (though it credits BLM) as does Scientific American. See also Washington Post. If you squint the right way, it’s possible to read the data as “unchanged,” but even a flat trend is counter to the currently popular narrative on the subject. Though I have less confidence in Heather MacDonald than I used to (see this), this is also worth a read: There is No Epidemic of Racist Police Shootings.

6 Yes, we used to be able to call this “conservatism.” But the term has been all but ruined. I think I just want to call it “wisdom” now.


Some of you might find this interesting……

One of the many police-improvement projects that don’t get much attention in the headlines.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Good article Aaron thanks. There needs to be a lot more information like this to dispel at least some of the misinformation.

Thanks, Josh.

There is so much going on people are not aware of. They’re public efforts, but they’re local and not the “if it bleeds it leads” headline-grabbing stuff.

Saw a presentation today, for example, about the Hub program at Chelsea (MA) PD (and elsewhere). The concept is that there tends to be lots of focus and resources devoted to the downstream events: rescues, arrests, various emergency/crisis interventions, etc. The upstream factors tend to be neglected: preventing these incidents from happening or from being as severe. So, Hub is a multidisciplinary/multiagency effort to reduce the number of people who end up having emergencies, whether medical, mental-health, homelessness, drugs, or crime. There’s a ton of information here:

What I tend to feel about BLM and similar social justice warrior-oriented groups is, can you find a way to redirect your energies into helping communities work together to reduce police encounters as well as to help police handle those encounters better? Solutions happen quietly, away from all the shouting and sign waving etc., when people listen to each other and get solution-focused rather than blame focused.

(Descends from soap box. … for a while.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Two key issues that I see.

First, policing by and large is highly distributed in the US. Being managed by local agencies that manage themselves in varying degrees. Yes we have other agencies that assist, provide guidelines… but in most cases those are voluntary. The elected official that in most cases leads the local law enforcement agencies have varying degrees of qualifications of the job and may or may not implement guidelines. A bad example of this would be Joe Arpaio the sheriff of Maricopa county, who spent more time delivering on a political narrative and who had questionably qualifications, but continued to be voted in along political lines. These leaves very different experiences for individuals even depending on which side of the street that you live on.

Second, most of the improvements (not all) that Aaron points out are focused around the police organization and how to be better at what they do. The gap in this, is that we are not looking at this from a broad holistic community perspective. Police have way too broad of a role in helping people. As budgets get cut, more gets thrown on law enforcement’s responsibilities. Whether law enforcement is qualified or not, is never reviewed. Police ask for more money to fund these efforts and in many communities people don’t want to say no. What I feel that we are faced with is a big need to relook at community services and who performs what job. Police should not have deal with mental health issues. Yes, they should be trained on how to deal with someone who may have a mental health issue, but we can’t cut mental health funding, let it get out of control and when it gets too big, call the police to fix it. Mental health is just one issue. I think we also need to look at domestic and drugs as two other areas where different departments need to be involved.

Unfortunately, since we are so distributed and trust continues to erode this will not be an easy solution, and it is doubtful that local communities that are faced with budget cuts and treat law enforcement as a political position can solve this on their own.

Appreciate the comments. The media—both professional and social—tend to overgeneralize. Some of that isn’t avoidable. You’re writing a short piece with key takeaways. But it doesn’t have to be as oversimplified as it is.

A couple thoughts on this…

Police have way too broad of a role in helping people. As budgets get cut, more gets thrown on law enforcement’s responsibilities. Whether law enforcement is qualified or not, is never reviewed. Police ask for more money to fund these efforts and in many communities people don’t want to say no. What I feel that we are faced with is a big need to relook at community services and who performs what job.

Standards for local police very from state to state but every state has them. On the whole, I favor localism, but one of the realities of the 21st century is that America is ‘smaller’ than it used to be. We can get from any part to any other part in less than a day, and information—live information—is instantaneous. So we can’t be as local as we might like to be in some ways. We can’t isolate what happens in Minneapolis from the rest of the country and “let Minneapolis fix it.” It’s still mostly better to let cities fix their policing problems, but some national standards—the time has probably come. It’s seen as a national problem because people all across the country feel that it matters to them, regardless of where they live, and they’re speaking up.

On “Police have way too broad of a role in helping people.” … Yes and no. I do think there’s plenty of room for creativity in shifting a portion of police calls to non-sworn personnel in social services, etc. And even more room for “upstream” work to reduce the number of things that turn into police issues.

Much depends on the jurisdiction and how well resourced they are—and what sort of leadership they have in the city council or police commission, or mayor’s office, or county board, etc.

But in most cases police are going to continue to be the fastest to get to a scene, and that’s going to make their role ‘broad’ due to practical reality. Some cities have programs to try to filter some nonviolent (at that moment in time) calls as they come in at the 911 center. It seems to be a trend, as a method of “defunding police”—increasing funding of non-police personnel for some of these things. It remains to be seen how well this will work, but it’s an idea that seems workable with a lot of potential in at least some locations.

You have to try things if you’re going to improve things, so I’m glad they’re exploring it where they have the means.

In really small places, the more broad/general police personnel and skills are, the better. These small towns aren’t going to have that many options, so police have to be part counselor, part rescuer, part ‘bad guy’ chaser, etc. I can’t see that changing much in the near future.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joe: the guy had 7 kids and they were teasing him about manhood? :)

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

This is not a new perspective but it just clicked/resurfaced for me. You can look at all the ‘improving policing’ ideas and work under three headings:

  • Prevention
  • Mitigation
  • Intervention

The first two tend to be the same kinds of ‘upstream’ efforts. All the big headlines tend to go to the third, and only a small subset of those—the ones where the intervention didn’t turn out well.

In general it’s fair to say that prevention and mitigation don’t get enough attention. It’s still going on all over the place though, quietly.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I’ve been observing this thread a bit before I comment. Thank you Aaron, for your thoughtfulness, nuance, and inside insight from the non-profit that you work for that is committed to improving policing. I truly wish that debates on policing were creating more light than heat on a national level. Sadly, talking heads’ media pundits from the left and the right rely on biased data that is more political than factual. For instance, biased data from Heather MacDonald should not be trusted any more than data coming from liberal/progressives. In her book “The War on Cops,” she rightly pointed out faulty statistical data from liberal/progressives, but she replaced it with her own faulty conservative statistical data. The problem is that both liberals and conservatives (like Heather MacDonald) use univariate statistical methods of gathering information to prove their assumptions rather than multivariate statistical methods, which are more reliable. It is also one of the most poorly researched books that I’ve read in a decade. Even though she cites at least 50 different studies to back up her claims, she only uses 8 footnotes, only 6 of them referring to a few of these studies. What’s crazy is that so many conservative Christians leaders gobble up her political propaganda in their quest to back the blue and settle for the status quo.

We also forget that Heather MacDonald is an atheist that doesn’t look at humanity as God’s image-bearers. She doesn’t value human life among those who have committed crimes or been incarcerated. She promotes zero-tolerance policing and overemphasizes a deterrent theory of punishment (where the punishment doesn’t necessarily fit the crime leading to overcriminalization) both of which dehumanize God’s image.

You are right that certain local police departments throughout the nation have made strides towards reform. My home city is one of them. Grand Rapids Police Department continues to make strides, pursuing best practices. 8 years ago, they eliminated Stop and Frisk, which was creating much more community distrust than reducing crime. I’ve counted at least 60 of my former students that were between the ages of 10-17 that had guns drawn on them by the police, searching for drugs or weapons. Every single one of them continues to live with the trauma from those instances because they were kids and teens whose brains hadn’t fully developed yet. The unintended consequences of Stop and Frisk in the name of pragmatism (attempting to reduce crime at whatever the cost where the ends justify the means) devastated many black young men that I personally know. It will take probably another 10-20 years for the community to fully trust the police from that policy. Of course, MacDonald continues to advocate that Policing returns to the Stop and Frisk years.

Grand Rapids is also fortunate that the police union isn’t as powerful and isn’t corrupt as other cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago. Two years ago, when a white police officer hit a black man over 30 times at a stop because he didn’t obey the officer right away in getting out of the car, the department promptly fired him and the union didn’t fight the firing. Also, over the past few years, GRPS has cracked down on racially biased 911 calls. Since 2015 there has been an increase of calls to the police from fearful whites on people of color for things such as having a barbecue in a public park or 5 black kids walking down the street with bouncing basketballs on their way to a gymnasium. Callers face the possibility of a 500 fine.

I haven’t read MacDonald’s book, but I can’t say your assessment would surprise me at this point.

I’m also not familiar with “univariate statistical methods,” but it sounds like pretty much the ol’ cherry picking fallacy.

Sadly, writers who do sloppy work often sully the accurate and valid points they make along the way… and not only poison people to these ideas but push them in the opposite direction. They only sound good to people already convinced. (Analogous to the Trump effect.)

There is a war on cops and I doubt MacDonald gets it entirely wrong. That would be hard to do. But it would also be easy to oversimplify and/or exaggerate.

The reality can’t be squeezed into a binary “cops are all good” or “cops are all bad” view, though so many seem determined to do that. But as comforting as that sort of simplicity might be, we can’t solve problems we refuse to take the trouble to understand.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.