Cambridge criminologist tells White House task force that translating UK models of policing to US is the best hope in a generation for tackling dangerous rates of ‘justifiable’ homicides committed by US police, and the resultant haemorrhaging of police legitimacy across the nation.

As both a criminologist and a US citizen, it is clear to me that fundamental changes in our structures of policing are needed

Lawrence Sherman

One of the world’s leading criminologists has told the Presidential task force on 21st century policing that the United States needs to look to the policing policies and practices of the United Kingdom in order to significantly reduce the levels of deadly force used by and against US police.

Cambridge Professor Lawrence Sherman said that the professional policing structures in England and Wales, developed since 1856, provide the best possible model for a transition to US policy at a state level, where legal powers of policing lie for most US crimes.  

He believes that individual states should sign up to such England-Wales policies as a Chief Inspector of Constabulary, an independent police complaints commission, and much larger minimum staffing sizes for police forces, which – combined with national initiatives such as the England-Wales register of dismissed officers – would boost policing legitimacy and help to bring down the high annual rates of so-called ‘justifiable’ homicide committed by US police.

Sherman, Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, expert in evidence-based policing and native of New York State, has told the task force that they provide the American people with “the first opportunity in a generation” to rethink fundamental approaches to policing in the US, and that the English-Welsh system is the “best bet we have for the 21st century”. Read the full testimony here; watch it on C-Span here.

“Few if any nations have achieved more public safety with less police use of force or deadly force than England and Wales,” Sherman said. “American policing in the 21st century has achieved enough to look across the world and consider whether some other systems might yield better results. The English system has produced by far the best results.” 

In 2013, at least 461 people were killed by US police in ‘justifiable’ homicides according to official FBI reports, although Sherman said that estimates from news media reports would suggest that number was over 1,000. In the same year, the number of people in England and Wales killed by police was zero.

Sherman says that the vast national differences in use of deadly force is not due to a lack of confrontations in which police had legal powers to kill. In London alone in 2012, police sent authorised firearms officers to 2,451 incidents, including 634 direct threats to life, and seized 416 firearms.

“The reason London’s police killed no one in these events is the result of an infrastructure of institutions and policies that is completely lacking in US policing,” Sherman told the White House Task Force. “My recommendations are based on 45 years of working with US police agencies and 15 years of helping to redesign the English policing infrastructure,” he said. 

Sherman advocates sweeping changes to US policing systems on three tiers: federal, state and local – all based on UK policing models.

Recommendations for federal government include the setting up of a National College of Policing (NCP) and a National Registry of Dismissed Officers, both of which have been established since 2012 at the UK’s College of Policing, of which Sherman is a non-executive director.

The NCP would run a three-month residential course for potential police executives, with a curriculum featuring the major research evidence recommended by the National Institute of Justice, “essential knowledge for preventing crime and maintaining the legitimacy of police institutions”, says Sherman. A registry of dismissed officers should be established by the Attorney General, accessible only to police agencies conducting background investigations prior to hiring officers. 

The President should issue an executive order requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to sign up to a British-style proportionality standard for the use of deadly force. “This standard would not replace statutory or case law, but hold in situations where there is a clear risk that deadly force might become necessary, but would be disproportionally severe in relation to the reason for engagement,” says Sherman.

On a state level, additional recommendations include the establishment in each US state of an office for an Inspector General of Police (IGP). Similar to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the IGP would be empowered to observe, review records and audit all state, county and municipal police agencies – issuing public reports on the level to which they meet each state’s standards and training boards’ recommendations. The IGP would be appointed by the state governor to serve a five-year term.    

Each state should also establish an independent police complaints commission (IPCC) to investigate complaints against officers or agencies. Going beyond the powers of the IPCC of England and Wales, Sherman believes such commissions in the US should have the power to dismiss a police officer from the profession on grounds of an ethical breach, even without prosecution or conviction of a crime.  

On a local level, recommendations include the merging of local forces to create police agencies with an absolute minimum of 100 employees per force. Many problems of organisational quality control are exacerbated by the tiny size of most local police forces in the US, says Sherman.

“In 2008, 73% of all US police agencies employed fewer than 25 people, and less than 1% of all 17, 985 US agencies currently meet the English minimum of 1,000 employees. All US agencies should at least aim for a minimum of 100 fulltime employees.”

Sherman points out that no recommendations will completely eradicate the controversies over policing a free society, and there are also deep cultural reasons for differences in policing between the US and the UK. But recent events in the US over the past year, and the public outrage that has ensued, run the risk of irreparably damaging public trust in US policing institutions. 
“As both a criminologist and a US citizen, it is clear to me that fundamental changes in our structures of policing are needed – so the question is, what changes to try? In terms of policing with public safety, the English system is the best bet we have for the 21st century.”

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