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Policing for Public Value

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sara E. McClellan and Bryon G. Gustafson
September 12, 2020

Police reform has rightfully taken center stage in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Numerous activists and political leaders have taken advantage of this policy window to promote and adopt new use of force policies, training requirements and accountability measures. Calls for police defunding compete with Blue Lives Matter messaging so that more systemic and moderate reformers must navigate tricky political waters. Between polarized positions, responsible public administrators must find a way forward that recognizes the righteous outrage of Black community members and their allies and the value that police officers provide in an imperfect world. Ultimately, reform will require difficult conversations about the role and value of policing and anti-racist policy measures as well as systemic solutions implemented by skilled administrators. Below, we outline several important considerations for scholars and administrators who pursue this challenge.

Co-Construct Public Value and Legitimacy

First, consistent with Mark Moore’s concepts in his 1995 book Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government, effective policing relies on a reasonable degree of agreement about the purpose and legitimacy of police in a given community. Although basic tenants of policing cut across organizations, the United States’ system of federalism as well as its social and geographic diversity require police executives to define many priorities and norms at a local level—what works for citizens and police in a small town in Alaska may not work in Dallas. Historically, police have done little to engage public stakeholders in exploring public safety issues or establishing police priorities. In our 2019 Police Chief Magazine article, “Police-Community Planning,” we found only four in twelve California police departments selected in a random sample made planning documents or priorities accessible to the public and only two of these departments engaged public stakeholders in planning. To increase accountability and trust, police must engage diverse stakeholders, including and especially Black leaders, to articulate what good policing looks like and why, when and how police matter. For some, this step may seem obvious. For others, it may prove challenging. There are, however, many examples of productive stakeholder engagement to draw from in other policy areas.

Strengthen Operational Capacity to Deliver Public Value

Next, in keeping with Moore’s model of public value, public administration scholars should help map operational choices that support police accountability. True reform will require attention to systemic factors such as contracting, labor management relations, recruitment, feedback systems and post-incident accountability mechanisms. Although existing research provides insight, there is still much to understand about operational factors that strengthen or impede police accountability.

Selection standards and recruitment strategies are critical to designing an accountable and community-oriented police department. What skills and education should police personnel have before they start the job? How will agencies recruit to reflect their community? Assignment and deployment decisions are also essential. Who will do what in terms of prevention and response? How will limited resources be allocated? In a growing number of cities like West Sacramento, CA, police departments are adding new, non-sworn positions to address community challenges like homelessness and mental health. Not all calls for service are best resolved by a person with a gun. This role definition informs how police staff are trained and what they are expected to address. American law enforcement has typically embraced a single classification and training standard for first responders. The officer who takes a missing child report might also be sent to address a homeless camp, a shooting or a traffic accident. This may be necessary, especially in small jurisdictions, but the operational norm should be established with conscious consideration of alternatives.

Finally, the tasks of supervision, management and oversight/accountability must be defined and routinely audited. Supervisors should establish work expectations for officers based on priorities developed in conjunction with the community as outlined above. Oversight should be defined both in terms of process (internal affairs, independent auditor, citizen review board, etc.) and power (advisory, discipline/termination, referral to outside prosecutor, etc.). In the vast majority of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States these considerations are left to the internal deliberations of police leaders. Regardless of the diligence or professional competence of these leaders, communities will benefit from a process that engages residents and police in co-constructing what constitutes good policing.

Adopt a Systemic Approach to Public Value

Public administration practitioners and scholars also have a chance to broaden reform perspectives to examine how policing relates to larger systems of community welfare as demonstrated thoughtfully in Brandi Blessett and Sean McCandless’s PA TIMES piece on social equity and the social determinants of health model. The police reform strategies outlined above are just one aspect of a comprehensive approach to strengthening public health and safety. This is no small undertaking, but the interdisciplinary nature of public administration is a crucial asset for this critical moment.


Sara E. McClellan is assistant professor of public administration and policy at Sacramento State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Bryon G. Gustafson is dean of public safety at American River College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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