Police Reform: Civilianization, Specialization, and Centralization

The movement for police reform continues, but media interest wanes. But not at Democracy in Principle! We’ve been covering the possibilities for major police reform since Ferguson. Most elite commenters focus on legalities like racial profiling or technical fixes like body cameras. Policing is a social institution however. In fact, it’s an institution that expects that giving a gun to somebody and sending him out on the streets is a good idea. At Democracy in Principle, we know that more rules and legal fixes aren’t going to fix a bad idea. We need new rules.

We have a variety of ways of reorganizing crime control to reduce the potential for police violence. We could replace sworn police (with their attendant legal powers) with unarmed civilians. Alternatively, we could carve the police department up into different tasks. Let’s look at each in turn.


Law enforcement officers have legal powers beyond ordinary citizens. Law enforcement officers have the power to execute warrants issued by a magistrate, perform warrantless searches and arrests when the officer has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed, and to carry and use a firearm. As we’ve previously explored, those last two powers are a big part of the issue.

‘Civilians’ (the rest of us) do not have these powers. Citizens do have the power of “citizen’s arrest”, that is, the power of arresting a person caught in the act of committing a felony, or for whom an arrest warrant has been issued. Citizens can use non-deadly force for the purpose of arrest, but this opens the arresting citizen to civil liability. As for firearms, a civilian would have to acquire special licenses to openly carry a firearm.

Police departments have many roles that do not require law enforcement powers. Law enforcement powers are only needed in cases of conflict and violence. Despite what we see in the media, police work does not often entail violence. Thus, we can “de-police” police tasks that do not involve conflict: criminal investigation, crowd control, traffic management, responding to calls for service, and “general services”. These now-civilian police jobs could then call upon law enforcement when their legal powers are needed, when an encounter becomes violent or a crowd becomes a riot.

For example, most calls for service do not involve violence. Sworn officers do not need to carry out patrol and first response. Instead, civilian employees could patrol and respond to calls, and diagnose, mediate, or solve the problems found. Various jurisdictions in the United States have hired “Community Service Officers” (CSOs) for these and other, miscellaneous general services that the community calls upon the police to do. For many jurisdictions, this is a cost-saving measure, as CSOs are paid less than sworn police officers. In others, people are hired as CSOs as a training program.

I have not found a researcher who has looked at the effectiveness of police departments with Community Service Officers. However, the bankrupt and failing Camden City police department was recently replaced with the Camden County Police Department. The county police hired a large civilian staff to reduce the number of sworn police officers, the civilians being cheaper. Since the switch, the murder rate has dropped. So at least a large civilian staff does not diminish police effectiveness. The fall in murders may be due to the new departments focus on community policing.

Many police departments have also hired Crisis Intervention Units (or Teams) to deal with the mentally ill. The mentally ill are also common victims of police violence. These mental health workers may be nurses or social workers, but they walk into a potentially violent situation nonetheless.


Another solution to police violence is to reduce the scope of police tasks. Police departments have a grab-bag of roles that don’t necessarily go together. Police primarily focus on street-level criminal violations, but also traffic infractions. At the same time, the police perform “general services”, or whatever public task other street-level officials don’t do (police have been heard to call it “chicken-shit work”), like responding to non-criminal complaints or crowd control. Police departments could shed these extra tasks and reduce police presence.

Traffic services are a prime example of such a task. Traffic safety only tangentially relates to criminal law. Most cops hate performing it, as you might expect. But few nations have actually had a separate service for traffic. The only separate services have been New Zealand’s Traffic Safety Service (1936 – 1992) and Western Australia’s Road Transport Authority (1975 – 1982), run by their respective Transportation ministries. The services eventually merged with their police departments for budgetary purposes.


A final solution to police violence is to reduce the number of police through centralization of police forces. Currently, municipalities govern police forces. However, municipalities often get savings by contracting their police services to their neighbors. Likewise, a state could save on money, personnel, and capital by creating one statewide police service to replace local forces. Another way of looking at it would be that the existing state police become responsible for all police tasks in the state.

Scotland joined their police forces into a single national police service, called Police Scotland. While they have projected savings in the future, the transition itself was expensive. Our real concern is the safety of the public though, but no numbers have emerged on that. Police Scotland did make the decision to arm their patrol officers, unlike their English counterparts. If that policy continues, though the public is not happy about, we may be able to get comparative data on police violence between the two UK nations.

Centralization carries its own concerns: if the police are state-level, how will the public hold them to account? That’s a good question, but moot, because we can’t hold them responsible now. However, localities should have the power to discipline wayward law enforcement officers, and having a statewide police would not prevent a local review board from having the power to discipline an officer. Of course, law may say one thing and government does another.

These solutions are less radical than building a world without police, in which the enforcement of laws are replaced with reconciliation to the law. My intention is to point to successful police practices that reduce the number and presence of sworn police officers in possession of power that is deadly when abused. Civilian police workers can take over tasks in the community, while other tasks can be spun off into other agencies. Centralization reduces police presence by exploiting the economies of scale that can be found in a single state police service.

At the end of this week, join me for the thrilling and merciful conclusion to the Police Reform series at Democracy in Principle! (Eventually you get tired reading and writing about the police.)

Comments are closed.