America Needs a West Point for Police Officers

From a Washington Post column by Megan McArdle headlined “America needs a West Point for police officers”:

A low crime rate is an indispensable prerequisite for any kind of serious, compassionate criminal justice reform. If you doubt this, just watch the videos of a town hall that took place in Oakland, Calif.

Oakland is not exactly known for its rock-ribbed conservatism or its tough-on-crime credentials. In State Assembly District 18, where Oakland is located, Joe Biden won almost 10 times as many votes as Donald Trump in 2020. The city government was among those that became enamored of “defund the police” initiatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

And like many cities, Oakland has endured a crime wave over the past few years. Retail business owners complain that it’s open season and are removing tempting targets such as cigarettes, cash drawers and ATMs. Residents complain about brazen robberies and senseless assaults. Many of them packed a community meeting, carrying signs reading “Do More” and accusing the city of “coddling” criminals. They booed the interim head of violence-prevention services when he said, “I see individuals who are hurting. I see individuals who are struggling and need a different outlet.”

The crime wave that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s devastated urban cores and ended what had been a liberalizing trend in the mid-century criminal justice system.

American cities are nowhere near the brutal highs of those years. Homicides in D.C. peaked at 509 in 1991, more than twice today’s rate, even though the population was 15 percent smaller. But cities today are still uncomfortably close to the position of cities in the 1960s, when rising crime coincided with a new technology — the automobile then, Zoom today — that made it easier for people to live and work outside the city limits. The result then was a doom loop in which crashing budgets made it even harder to provide acceptable levels of public safety.

So while not yet dire, today’s problem is serious — and exacerbated by an officer-recruiting crisis across the country that stems in part from the extra hostility and scrutiny police have faced since the 2020 murder of Floyd. Those of us who remain committed to the ideals of mass decarceration need to find creative ways to take the problem of crime as seriously as the problem of police abuse. So here’s my first attempt: America should create a West Point for cops.

The reason the United States ended up with mass incarceration is that good logic created bad policy. The logic was that criminals respond to incentives. The policy was to tweak the incentives by issuing ever-harsher criminal sentences. Unfortunately, criminals tend to be impetuous and present-oriented, which means the best way to deter them isn’t to increase the severity of punishment, but to make punishment more likely.

That’s why “Defund the Police” was such a wrongheaded slogan. Fewer police make it less likely any individual crime will be solved, meaning crime rises — which makes overburdened cops even less likely to apprehend any particular offender. The fewer the crimes, the more will be solved and the more effective the deterrent, which is why we need more police who are better paid to attract and retain top-quality candidates and better trained to reduce the kinds of incidents that destroy community trust.

A West Point for cops could serve as a research center for learning what works in policing, and as a place to transmit that information to new generations of officers, who can be attracted to the profession through a combination of free, high-quality education and opportunities for elite public service.

As a condition of receiving this education, recruits would promise to serve for eight years — as West Point officers do — on a major urban police force. The federal government could pay their salaries during that time, possibly including hazard pay for more difficult assignments. This would inject more federal money into policing and spread the lessons graduates have learned into police departments across the country.

A graduate program, something like the War Colleges, could also be established for mid-career and senior police officers. This would not only improve training but also create a new national network of elite officers through which best practices could be shared.

Details would have to be worked out: Where would this school be? What would it teach? Who would staff it? How would it combine academics and hands-on police training? How could it create the kind of culture — the professionalism, the loyalty, the esprit de corps — that military academies such as West Point and Annapolis have spent centuries cultivating? Such questions will have to be answered by professionals, not columnists. But debating these kinds of questions would be a lot more fruitful, for police and reformers, than arguing over whether to battle police abuses, or crime.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”

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