To Fix Policing in the United States, Follow Its Guidelines Abroad
The United States has spent decades training foreign nations to build community and capacity—it’s time to apply those lessons at home.
Day after day, protesters in cities across the United States are taking to the streets with the firm conviction that policing is broken and systemic change is needed to eradicate race-based police violence. Protesters demand changes to use-of-force policies, broader police reforms, or the defunding of local police departments.
This patchwork of solutions shouldn’t come as a surprise to U.S. government officials. In fact, many of them mirror precisely the approaches the United States teaches other countries when advising them on the prevention of terrorism and other forms of violence. Over the past decade, the two of us have worked for or on behalf of the United States to help foreign governments reform their national-security and law-enforcement systems—and build the capacities of key community and civil-society partners. Despite differing contexts, many of the solutions we have been advocating for overseas need to be applied in the United States.
Our colleagues abroad have been reaching out in recent weeks, concerned about policing in the United States and how U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to use his counterterrorism powers to crack down on what he perceives to be his political opponents. It reminds them, they tell us, of what they hoped to avoid in their own countries. As trainers and advisors, we had grown used to holding up a U.S. tradition of democratic policing, without fully acknowledging that it was seriously compromised in our home country. Now the entire world is witness not only to a Minneapolis police officer openly murdering a defenseless citizen, but to Trump sending military troops into the streets of Washington tear-gassing peaceful protesters and, borrowing a tactic from authoritarian regimes, misusing counterterrorism measures to target peaceful protesters.
This painful episode has revealed that rather than being a model for others to follow when it comes to policing and preventing violence, the United States in fact shares many of the problems of the countries it advises. There is a lack of mutual trust between local communities and police. There is also an overmilitarization of the police’s tactics and equipment; a lack of adequate investments in local social services, health care, employment, and education; and a lack of involvement by necessary civil-society partners.
These are the very concerns we start with when working with foreign governments. To prevent violence, we typically tell them, fundamental changes are needed in each of these areas. Without mutual trust and a healthy multidimensional relationship between community and security forces—and without the involvement of community-based organizations and civil-society partners—it is impossible to stem the violence.
The prospect for change in the United States—particularly given its complex federal system—is extremely challenging. The United States has 50 states, thousands of municipalities, and 17,985 separate police departments which are independently operated and answer to local governments and the voters who put them in office. The U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies have some influence, authority, and resources, but change will have to be approached in a much more piecemeal way, one city or state at a time.
But there is already a blueprint for high-level assistance as local governments move ahead. In 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown, then President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force was charged with identifying best practices and offering recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust. Among the six pillars developed by that task force are many of those lessons we had been sharing abroad: One notes the absolute centrality of building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police-citizen divide; another states that community policing should be the guiding philosophy for all stakeholders.
These recommendations are necessary, and closely aligned with what we and others from the United States have been teaching other countries. However, what we do not have in the United States is a feasible mechanism for widespread systemic reform in policing, such as the model used to overhaul policing in Northern Ireland (short of congressional action to pass new laws, which in the current political environment seems doomed to fail).
Any police reforms, therefore, will need to be complemented by significant investments in community-based services and institutions that have long been neglected. What’s needed in the United States is not just long-overdue police reforms, but massive capacity-building in low-resource communities to strengthen community-based services and supports that can mitigate the life-threatening and public health consequences of inequality and police violence.
In this dystopian climate, teaching other countries about preventing terrorism and violence is practicing reverse American exceptionalism: Don’t mind us. Do what we say, not what we do.
But across the United States and the globe, now, people are rallying against police violence and demanding more violence prevention measures. If local governments have the courage and conviction to make lasting changes in policing and can build the capacities of other community-based services and supports, they will serve as a global model. Then the United States can rightfully claim to its foreign partners that it knows from its own country and its own troubled history how to make the changes that really matter.
Stevan Weine is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine, where he is also director of global medicine and Director of the Center for Global Health.