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'Handcuffed': What’s the primary goal of policing?

In his new book “Handcuffed,” former detective Malcolm Sparrow argues that flaws in the way we understand policing have led to current conflicts between police and the public.

In the United States, police kill three civilians each day.

After the recent shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police — as well as the deaths of five Dallas officers during a protest that followed — many are re-examining the role of police use-of-force in our society.

As a follow-up to our discussion with Heather Mac Donald, Larry interviews Malcolm Sparrow, a former detective who is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

"Handcuffed" by Malcolm Sparrow
Brookings Institution
"Handcuffed" by Malcolm Sparrow

In his new book “Handcuffed,” Sparrow argues that vital flaws in the way we understand policing have led to current conflicts between police and the public. He outlines why community policing has failed, urging departments to see it as an end in itself rather than a means of reducing crime.

Instead of focusing on traditional crime statistics, Sparrow insists that police must collaborate with civilians to make reforms. He  sees police as fundamentally risk-controllers and harm-reducers, an idea that could have a profound impact on how cops interact with the people they serve.

Interview highlights

Malcolm Sparrow: [Community policing] is the simple notion that police and community will work together in two ways. First of all to set the priorities and agenda for police action, and secondly to achieve those purposes, whatever they are.

That’s not a complicated thing to say. But then you watch the development and implementation over the years, and there’s some very simple-minded substitutes that have been used, and then some rather serious and complex distractions from the idea. … Some police departments just used the language but didn’t change anything at all. [They] said, “We’re doing community policing,” but no one could tell that anything had changed. Other departments created tiny little dedicated units called the “community beat officer unit.” What they sometimes tended to do was insulate the rest of the department from any obligation to change.

To really do the kind of community policing you’re advocating for, it often takes more personnel. It’s tough to do.

No, I don’t agree. If your idea of community policing is that you’re going to cover the entire city with foot patrols, then yes, that would require an enormous number of people, and that’s obviously not going to happen in the current environment. Even given the current levels of resources, there’s an awful lot of choice available about style, posture, stance, the way that you treat people, the nature of the interactions, how you organize your attention, what you do on the proactive and preventive front rather than just answering calls.

What do you see as the more overarching, comprehensive police goal if it is not first and foremost taking people who are a threat to other people off the street?

You mustn’t misunderstand my position on crime control. I’m absolutely in favor of crime control. I’ve done it. It is an essential imperative for police. It is not as if community policing is somehow a soft, wishy-washy alternate to the notion of effective crime control. It is a style. It is an attitude. It is a relationship that you have with the community. The control of crime remains absolutely central to their purpose.

But there are some other views on how to do crime control. ... We have had some experience with aggressive, in-your-face, zero-tolerance style of policing, which some departments have substituted for the notion of community policing. We know that there is a vast gulf between actual victimization levels and reported crime rates. In some agencies there are quite a lot of integrity issues on crime reporting, so there is another gulf between what’s reported and what’s actually recorded.

Now, I do believe that the crime mission is on actual victimization rates, and therefore you need a degree of closeness and trust. If you have more closeness and trust with some communities, then — surprise surprise —  the reported crime rate would actually go up, because they’d be more inclined to tell you things and wouldn’t be so fearful of going to the police station.

So, there are different ideas about how to do crime control, not whether it is an important mandate. Of course it is. There are also quite different ideas about whether or not crime control is the principal overriding imperative, or whether that’s part of a much bigger, broader police role.


Malcolm Sparrow Ph.D., Professor of the Practice of Public Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; he served ten years with the British Police Service and is the author of “Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform” (Brookings Institution, 2016)

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