National Policing Standards Are Needed to Stop 'Wandering Cops' | Opinion

The inexcusable horror of Tyre Nichols' death at the hands of Memphis police officers has been plumbed by pundits everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Teen Vogue for what it might say about race and policing in America. Such debates, however, miss an essential truth known to policing specialists but rarely stated by activists or politicians: America suffers from poor and abusive policing largely because we often recruit the wrong people—and then train and manage them poorly. Revealingly, two of Nichols' alleged killers had become officers only because a cash-strapped Memphis had recently lowered police hiring standards.

Fortunately, the path forward is well-known: moving away from America's tradition of highly localized policing and toward the national approaches of peer countries like Canada, England, and Australia, which recruit better candidates and then hold them to high, national standards. In such countries, people don't wake to near-weekly headlines of police killings.

To be sure, Nichols' murder underscores the limits of reforming policing by subjecting cops to more laws. Memphis, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, was one of more than 100 cities that passed legislation to hold police more accountable. While such laws are needed because abusive cops too frequently evade justice, they are better at punishing abuse than preventing it in the first place.

Remembering Tyre Nichols
A screen at the entrance of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church displays the celebration of life for Tyre Nichols on Feb. 1, in Memphis, Tennessee. Lucy Garrett/Getty Images

The fact is the quality of the people we recruit into policing profoundly shapes the quality of the policing we get. Research going back decades tells us we can avoid much abusive policing through hiring standards designed to screen out those most likely to become bad cops. Consider the New York Police Department. As New York City emerged from its 1970s fiscal crisis, it rushed to expand its street ranks by 50 percent in 1980-84, neglecting qualifications and vetting. The result: an historic spike in officer misconduct.

That episode reverberates today. In the wake of Covid and nationwide protests against police violence, police departments have scrambled to recruit and retain officers. In some places, this has led to lowered standards that, in turn, meant hiring some ill-suited to the badge.

And "low" can mean really low, including hiring cops who were fired—or who resigned under a cloud—for misconduct elsewhere. Such "wandering cops" appeal to tight-fisted departments eager to hire damaged goods on the cheap; roughly 1,100 Florida cops working today, for example, got terminated by a department elsewhere, including 800 for serious abuses. That hiring standards and budgets for America's roughly 18,000 police departments get determined locally makes it that much harder to raise either.

Raising standards for police recruits might make recruiting harder absent salary increases, but in the long run it would help ensure policing worthy of America's democratic promise. For example: national studies have documented that the single best predictor of how many civilian complaints a police department receives is neither the race of its officers nor the size of its community policing budget, but the number of officers with a four-year college degree (regardless of major). If requiring cops to have a four-year degree sounds far-fetched, consider that England and Wales have mandated their police recruits have at least a three-year degree since 2020.

Better recruitment will mean even better cops when it is paired with better training. Compared to peer countries, most American police departments stand out for how little they train their officers: half as many hours, on average, as officers in Canada, England and Australia receive—and a sliver of what officers receive in Germany and Finland. And what training departments provide is a poor match for policing today. Although three out of four officers retire without ever having fired at a suspect, on average all officers will get three times as much training in how to use their service weapons than they do in how to deescalate volatile encounters, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In the decentralized U.S. system of policing, it is hard to achieve consistent standards. But an oft-forgotten bit of police history suggests what might be possible with national standards.

A generation ago, a wave of lawsuits forced police chiefs to rewrite weapons regulations. And in 1978, when the Supreme Court's Monell v. Department of Social Services stipulated cities could be financially liable for rights violations by individual employees, police nationwide took notice. Policies changed, officers were punished internally, and as Peter Moskos has documented, police shootings plummeting in cities nationwide—including Memphis. Litigation's financial bite functioned much like a national directive on police.

More recently, former President Barack Obama's Department of Justice fought police abuses by negotiating consent decrees with 25 departments marred by patterns of rights violations—a practice ended by the Trump administration. The Memphis police in 2020 slipped partially free of a decades-old consent decree slapped on them for spying on civil rights organizations.

Transforming how we recruit and manage America's police might seem utopian, but public opinion is shifting. A recent ABC New-Washington Post poll revealed that white, Black and Hispanic Americans are all increasingly doubtful that police officers are properly trained to avoid using unnecessary force.

Of course, better recruitment, training and management are not cure-alls. Policing is a human activity subject to human flaws and frailties. But higher standards for policing can take us closer to a just society.

Fritz Umbach is an associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York); his forthcoming third book, Modern New York in 50 Crimes, explores the city's history since 1965 through crime. He consults for New York City government on gun violence and its costs. Robert W. Snyder, Manhattan Borough Historian and professor emeritus of American Studies and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York and coauthor of All the Nations Under Heaven: Immigrants, Migrants and the Making of New York. He is currently editing an oral history of the Covid pandemic in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.