Disaggregating the Police Function

76 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2020 Last revised: 27 Jun 2021

See all articles by Barry Friedman

Barry Friedman

New York University School of Law

Date Written: March 30, 2020


Policing imposes serious and extensive harm, from shootings and non-lethal uses of force, to stops, searches, arrests, and incarceration. All of this comes with pervasive racial disparities. Scholars and advocates tend to see these harms as collateral to policing, and seek to address them with “harm-regulating” tools such as civil rights suits, prosecution of police officers, elimination of qualified immunity, more Department of Justice investigations, civilian review boards, and the like.

Harm-regulation techniques are unlikely to be successful, however, as we see all too well in practice. Harm is not collateral to policing, it is innate to it. We call police crimefighters, we train them in using force and enforcing the law, and we deploy them to do this. So, it should come as no surprise that what we get is force, and law enforcement. And that this approach does little to address the sorts of social problems—from homelessness to substance abuse to mental illness—that police confront every day.

This Article take an entirely different approach to the harms of policing, looking to the very core of the policing function itself. It disaggregates what police officers are called upon to do daily into their constituent functions, asking in each instance: are force and law the appropriate responses, and if not, what are? Crimefighting actually is a very small part of what police do every day, and their actual work requires an entirely different range of skills, among them: mediation skills to address conflict, social work skills to get people the long-term solutions they need, interviewing and investigative skills to really solve crimes, and victim-assistance. Yet, police are barely trained in any of this, so, it is no surprise harm is the result.

This Article suggests a range of solutions designed not to reduce harm collaterally, but to reduce altogether the footprint of force and law. Police need to be trained in radically different ways. We either need to change fundamentally the nature of the policing agency workforce, or move police to the background, bringing in other agencies of government to address the actually problems police face on a day-to-day basis. It proposes a totally novel idea for generalist first responders. And it argues that we must reduce criminalization. In short, to reduce the harms of policing, we need to reimagine public safety from the ground up.

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Barry, Disaggregating the Police Function (March 30, 2020). U. Pa. L. Rev. (2020-21 Forthcoming), NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 20-03, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-3, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3564469

Barry Friedman (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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