Our Mission

What is the Policing Project?

The Policing Project is dedicated to strengthening policing through democratic governance.

Policing agencies play a vital role in ensuring a safe and secure society. To see that they function effectively, we must, and do, grant them vast powers. We allow police to restrict people’s freedom of movement, take them into custody, search their person and their property, and engage in surveillance. But these powers are not granted lightly: it is widely recognized that if used wrongly they can imperil the very society that policing officials are pledged to protect.

We believe it is essential to maximize the effectiveness of policing, and minimize the risks, by applying time-honored techniques of democratic governance.

In November of 2015, with the assistance of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, law enforcement leaders gathered in New York to discuss the agenda of the Policing Project.  The result was a Statement of Democratic Policing Principles to which they all signed on, which aptly summarizes much of our work.

What is policing?

There’s a reason we refer to “policing” rather than “the police.” Any government body or official that has the authority to exercise force against, or conduct surveillance of, the citizenry is “policing” society, and should operate according to principles of democratic governance. This includes those whom we usually think of as the police, such as the cops on the beat. But it also includes the agents of the FBI and the surveillance experts at the NSA.

What is democratic governance?

In the United States, democratic accountability means that whenever possible there are rules put in place in advance of official action, describing what officials may and may not do; that those rules are public; and—most important—that they are developed through a process that allows for public input and debate.

For reasons that are largely historical, this is not how policing works at present.  Policing agencies have rules, of course:  they have department manuals and standard operating procedures, and they are bound to follow decisions from the courts. Some agencies also are subject to oversight by civilian review boards, Inspectors General, and court-appointed monitors.  But all of these methods of accountability suffer from one of two shortcomings.  First, much of the review occurs after-the-fact, once things have gone wrong, rather than beforehand, when sound policies can be set.  Second, communities rarely get a say, up front, in the rules that determine how they are policed.

That’s what we’d like to see change. And we’re partnering with a variety of organizations and government bodies—including, importantly, policing officials—to accomplish these goals.

We are writing model rules and policies for policing, promoting community engagement around policing policies at all levels of government, and helping to develop sound metrics of policing success.

We believe both the work of policing, and the society in which it takes place, can be better off as a result.  And we are not alone.  In November 2015, law enforcement leaders from across the country came to New York University School of Law to talk about Democratic Policing.  Afterward, they signed on to a Statement of Principles calling for just these approaches.