Could the social cop model save American law enforcement?
A social cop would have the time to handle a caseload of projects that require expertise in social services and law enforcement crossover areas
By Robert A. Arabian, P1 Contributor
Here are two questions all police leaders should consider:
- Do we want police officers to be social workers with guns or patient and compassionate crime fighters?
- Should we deliver problem-solving policing or resolve-through-arrest policing?
As American police shift their attention to a more comprehensive solution-based policing model, it is becoming harder to recruit, hire, train and retain qualified police candidates. According to the Journal of Cogent Social Sciences, modern policing is becoming less involved with traditional crime fighting and more involved handling the homeless and mentally ill populations. This may be one of several causal factors related to the decrease in prospective police candidates felt nationwide. It may ultimately force a significant change in how law enforcement seeks out candidates to fill the ranks of public safety.
Should American law enforcement have two types of police officer?
What if two vastly different police officers could exist in the future? The emergency police officer would respond only to in-progress, violent crime or generic investigations. The police service specialist would conduct all follow-up and specialty investigations involving social or other investigative issues.
These two different types of officers would have distinct roles and responsibilities, but work in tandem to address the issues emerging for the future of policing.
The role of the generalist police officer vs. the social police officer
The traditional police officer seeks justice. They capture criminals and keep the community safe from crime, and have become known as a generalist. These officers engage the enemy on any given shift, and look toward immediate and quick results in their policing. They rarely are able to take advantage of time to solve a problem at its core, but use an aggressive style of policing to put out small “spot fires” of crime in their respective areas. An end result has been increased racial tension, questionable use of force and a high degree of suspicion from communities served.
A bifurcation of roles and responsibilities now shouldered solely by sworn police officers could be an alternative to this dominant model. Rather than selecting specialists from one pool of police officers selected in the current ways, there could be two distinct paths, with two distinct sets of persons and skills to choose from, creating a new type of police officer – the police specialist or social cop.
Social cops would be problem solvers who seek to eradicate problems at their inception. The most desired skillsets for the social police officers would be described as soft skills such as empathy, compassion and non-verbal communication skills. Social cops would have extensive experience in areas such as dealing with the homeless and mentally ill. They would not be required to respond to routine radio calls for service. They would have the time – like a detective – to handle a caseload of projects that require their expertise in social services and law enforcement crossover areas to lessen the burden on first responders by solving core problems.
A focused hiring method to find candidates from all areas of the community would help to ensure police staff more deeply understand the issues they are likely to encounter, and then be able to respond more proficiently and professionally. This bifurcation in hiring would rely more heavily on the candidate’s background, education and experience to ensure the right person for the right job is selected. generally, these individuals would engender a high degree of trust from the community.
How police specialists can enhance police response
As an example of how the social cop could augment traditional police response, Simi Valley Police Sergeant Charles “Steven” Shorts related a recent event handled by his Community Liaison Officer Team.
A resident had telephoned 9-1-1 to notify the police department of a naked male walking down the street. Patrol officers were dispatched and located the individual who clearly had mental disabilities and was homeless. This was the nineteenth call to the police about this person in the past month. Patrol officers usually tried to resolve contacts with him by finding bed space in a care facility that would take him off the streets for at least that night. A newly formed police specialist team, however, responded and assumed control of this investigation. Patrol officers (those who would be our emergency officers in a future agency) returned to their duties, and the police specialists delved deeply into the social issues involved.
The specialists learned the male adult resided at home; however, his mother was absent. She refused to care for him and left him alone despite his inability to function and care for himself. The specialists initiated public guardianship proceedings at the county level, and ultimately placed the male under a conservatorship in a long-term care facility.
The net result was that residents no longer saw (and reported) a naked male walking in the community; emergency officers could focus on other crimes in progress; the mental health facilities utilized the available space for other emergent clients; and the male involved in the event had his needs met under proper medical or mental health supervision.
The police specialists were hired for a specific need, and in small numbers. What if the concept was expanded to identify core roles and responsibilities for tomorrow’s police staff members, and then persons were retained who already had the expertise needed? What if we changed our single-pipe entry method to accept people for positions that vary greatly, and stop accepting only those who wanted to complete a police academy and work in patrol or custody before they could move into specialties?
How can we change the future of law enforcement?
The merging of law enforcement and business principles will surely pave the way for meaningful change. Instead of hiring “police officers,” law enforcement would benefit from recruiting for specific job functions and advertise for the new position of police specialist. The police specialist function would operate similarly, but with a more specific focus, such as police specialist – homeless liaison. The minimum requirements would be a degree in the relevant fields of psychology, sociology, criminology or other social science or equivalent work experience.
Just as a large company like Amazon recruits accountants or computer technicians with specific education and job experience requirements, law enforcement would benefit from a similar approach. Once a prospective candidate earns his or her professional certification or college degree, there is an assumed mastery of the subject matter that could serve as a threshold qualification for consideration for hire by the police agency. This allows the law enforcement agency to immediately place the employee into the area into which they were hired.
A reshaping of the modern police department would be necessary. A full-time current California police academy consisting of 640 hours would be modified or the current POST modular system could be custom tailored. Only core learning domains involving investigations; powers of arrest; firearms and other critical tasks would be required for a police specialist since they already possess a requisite degree in their desired area of interest. The academy graduate would then be placed within their police agency in the area of their expertise and would begin working immediately.
Reforming police hiring models
The first step to hire a new type of police officer/specialist is to realign the process by which the police are trained.
Current police hiring models across the United States tend to support the generalist skillset. A suitable candidate is located who is interested in performing general law enforcement duties, and who then passes the requirements for the hiring agency. The police academy is successfully completed, after which they complete their initial field training. They then complete a training phase and work on their own for several years until the decision is made to become a specialist focusing on a particular area, such as detective, collision investigation, gang enforcement or as a narcotics officer.
Only when they specialize after 2-3 years as a working police officer do they really focus their mission on problem-solving at the core of policing. In small agencies such as in Simi Valley, California, it could take 2-5 years before a patrol officer can specialize in another area within the department.
An alternative to the current police selection model is similar to that used by the private sector. Although many are quick to state that government is not run like a business, experience tells us there are many similarities and much can be learned from studying both models.
Corporate America hires from a pool of job candidates with special skills or college degrees in a particular area. Once identified and hired, the candidate would be put directly to work within the specialty of their experience or degree, solving the core problems they were hired to address with an abbreviated police academy training experience.
A major shift in how law enforcement recruits, selects, hires, trains and implements police officers is being spawned by the demands of the millennial generation and Generation Z members. Social issues are now at the forefront of policing. The generational switch involving millennials and Generation Z has shown they are looking for faster results and not necessarily paying their dues as the traditional model of employment dictates.
Utilizing a more corporate model in the recruitment and selection of personnel for specific and particularized assignments, law enforcement should be better able to attract candidates to fill the current void. These new candidates are more apt to apply their skillsets and remain employed longer because they are applying their talents more quickly. This is in stark contrast to traditional law enforcement’s much slower, less focused model.
Of course, a traditional police academy would still exist for those officers who want to perform traditional police crime-fighting functions: patrol, traffic enforcement and other first responder-related duties. These officers would be hired as emergency officers and like other foreign countries such as China, would spend their careers on the first response and arrest side of the operation, or in the traffic enforcement section.
These officers should also possess excellent communication and problem-solving skills to better establish trust within the community. Working hand in hand with police specialists, both the traditional patrol cops and the new specialists would be more effective, and more adeptly respond to the future needs of their communities. It would indeed be policing done differently to get different (and better) results.
A switch to this policing model could widen the candidate interest group and job pool significantly. A two-tier type of police officer recruit just may be the ideal staffing model of the future to meet the emerging and changing social needs of our society.
Even better, the mentally ill, homeless and non-violent domestic dispute victims will receive appropriate help without anyone being arrested or intimidated by a traditional cop.
The final enhancement will hopefully greatly increase interest in our noble profession and be a positive solution to elevate our reputation in the communities we serve.
Author note: This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations. The views and conclusions are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
1. Lares, A. Policing America. Personal interview, Jan 4, 2018.
2. May JF, Shorts CS, Jones RF, Koch K. Data collection panel. Personal interview, July 7, 2017.
3. Shorts CS. Community Liaison Officers. Personal interview, November 20, 2017.
4. Shannon SA. Movement within policing. Personal interview, 2018.
About the author
Robert Arabian has been a California peace officer for 28 years working for the LAPD and Simi Valley Police Department. He is a licensed California attorney who served as a prosecutor in Ventura County. He is currently a commander at the Simi Valley Police Department, leading and managing the Traffic Bureau.