Author: Malcolm Sparrow
Publisher: Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016. 262p.
Reviewer: Cory Schnell | January 2017

The use of excessive force by police officers against minorities in urban communities is one of the most prominent topics of discussion in contemporary public discourse on reforming the criminal justice system in the United States. Several high-profile incidents over the past few years  ̶  in which unarmed black men were killed by police officers  ̶  have served as tragic catalysts for public discourse on this topic. Recent deaths in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas of both citizens and police officers have provided another devastating new layer of urgency to this national conversation. These events prompted President Obama to hold an emergency, nationally televised “town hall” meeting this past summer to encourage dialogue on the intersection of policing, race and violence in America. Author Malcolm Sparrow’s introductory chapter offers a remarkably well written and accessible overview of the contemporary crisis in American policing. At this point Sparrow has the readers right where he wants them. Then he pivots.

Sparrow pivots because that’s the book we want to read: but Handcuffed is the book we need to read. This book provides a broader assessment that uses the public discourse on excessive use of force by police only as an entry point, not as the exclusive subject in which to explore the reform of police practices. Handcuffed still offers specific solutions to reforming the excessive use of force by the police, but it provides this solution as one of many benefits of a broader reformulation of contemporary police practices.

After the broad introduction in Chapter 1 ̶  which should appeal to practitioners, academics, and the general public because of its discussion of recent use of force cases  ̶  the book begins to focus on narrower topics. Chapter 2 offers a thoughtful examination of how the police define success. Borrowing the logic of economists, Sparrow argues that understanding the incentive structure of police departments allows for insight into how these agencies operate. He suggests that police departments are too preoccupied with crime control and with the limited set of quantitative indicators designed to evaluating their performance in this category. The emphasis of contemporary urban American police departments on crime control is not a surprise considering the rising crime rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While social scientists still do not completely understand the causes of that crime wave  ̶  or of the subsequent crime drop since the mid-1990s  ̶  police departments nationally responded to this challenge by adopting several innovations, such as “hot-spot” policing and “focused-deterrence” strategies. However, Sparrow asserts that this exclusive focus on crime control does not fit well with the organizing principles of police departments as general social service providers. Instead, he advocates diversifying performance indicators to include measures of community satisfaction. Further, Sparrow asserts that police departments should not be assessed based only on a single performance indicator, whether it’s crime rates or measures of excessive use of force: instead, he advocates a more comprehensive appraisal of the institutions of policing and of the possible avenues for reform.

Chapters 3-6 provide deeper analyses of other contemporary issues in police reform that veer even further away from the problematic use of excessive force. Sparrow asserts that “problem-oriented” and community-oriented policing strategies have been around for decades but have never been fully adopted by police agencies. Next, he surprisingly challenges the recent popularity of evidence-based policing as a worthwhile aid to reforming police practices. Then he addresses the complexities that arise from collaborations between public police departments and private security providers, and discusses how the police can learn from other regulatory agencies in carrying out reforms.

Handcuffed is an impressive book. Sparrow takes a page from the playbook of problem-oriented policing innovator Herman Goldstein. Handcuffed attempts to address the root causes of why the police are slow to reform by eschewing the topical concerns that would appear to be the first issue that need to be addressed. This is a bold approach considering how deafening the roar of public discourse today is on the excessive use of force by the police. This book succeeds because of Sparrow’s unrelenting vision to address police reform in a broader context, and because of the quality of his research and writing. Handcuffed is recommended to any reader interested in criminal justice reform.

Cory Schnell is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cincinnati

Start typing and press Enter to search