8 Trends That Will Shape Policing in the Next 50 Years

Agencies should start making adjustments now so that they’ll remain effective.

The phrase “paradigm shift” is as stale as cops and doughnut jokes, but it is well suited to address growing challenges to customer-oriented policing in the coming decades. Extant and emerging socio-political and technological trends will shape how we protect and serve our public. The challenge we face is that these trends necessitate significant changes to the structure and delivery of police services. 

Management using the “business as usual” model, in which we make incremental changes in response to our changing environment, will put us increasingly out of touch with the citizens we serve. At a time when budgets are declining and we are being asked to do more with less, any failure to deliver quality and relevant services to the public will have disastrous consequences: budgets will decline further, training will be reduced and new equipment will not be acquired.  The net effect of these developments will be declining morale, increasing personnel turnover and shortages, increasing officer safety concerns and the loss of the public’s trust in their police.

We can continue doing what we’ve been doing, which has served us well in the past, but we must also start thinking about the socio-political and technological trends we are facing and are likely to face in the coming decades. The implications of these trends will enable us to anticipate and respond to new policing challenges and opportunities.

Socio-Political Trends
America’s population is ageing; immigration is accelerating; politics are increasingly partisan and divisive, reflecting the fractionalization of society; international terrorism continues unabated; government is increasingly regulatory and intrusive; and the military, which has served as a melting pot and instilled a sense of commitment to something greater than the individual, shapes fewer lives than ever before.

These trends have significant implications for policing. Let us consider a few.

1. Shifting population ages.
The “Baby Boomers”, born from 1946-1960, are now in their mid-50s through 70s and are retiring. There are more than 50 million of these citizens, and officers dealing with them will increasingly encounter dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks, and various medical conditions and injuries associated with old age. At the same time, seniors in their golden years expect services to be provided with the respect and deference they deserve. The Generation Y and Z cohorts, from whom we are recruiting officers, are technologically sophisticated and have been called the “me” generation. They have little in common with their seniors, whose lives were influenced by the “Greatest Generation,” the Cold War and military service, all of which encouraged self-sacrifice and service. The Gen Ys and Zs look for technical solutions to problems that have been addressed for years with proverbial shoe leather. And they do not fit easily in a paramilitary organization. They expect explanations rather than orders and evaluate options based on a personal calculus. Also, as a result of living much of their lives on the Internet and dealing with the virtual reality of social media, their human interaction and conversational skills may be lacking relative to their elders. Dealing with future recruits will require salty supervisors to revisit how they motivate and direct their subordinates.

2. Increased immigration.
Estimates vary regarding the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, but 12 million is a fair estimate. We can expect this number to grow over the next decade. Many of these individuals do not speak English.  Their unemployment and poverty rates are high, and their young are often prime recruitment targets for gangs. When one recognizes that many immigrants come from countries in which the police are corrupt and/or instruments of state coercion, police can expect to be treated with distrust and distain, if not outright hostility. Additionally, we will need to recognize that many of the non-verbal indicators we have relied on, such as failure to look us in the eye as an indicator of deception, may no longer be useful for people from cultures that consider direct eye contact to be a sign of disrespect. Further, some cultures do not afford equal rights to women. An officer responding to a call will need to know that making direct contact with a female family member might aggravate relations with male family members. The officer will also need the verbal and cultural tools to deal with this situation.

3. Domestic terrorism.
According to a recent FBI study, both the frequency and number of victims of active shooter incidents are increasing. Add to this, the Sovereign Citizen movement, continuing tensions in the Middle East and the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation in that unstable region, continuing calls by al Qaida to bring jihad to the United States, and the large number of foreign students in U.S. schools, and the likelihood of violent encounters escalates. Local, state and federal responders will experience an increased need to share information, but we have seen increased concerns by citizens regarding the protection of privacy. It seems unlikely that the “me” generation, with its self-focus, will support data sharing between law enforcement agencies, the beneficial effects on safety and security notwithstanding.

About the Author


Lt. John Weinstein commands Strategic Planning and Outreach for the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department. The views expressed herein represent the personal views of the author and should not be construed as representing the official view of the Northern Virginia Community College or any of its components.

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