This is Part 2 of a two-part blog post by Prof. Paul Clark comparing police discipline in the US and the UK. It identifies aspects of the UK approach to police discipline that could have a positive impact on the discipline process in the US.
Paul F. Clark is Professor and former Director, School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University in the United States. His research has focused on employment relations, labor unions, and the globalization of labor markets. His current focus is on police unions and police disciplinary processes in the UK and the US. He has authored or edited six books and his research has appeared in the leading scholarly journals in industrial and labor relations, applied psychology, and international labor issues. He has served as a visiting professor at universities in Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand and is currently President-elect of the U.S.-based Labor and Employment Relations Association.
A preliminary examination of the UK police complaint and discipline processes indicates that these processes differ significantly from, and work more effectively than, those in the US. This suggests that there may be elements of the British system of police discipline that could be adapted and adopted by American law enforcement.
One of the key differences between police discipline processes in the UK and the US that could have a positive impact on the US process is the UK’s emphasis on learning versus punishment. In 2020, an in-depth analysis of the police discipline and complaint process in England and Wales led to major reforms. One of the significant changes made was to establish “a culture of learning” as a key part of the discipline process. Toward this end, police supervisors are directed to divert incidents that do not constitute misconduct into either “an unsatisfactory performance procedure” or “a reflective practice review,” both of which help police officers learn from their mistakes and remain on the force.
The emphasis on learning and correcting behavior that UK law enforcement has adopted in recent years is an approach that American police unions and police departments, should consider. In the long run, working to create a culture of learning in US police forces would have many benefits.
Another mechanism that US law enforcement should consider to build public confidence is independent oversight boards. These agencies play a much bigger role in policing in the UK than in the US. In England and Wales, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) oversees complaints about police misconduct. The Police Investigations and Review Commissioner plays this role in Scotland and the Office of Ombudsmen does so in Northern Ireland. These processes are clearly works in progress and they receive mixed reviews from police federations, and sometimes from the public, but to ensure that police do not investigate police behind closed doors, these agencies are necessary.
There has been a movement in recent years in the US to establish such bodies. However, only about ten percent of police forces have done so and they are mostly in urban areas with large police forces. And their performance has been mixed. Still, independent oversight of police forces appears to be a necessity if public confidence in police is to be increased.
US law enforcement also needs to adopt a national database to identify police officers who have been fired for misconduct or incompetence, like the ones that exists in the UK. Currently, in the US only a handful of states keep such a list. Unfortunately, in many states officers fired by one police department are regularly hired by police forces within that state or in other states. A national list would identify officers fired for cause across the country. Any officer appearing on this list would be banned from being hired by any other police force.
Finally, the extremely decentralized nature of the American law enforcement system means that police disciplinary systems are established by each separate police force. In the UK, the police disciplinary processes are national in scope. This means that there is one disciplinary process that covers all police in England and Wales, one that covers all police in Scotland, and one that covers police in Northern Ireland. These national processes bring consistency to police discipline in each country.
With 18,000 police forces in the US (compared to only 43 in England and Wales, and one each in Scotland and Northern Ireland), there are essentially 18,000 different discipline processes. This is highly problematic. It means that reforms to the police discipline system in the US cannot be implemented on a national basis. However, individual states do have the authority to order changes for the police forces in their state. The widespread reform of police discipline processes in the US would most effectively be accomplished on a state-by-state basis. Establishing a consistent police discipline process across all fifty states is unrealistic. Yet, it might be possible to get a significant number of states to adopt such a process. This would be an important step towards improving the effectiveness of American police discipline processes.