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Can older and female recruits salvage the image of US police?

Chris Sweeney
Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Can older and female recruits salvage the image of US police?
Along with the massive drive to defund US police, one initiative isn’t getting nearly as much attention: recruiting older people to ‘protect and serve.’ Would more mature recruits bring down the number of fatal incidents?

It’s legal for a teenager to be given a uniform and a gun, then granted the right to shoot people. The same system bars anyone from becoming president under the age of 35. That’s the paradox of America’s attitude to public responsibility.

To counter this, California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer is calling for a law to prevent anyone under 25 from becoming a cop

That poses interesting questions. Would it make for a better police force? Would it eradicate the continued controversial shootings? Is it a bad idea to have armed young people on the streets enforcing law and order?

The recent killings by cops of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to Black Lives Matter becoming a global phenomenon. It also sparked a sister-movement calling for a restructuring, or outright “defunding,” of the police.

But many believe the problem cannot be realistically solved without a deeper cultural shift in the culture of policing – and those who support Jones-Sawyer’s initiative feel that raising the age and encouraging older people to sign up could drive just such a change.

Research shows that the parts of the brain dedicated to impulse control and planning don’t fully develop until age 25, but there are more mundane reasons as well.

When asking about the positive effects of bringing in older rookies, Seth W. Stoughton, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at University of South Carolina, said: "Some of it is greater life experience; older officers have more experience communicating with different people so they tend to be better at it, and good communication skills can reduce the need to use force.

"Some of it is 'aging out' of risk-taking behavior; an older officer is less likely to put themselves into an unnecessarily dangerous position.”

A study of 186 police shootings revealed that being male, not having a college degree and being younger were more common traits among police involved in such incidents than being female, college educated and older.  

Of course, there is also a positive relationship between age and college education. So there is a clear connection that older cops are less likely to get involved in shootings.

One supporter of a higher minimum age is Dr. Theron L. Bowman.

Now an academic, he is the former chief of police in Arlington, Texas.

He said: "Age is less important than life experience and education but both tend to correlate with age. Both tend to result in more interaction with people who are different than oneself thus more opportunities to learn how to better communicate and empathize with them so I do believe a minimum age of 25 should be considered.”

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These views sound like basic common sense.

In Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Montana and Arkansas, you can be a cop at 18. It’s 19 in Florida and 21 in Kentucky, where an innocent Breonna Taylor was killed as two officers fired 32 rounds of ammunition into her apartment. The highest minimum age is 22, in Wyoming.

In Taylor’s killing and that of George Floyd – plus the unjust high-profile shooting of Stephon Clark – the officers came from different ethnic backgrounds but were all male.

As yet, no force has undertaken a new look at hiring older rookies, but there seems to be no reason not to follow the statistics.

Stoughton explained: "We know that police shootings are heavily dependent on predictable factors, such as training and culture as well as an officer’s tactics and decision-making.

"We see variation from state to state and from agency to agency; over a four-year period, for example, officers in New Mexico fatally shoot more than ten times as many people per capita as officers in New York.

"That means that it is possible to reduce police shootings, and the research suggests that having more female officers and older rookie officers could potentially have some effect."

Dr. Bowman’s experience bears out the connection between hiring more female officers and improving policing standards: "When I became the chief of my agency I only had one woman on the senior command staff of about a dozen people.

"When I retired fourteen years later, more than half of my senior commanders and executives were women, during that time my agency developed a national reputation as being one of the absolute best and most professional in the United States.”

There is a degree of the hypothetical about all of this.

Older rookies will still be involved in shootings and unjust incidents, as will female cops.

But the breakdown of trust between sections of American society is almost beyond repair, and something is needed to restore that trust.

BLM was even rebranded as Blue Lives Matter, a counter-movement in support of police, with a Facebook page that has over 2 million followers and flags flying at Donald Trump rallies. They describe their mission as “to honor and recognize the actions of law enforcement to strengthen the public support of an understandably naive society.”

These two sides ultimately want the same thing: to have police forces that are more worthy of respect. But that will only happen if the actions of officers engender such a goal.

Dr. Bowman said: "Policing today attracts people from all walks of life. I believe it attracts people with pure desires and others with sinister motives. That’s why recruitment, hiring, and selection systems must be robust yet fair.

"We must work diligently to assure the ‘right’ people with personal characteristics that make them well-suited for public service are selected into the policing profession. Consistent with Lord Gresham’s Law of Economics, higher standards will attract greater diversity and higher achievers.”

There is no overt block on older people signing up currently, but the attraction is not there.

It could be that they see the spate of shootings and recoil.

It could be how certain parts of society view the police.

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But if a new older cohort were to join, it could drive a revolution from the inside. Once a new benchmark is created, it would give all new recruits a better concept of the higher standards they could to aspire to.

To do this though, police salaries would have to increase in places – contrary to the calls to “defund the police.”

Right now, America’s top cop earners are in California making on average $105,220, but at the other end of the spectrum is Mississippi with just $36,290, while the median salary in New Hampshire is $58,820

That large variation across the 50 states means encouraging older people to leave lucrative employment and join the force would be tough.

Stoughton said: "If agencies can afford to pay officers well enough to attract highly qualified 30-year-olds, potentially luring them away from other jobs, I think it makes sense to do so. But many police agencies don’t pay terribly well, although the retirement benefits are usually quite good for public employees, so attracting older applicants may be difficult.

"There are really two points here.

"First, hiring officers with more life experience is generally beneficial.

"Second, hiring good candidates is generally beneficial, but many agencies don’t pay enough to attract the caliber of officer that the community might prefer.”

Nothing is going to change unless one group makes the first move. But change is needed.

If the movement to attract older people to join the cops can begin, then shootings should decrease. Add more women officers and an ability to appeal to better-educated recruits, and the cycle will be self-reinforcing.

But if the status quo remains and the shootings and killings keep happening, America's police forces may end up past the point of no return.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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