Criminologists and police officers at a Washington DC panel contend that policing in the U.S. is improving, despite a series of well-publicized shootings of unarmed citizens.
Ever since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, police around the nation have found themselves consistently under fire for reasons ranging from alleged racism to unjustified use of force.
Are the critics making a fair assessment? Scholars who study policing, and some current and former practitioners, don’t think so, judging from panel discussions on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
The talks were held at a new outpost in the nation’s capital opened by Arizona State University, whose criminology faculty is very active in research on policing.
The basic message of several panelists was that, taking the long view, policing in the U.S. has improved in recent years—not worsened—despite several well-publicized cases in which officers shot unarmed citizens without good reason.
In a discussion of efforts by officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations with crime suspects and others, the experts agreed that the technique is being embraced by more and more officers on the streets.
William Terrill, a policing expert on the Arizona State faculty, said that about three-fourths of officers successfully practiced de-escalation as far back as the 1990s.
The problem, Terrill said, is that what he described as a small group of officers believes that escalating a conflict can help bring it to a resolution because the officer can “maintain the edge… stay in control.” It is difficult to change police culture entirely in a short period, he said.
In police hiring today, applicants are told that most of their time probably will be devoted to “social work, not law enforcement,” Terrill commented. “We ask officers to do a lot, and not everyone is up to it.”
Edward Flynn. Photo via YouTube
Edward Flynn, who recently retired as police chief in Milwaukee, said that policing has become much more responsive to community concerns since two landmark reports that recently marked their 50th anniversary.
They were issued by panels appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s on criminal justice and on race and poverty issues (the “Kerner Commission.”)
In Flynn’s view, as government agencies across the board try to deal with problems in high-poverty areas, “the police are uniquely singled out for negative attention” because it is their job to enforce the law.
Taking part in a panel on the use of data in evaluating the police, Flynn lamented that “stories beat data,” alluding to “critical incidents” in which officers are accused of wrongdoing. Such episodes “become the reality,” he said.
Another discussion at the Arizona State gathering involved the increasing attention in law enforcement circles to “procedural justice,” the idea that police will get better results and engender more community trust if they are perceived as treating the public fairly.
Panelists agreed that police in many areas are making limited progress in this area because officers are not seen as being treated fairly in their own organizations.
If the public sees that promotions in police departments are decided on a political basis rather than on grounds of competence, for example, they may not be likely to respect officers in street encounters.
Milwaukee’s Flynn noted that demands of police unions sometimes fly in the face of police administrators’ being able to hold officers accountable for mistakes.
In a discussion of officers’ wearing cameras to record interactions with suspects and the public, panelists agreed that studies have disagreed on how useful the cameras are.
In some places, use-of-force incidents by officers and complaints from the public have dropped as more officers wear cameras, and many are more careful about how they go about their work. In other areas, particularly a recent study of Washington, D.C., police, little change has been noted resulting from the cameras, said Arizona State’s Michael White, who has studied camera use for several years.
Overall, public trust in police may be rebounding after it fell in the aftermath of Ferguson’s Michael Brown shooting, said Arizona State criminologist Rick Trinkner.
Trinkner cited a Gallup survey last year finding that “overall confidence in the police has risen slightly in the past two years, with 57 percent of Americans now saying they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in law enforcement.”
Gallup said that level matched the overall average over 25 years.
Wednesday’s panels were moderated by Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.
The public and the media often demand swift punishment for cops identified in deadly use-of-force incidents. But a new research paper suggests that the best way of preventing future incidents is to look for the “root causes” of misbehavior in a police agency’s procedures and culture.
Against the tense backdrop of police shootings of unarmed civilians, a research paper has proposed an alternative approach to evaluating encounters between police and civilians that turn deadly.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School paper, published last month in the Villanova Law Review, argues that Root Cause Analysis (RCA) can be used as a complement to existing procedures for accountability and punishment in officer-involved shootings.
In contrast to traditional analytical approaches, the RCA approach avoids efforts to single out individuals for blame, and focuses instead on systemic problems that contribute to often tragic events in the justice system, such as wrongful convictions or police use-of-force incidents that result in death.
“…It is not clear that our systems for evaluating a past OIS (Officer-Involved Shooting) through administrative reviews, civilian oversight, or civil and criminal litigation are effective in understanding how to learn from past OIS or how to prevent the next OIS from occurring,” the study said.
The paper, entitled “Root Cause Analysis: A Tool to Promote Officer Safety and Reduce Officer-Involved Shootings Over Time,” was written by John Hollway, director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Calvin Lee of the University of Pennsylvania; and Sean Smoot of the Police Protective & Benevolent Association of Illinois.
The authors concluded that RCAs can help senior police managers develop methods that can guide officers’ responses to violent confrontations. They argued current review mechanisms used by law enforcement agencies generally fail to provide guidelines that can prevent violent escalations of encounters between police and civilians.
“Existing review mechanisms are based on retrospective accountability and evaluate whether the officer, the individual who was shot, or some third party bears blame,” the authors wrote.
Such measures which focus on individual culpability may deter police from shootings caused by deliberate or intentional misconduct. They have failed to reduce the occurrence of accidental or unintentional acts or encounters that escalate into an OIS. The reality is that many, and perhaps most, OIS occur despite the fact that no one–neither the officer, nor the civilian, nor the general public–wants them to occur.
RCA analyses rest on the presumption that people are acting rationally, without an intention to do harm, and that they simply wish to effectively perform their tasks within a given system. Although this is a core belief of “non-blaming” accountability reviews, RCAs can still differentiate between well-intentioned errors made in good faith and intentional misconduct made by bad actors, the study said.
The authors noted that the RCA approach has been used successfully for decades in aviation, healthcare, manufacturing, nuclear power, and other fields.
“It is through the application of RCA and other associated initiatives over more than forty years that crashes in aviation have declined to very near zero,” they wrote.
In another example cited by the authors, healthcare administrators’ pursuit of what they call “Just Culture,” which incorporates RCA reviews of medical mishaps in hospitals, has sharply reduced the frequency of such incidents.
“The Just Culture is one that recognizes competent professionals make mistakes and acknowledges that even competent professionals develop unhealthy norms (shortcuts, “routine rule violations”), but has zero tolerance for reckless behavior,” wrote the study authors.
Editors’ Note: The ‘non-blaming’ approach is a critical component of the Sentinel Events pilot initiative launched by the Department of Justice in 2011 to help communities analyze incidents like wrongful convictions and other justice missteps with the aim of identifying (and correcting) the often-ignored mistakes in procedure that led to them. Penn Law’s Quattrone Center, headed by John Hollway, one of the authors of the study, has received federal funding to expand the pilot initiative to 25 communities.
As Beck prepares to retire after eight years, he leaves behind a police agency that has dramatically changed its image as an “occupying force” in the city’s black and brown neighborhoods, and become a national model for police reform, writes the author of two books about the LAPD.
Last Friday, Charlie Beck, the chief of the Los Angeles Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) called a press conference to announce his retirement after leading the department for eight years—forgoing the final two years of his contract in the process, and surprising almost everyone.
“One of the secrets of Bull Riding,” he said about his early departure, “is knowing when to get off the bull.” (He’ll continue to serve until June.)
And indeed the time was ripe for Beck, who’s going out on top.
A 40-year LAPD veteran, the 64-year-old Beck has taken the LAPD a long way down the road to the true cultural transformation of a department vilified world-wide for the televised beating of Rodney King, and the igniting two of the bloodiest riots/rebellions of the 20th Century.
Named chief in 2009, the tall, swarthy Beck brought to the dance a fierce determination to prevail, a quiet, mature professionalism that never called attention to himself, strong interpersonal skills and a willingness to work across lines and with critics, a sense of proportion and understanding of the possible, and superior big-picture observational intelligence and problem-solving skills. Much of which are now reflected in the department he was instrumental in philosophy and fundamentally reshaping, training and rebranding.
Equally important: he was a man of his time, a chief for his era in a Los Angeles undergoing dramatic change.
The son of a former LAPD assistant chief, Beck’s sister had also been an LAPD detective, his wife a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff and both his daughter and son are currently LAPD officers.
But despite what could have been a closed-circle life and career, Beck had both the instinct and insight to recognize the progressive winds of change blowing out of the New L.A. The city is now a multicultural sea of blacks, whites, Chicanos, Asians, and college-educated transplants from around the country and the world, living together with the first and second-generation sons and daughters of over a million immigrants from Latin America, East Asia and the Middle East who had begun arriving in the 1970s.
This recognition, along with the 1992 riots, and a streak of intuitive decency enabled Beck to go beyond the usual cop prejudiced and cynicism to really see his city, and to sense how they wanted to be policed, and what didn’t want.: A trigger-happy LAPD that took great pride in being arrogant and pugnacious; and reveled in shaking down and humiliating people color of as its sole modus operandi.
And like his mentor and predecessor as chief, Bill Bratton, Beck also understood that you’d never get a fair press if you hated the press and always showed it, could abide no criticism, and operated as if the department was unaccountable—which it then very often was.
So when Bratton—the ground-breaking, mid-1990s, media savvy reformer of the New York Police Department—was named chief in 2002, then-Capt. Charlie Beck listened closely, especially when Bratton forcefully told his commanders what he would demand from them: Innovation and creativity in reducing crime, and far, far better relations with the public, particularly those in the city’s black and brown communities.
Astutely, Beck then became among the first to seriously implement Beck’s priorities, and to and reap the rewards.
In little more than five years under Bratton, he would rise from field Captain to Chief of South Bureau, which covered 650,000 black and brown residents. There he showed his true reformist colors by meeting with ex-gang members who were trying to halt gang wars. First he acknowledged he would need their help in stopping the slaughter, and then worked with them to help establish a certificated gang intervention program for ex-gangsters called the Urban Peace Academy—a community policing outreach initiative that that is still successfully operating a generation later.
By the time Bratton resigned in 2009, Beck had become the chosen one to succeed him.
Walking a Beat in Watts
On his first full day as chief, Beck announced his intentions by walking a beat in Watts’ Jordan Downs housing project, the epicenter of the 1965 Watts’ Riots and home of the Grape Street Crips, one of the most fearsome gangs in South L.A. There he greeted residents, shaking hands with people who despised the LAPD, while arranging basketball games between his cops against neighborhood teams—a few of which he actually played in.
Soon he formed special units to work in Jordan Downs and other high-crime housing projects in an innovative community-policing program called Community Safety Partnership Police.
The unit’s cops, all volunteers who had also trained at the Urban Police Academy, were committed to working in a particular housing project for five years. They would be judged not by arrest numbers (which had long been the LAPD’s gauge of success) but by how effectively they strengthened and stabilized each of the housing projects; and kept crime and violence low through gaining the community’s trust, partnership, and support; while working with the projects’ kids and families to keep them out of the crushing jaws of California’s notorious criminal justice system.
Like the department’s other community outreach programs none of these efforts were any panacea. They started at the height of the Great Recession when money was extremely tight; required an intense investment in scarce manpower, and remain hard to replicate in a city that sprawls over 450 miles. But they still exist, within the department’s wider philosophical context.
In addition, Beck began forging ties with the city’s Latinos and other immigrant communities, lobbying for driver’s licenses for undocumented residents and stopping impounding cars driven by those license-less immigrants, saving them hundreds or thousands of dollars in towing and impoundment fees in the process.
Meanwhile, following a national trend, the number of homicides in the city began to significantly decrease on his watch, as did officer-involved shootings. Still the latter remained disproportionally high compared to New York and other cities; and a number of them seemed so avoidable that the public became outraged.
This became a real issue in his second term.
Body Cameras for All
In response, Beck worked with a liberal police commission and assisted in getting by-in from the department’s conservative union to equip every officer with body cameras, and to change the department’s previously broadly-defined shooting policy, to one that now emphasizes the de-escalation of potentially deadly situations, and use of smart tactics to avoid situations where an officer places himself in harm’s way and feels he has no alternative but to shot someone.
I don’t mean to paint an idyllic picture of either Beck or the current LAPD. Big city policing in the unjust society we live in is often a dirty business. It is what it is. But now that bad policing has become widely recognized since the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, good policing and police leadership has to be summarily recognized.
It’s heartening now to live in a city whose police department that sincerely has as its goal becoming L.A.’s “guardians” and helping to strengthen communities of as opposed to rolling through them like an occupying force and arresting everybody in sight.
And it’s nice to view the front page of the Los Angeles Times and not daily see outrage after outrage committed by the LAPD, or the face of a chief of police throwing a tantrum or picking a fight.
And that’s why LA is now celebrating Charlie Beck.
He’s been a respected national leader in supporting progressive police and criminal justice reform. In 2016, Beck went to the White House with 130 other law enforcement leaders to meet with President Barack Obama. The topic was the future of criminal justice, and it was Beck who was chosen to speak with the president on the group’s behalf.
And he was the first big police leader to publicly state that his police department would not be cooperating with Donald Trump’s immigration officers in rounding up undocumented workers and students and breaking up families.
True, transformative cultural reform is a process many police critics fail to understand. It takes a generation, maybe longer, of sustained, unremittingly determined leadership
All have been hallmarks of Beck’s and Bratton’s leadership in Los Angeles.
They’ve not only been steps in the right direction, but also rare, hopeful advances in the world of criminal justice, where progressive reform moves at a snail’s pace and mean justice takes place overnight.
Beck would signal the best of his intentions. At the same time the LAPD’s gang-injunction policing would continue unabated under Beck. According to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, as of 2015 there were “more than forty-six permanent gang injunctions in place in the city of Los Angeles.”
Many people and factors have contributed the LAPD’s transformation, but it’s hard to underestimate Beck’s role.
Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, is the author of two books on the LAPD. His first, “To Protect and to Serve,” was published in 1994.His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” is now out in paperback. Joe welcomes readers’ comments.
Before you jump to conclusions about the future of criminal justice reform in 2018, you might want to examine the arguments of some of the nation’s leading scholars. Here are seven books certain to influence next year’s policy debates.
The movement for criminal justice reform suffered major blows in 2017—and the prospects don’t look much better in 2018, as the Trump-Sessions administration continues to push its punitive agenda.
If you’re a reformer, take heart. Long-term change is often accomplished through small steps, and informed by careful thought and research. Plenty of the latter was on offer last year from criminal justice scholars and observers whose books offered a stimulating framework for continuing the debate.
And of course, if you think the current administration is on the right track, you may even find reasons in their work to justify your perspective.
Either way, here are seven books (including one by a TV commentator) that may help you make sense of the evolving criminal justice landscape in the year to come. Crime Report writers have spoken to several of the authors over the year, and we’ve added links to their Q&As in case you want to know more.
Prosecutors as Agents of Change
In his book Locked In: the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Fordham University law professor John Pfaff challenges the popular narrative that mass incarceration is driven by War on Drugs-era policies that put non-violent drug offenders away for longer and longer periods. Pfaff shows that this story explains only a fraction of the increase in the US incarceration rate over the past few decades. He also introduces a new key character: the prosecutor. “Few people in the criminal justice system are as powerful, or as central to prison growth, as the prosecutor,” Pfaff writes. He also notes that, for all of their power, “prosecutors are almost completely ignored by reformers.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that he doesn’t believe it’s the role of the Department of Justice to “manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Without the federal government playing a supervisory role in holding police departments accountable in incidents of racism, corruption, and brutality, in 2018 reformers will need to find new ways to curb such behaviors. In The End of Policing, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale offers a different solution to police brutality than consent decrees – disarming the police. Vitale takes the reader back to the origins of policing, and frames police as the entity that has a monopoly on the use of force in a democratic society. Considering that the legitimized use of force is what makes the police unique, Vitale challenges the reader to confront whether it makes sense to have police act as first responders to all incidents they currently respond to.
Is there a mental health crisis? An armed police officer is often called. Is a child misbehaving in school, even pre-school? An armed police officer is often called. Drug abuse? An armed police officer comes to investigate and make arrests. Vitale criticizes common suggested reforms that emphasize training and community relationship building, and offers alternatives that include disarming the police and added investment in social services. For a taste of his book, read his revealing Q&A with Isidoro Rodriguez of The Crime Report.
Enforcement of Codes in the Colony
In his book, A Colony in a Nation, Emmy Award-winning news anchorChris Hayes combines analysis of current and historical events with voices from those in justice-impacted communities, and lays a framework of a double system (to invoke W.E.B Du Bois)—the colony and the nation—separated by the color line. One of the most fascinating points Hayes makes is about the culture of enforcing laws. He writes: “If you’re looking to make a community furious, then arbitrarily fiddle with enforcement norms, and see what happens.”
This was true in the time of John Hancock, and it is true today, in the enforcement of parking violations, housing code enforcement, property nuisance ordinances, and criminal laws. Our expectations of enforcement are too often driven by the color of our skin and the amount of money in our bank account, not the severity of the violation. In 2017, from Chicago to Jacksonville, black bicycle riders and pedestrians found themselves subjected to increased enforcement for minor violations. In 2018, these issues should be elevated in local elections all throughout the nation.
Understanding Mass Incarceration
There are many political questions surrounding the rise of mass incarceration. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. reflects on his time as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and reflects on the realization that many people who promoted criminal justice policies that disproportionately harm black people are, in fact, also African American. In D.C., as is the case in other cities, black political power exists. There are and have been black prosecutors, public defenders, judges, mayors, police chiefs, and city council members; yet punitive politics that drive mass incarceration still prevail.
Forman walks the reader through the choices of political leaders in communities impacted by crime and drugs. Indeed, some black political leaders also bought into the War on Drugs rhetoric. With regards to black elected officials who view themselves as reformers, Forman views them as “defenders of the nonviolent-offender-only approach to reform that are sometimes silent about who is being left out.”
The Chokehold and Stop-and-Frisk
In 2018, we can except to see more cities pursue aggressive stop-and-frisk and pro-active policing tactics with the blessing of the Department of Justice and the White House. To understand and correctly frame the impact of these tactics, among others, one would benefit by reading Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler.
Butler uses the chokehold, which “justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip that is on it,” as an analogy to the entire experience of black males in America in front of police. Employing both legal analysis and personal experience, Butler deconstructs justice system phrase-making which he argues obfuscates reality. He argues, for example, that “seize and search” is a more accurate description of the technique’s “serious intrusion on the sanctity of the person” than “stop-question-and-frisk.” If Hayes’ work was an homage to Du Bois’ double system of justice, Chokehold describes the process through which the double system is operationalized.
Tying It All Together
The collection of essays, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, edited by American University law professor Angela J. Davis centers police brutality around race. Starting with an essay from Bryan Stevenson on the history of policing black men from slavery to our time, every essay in Policing the Black Man dispels the myths of color blind justice in every step of the criminal justice system: policing, indictment process, prosecution, and in the courts.
Two essays on prosecutors, one authored by Davis herself and another by Wake Forest University law professor Ronald F. Wright, make the connection between the books of Forman and Pfaff. Together, the essays are a comprehensive review of prosecution, emphasizing the role of the prosecutor as “the most powerful official in the criminal justice system.” They shed light on the dearth of black prosecutors, question whether elections are actually a means for accountability, and explore the complex relationship between prosecutors and voters of color.
The Perils of Big Data
Trying to make sense of your computer glitches? So is the criminal justice system. As police, prosecutors and courts increasingly rely on computer analytics, so-called “big data” that captures and collates enormous amounts of information are being used in many cities to identify potential lawbreakers. But this form of predictive policing has also been criticized for its lack of transparency and potential for racial bias.
Abraham Gutman is an Israeli economist and writer currently based in Philadelphia. His writing focuses on criminal justice and housing. He holds an MA in economics from Hunter College where he conducted research on stop-and-frisk. He currently works as a researcher at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine‚ among others. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow him on Twitter @abgutman.
A North Texas detective who produces the Quality Policing podcasts argues that the way body-worn video cameras are currently used doesn’t address the issues they’re meant to solve.
Somewhere between one-fifth and one-half of U.S. police officers are wearing body-worn video cameras. It’s hard to tell the exact number, but we know the number is rising.
Body cams, which clip to the uniform or headgear of an officer, and are intended to capture the officer’s-eye-view of incidents, have been called the most important solution to police transparency in America. But as a recent podcast of our Quality Policing series shows, it’s worth looking beyond the rhetoric.
“Today I think I have found the solution that will help law enforcement officers and our citizens go home safe,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said in 2015. “That solution [is] body-worn cameras to be worn by our law enforcement officers throughout this country.”
There was literally no evidence that this was true.
Videos from body cameras, now being captured at a rate of hundreds of thousands of hours a day, have indeed been an important phenomenon in American policing. Last year, in the jurisdictions that deploy body cams, video was used by nearly every prosecutor, nearly 93 percent of them—in cases against civilian suspects.
Want to guess the percentage of those same prosecutors who used body-camera video to prosecute cops?
Almost all prosecutors are using the video to prosecute civilians, and almost none of them are using them for what we thought body cameras were there for.
What’s ironic is that Sen. Scott, a host of other officials, activists, and the press were scaling Mount Hype on body cameras much more aggressively than even the companies that sell the cameras—which found themselves in the strange position of having to temper wildly enthusiastic expectations, based on nothing but hope.
In October of this year, the biggest-ever randomized study of body cameras showed no measurable reduction in complaints or use of force by officers in Washington, D.C.
If you think that means body cameras aren’t working, well… you’re wrong. The truth is, body cameras are working just fine.
They’re just working differently from the way people expected they would.
That’s a really important disconnect, because if you’re concerned about how you’re policed—and who isn’t?—you really need to know the full story.
A lot of our national expectations on body cameras were formed listening to politicians who were looking to be seen as “doing something.”
In 2014, as questions were raised across the nation about how well we could trust police, body cameras seemed to promise that now we could see what the cop saw. We could see the scene, and when the cop lied, the video would show it.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama moved swiftly to get cameras on as many officers as possible, promising up to 50,000 cameras as a start.
No reduction in officer-involved shootings. No reduction in controversial incidents. No reductions in complaints.
The expectation was that, when officers had these cameras on their chests, people would be more courteous and less likely to fight, and officers would be more courteous and less likely to behave badly.
That’s not what happened.
What did happened was that police and prosecutors became better at demonstrating criminal behavior by civilians. Prosecutors in particular were able to more efficiently get plea deals.
Let’s be clear. As a serving police officer, I can confirm that body cameras are good for policing. They provide lots of evidence that we’ve never had before about how cops and citizens behave during interactions.
They have provided evidence in thousands of criminal cases that helped bring criminals to justice.
What’s more, body cameras provide transparency.
What is transparent, though, is the question: Sure, we absolutely get to see more of when cops do bad things, like the recent cases in Baltimore and Los Angeles of officers allegedly planting drugs on suspects.
But most of the time, the transparency that body cameras bring is evidence of civilians committing crimes.
“(Body cameras) will improve transparency and accountability and…will help protect good people on both sides of the lens,” she said, adding that “for every tragedy caught on tape, there are surely many more” that now go unrecorded.
She was right. Cameras do protect good people on both sides of the lens. People simply presumed that it was the cops who weren’t good, but the video is showing that in fact, transparency cuts both ways.
The most transparent fact body cameras have shown is that people—civilians—can act like asses while confronting cops, and the video catches a lot of it.
If you’re a defense attorney, you get this. You’re probably more worried about how and when videos are made. If anyone other than cops gets to see this from the front row, it would be Legal Aid.
“The big problem,” said Steven Wasserman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in the Special Litigation Unit, “is that the police control the button.”
From the defense table, it’s less about whether cameras are being used to go after misbehaving cops. Prosecutors who are using body worn camera video use it to decide whether to prosecute, and in preparing the charges they will bring.
If you’re imagining a courtroom with a jury watching, that’s not it. What the prosecutors mainly use the video for is to get to a plea deal faster. There’s evidence the video reduces time from arrest to plea.
This is nothing new to Wasserman.
“We’ve had video for many years,” he said, in an interview for our Quality Policing Extra podcast on body cameras in his lower Manhattan offices.
“I mean, there’s many video cameras that capture incidents and crimes, and it certainly has helped in many instances to resolve matters that otherwise would have been very uncertain and would have had to be litigated.”
So how do body cameras shake out for the defense?
“It is a sort of a net liability to the defense,” Wasserman said. “The important thing is to make sure the recording is done in a way that approximates some kind of even-handedness and objectivity.”
That is key.
“Everyone is coming to the body camera question with a totally different take on what these tools are going to be used for,” Prof. Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina Law School, who specializes in the regulation of policing, told us.
“The community thinks, ‘Hey, you got this for officer-accountability reasons, but all you’re using it for is to prosecute people.’ I think that has the potential to be taken as a failure, a betrayal.”
If that’s a failure, how do you even measure success?
We can’t. In 2016, Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center and I wrote a USA Today article in which we warned that if agencies didn’t declare what they wanted the cameras to do, there was no way to know whether they were doing it.
Regardless of whether there is video of an incident, as we all know from cop shows, officers have to write reports about everything they do. Should officers be able to view the body-camera video of the event they’re writing about before they write their report?
Or should they be required to write their report, then be allowed to watch the video, and then be permitted to write a supplement—in case they see something in their video that contradicts something they’ve written about the incident?
Proponents of this latter option, which is often called, “Write-Watch-Supplement,” say that it provides the fairest option for everyone. They fear that cops who watch video can unintentionally or intentionally modify what they write in their reports to match the video, as opposed to memorializing their own recollection of the incident.
Cops think this is just a theoretical game of “gotcha,” and point out that neither the video nor the officer’s memories are perfect recollection tools.
Few people have looked at these issues as closely as Harlan Yu at Upturn, a nonprofit based in Washington DC, who studies technology’s impact on civil rights and social justice issue.
Yu believes that policies governing the use of body cameras and the video they produce—from access by the public to use by officers and prosecutors—now strongly favor the police and the state.
This month in The Illusion of Accuracy, Upturn argued that the lack of policy requiring “Write-Watch-Supplement” is maybe the single biggest barrier to justice with body cameras.
“If body worn cameras have any chance of holding police accountable for misconduct,” Yu said in a Skype interview, “having officers be able to watch footage before writing the report makes it much easier for them if they were to try to push a false narrative to act for the camera and to do so.”
It’s worth noting that this is entirely speculative and theoretical. There has not been a case of cops getting caught engaging in this skullduggery.
A 2015 study that compared officer narratives to what was seen on the body video, found that cops’ descriptions of what happened, most of the time, are pretty darned accurate. That study was funded by a camera maker, and three of the five scientists involved in the study declared financial interests in that firm, but they declared their conflicts properly, and the methodology looks sound.
Another study that isn’t conflicted and will be released soon has confirmed these earlier findings, and expanded on them.
I’ve personally come to believe that Write-Watch-Supplement is ultimately better for cops. There are some really complicated but good reasons that come down to Graham vs Connor issues (the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that claims of “excessive use of force” must be weighed against the “reasonableness” standards set by the Fourth Amendment), and proof of officer integrity and credibility in the face of protest.
But I don’t believe that Watch-Write is inherently dishonest.
I do believe that policies about access to body cam video should be fairer, to level the playing field. For example, if I complain about a cop, I should be able to get access to video of the incident.
But there are a hodgepodge of laws making this less than simple.
In our podcast, we break these issues down further, and you can hear a lot from stakeholders, experts, and the media. I hope you take the time to hear it!
If you have a comment about it, call and leave a message at (516) 362-3972. The best comments get played on our program, but we won’t reveal your identity.
The drive to diversify police forces and the renewed interest in community policing are transforming law enforcement across the country. But a provocative new book by a Brooklyn College sociology professor argues that these efforts don’t address the underlying problems. He explains why in a conversation with TCR.
Policing in the United States is in the midst of transformative changes, partly spurred by the well-publicized officer-involved shootings around the country—but also as a consequence of generational change, as police ranks open up to a more diversified group of recruits and as departments modernize their training. But Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, argues that little will happen unless police agencies rethink their roles in public safety.
In The End of Policing, Vitale offers a different framework for thinking about how law enforcement relates to the communities it serves. In a chat with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, he explains why the current policing model perpetuates racial bias, why he believes community policing is misconceived, and what he means by the provocative title he chose for his book,
Alex S. Vitale
The Crime Report: The title of your book will attract a lot of attention. But do you really think that policing needs to end?
Alex Vitale: The title has a kind of double meaning. On the one hand, it means should we look at a complete rethinking of policing. But, also, within that, what is the purpose of policing? What is it that we have asked police to do functionally?
The book is really about trying to lay out a process of interrogating our over-reliance on policing, and using evidence-informed alternatives to try and reduce that reliance. And behind that is the understanding that policing is inherently a problematic tool for cities to use to solve problems because it comes with a legacy of reproducing inequality, especially along the lines of race. Also, it relies on the tools of coercion, force, and punitiveness to solve problems; and that brings with it a lot of potential collateral consequences that we should be looking to avoid whenever possible.
TCR: The punitive aspect of policing is a key issue today. Departments across the country continue to face controversy as a result of their officers’ often aggressive methods. As a result, many have implemented programs such as Crisis Intervention Training and placed new emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution. Are these the right ways to go?
AV: First of all, a lot of departments aren’t making meaningful changes. They’re not actively embracing significant new training regimes. My view is that, ultimately, training police to better do things that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place is not the ultimate solution. If we could really dial back the things we ask police to do, then we could talk about what kind of training and protocols would be best for doing what’s left. Police is the unit of government that we rely on to be able to use force.
It’s a mistake to think that, somehow, we can just train police to be nice and friendly all the time. Rather than creating this idea that we can make the police nicer, we should really just reduce the number of things we ask them to do.
TCR: One of the main areas where police are taking on more responsibilities than many feel they should is policing the mentally ill. Should we take the responsibility for this population off the shoulders of police who often aren’t even trained to deal with them?
AV: Absolutely. Instead of trying to fine-tune the police response, we need to just end the police response to most of these calls. And we can just look at the United Kingdom as an example of how to move in that direction. There, when someone in a family is having a mental health crisis and a family member calls for help, they call a phone number that’s tied to the national health service. It has nothing to do with the police. A trained mental health nurse practitioner, or other trained mental health worker, responds to that call.
Now, if there is a concern, or an articulation of violence, than it may be necessary for some police backup. But that call is handled as a health crisis call. The UK police don’t want to take those calls, are happy to have mental health professionals doing that work, and are angry that mental health services in the UK are being dialed back and more of the burden is falling on them. And, frankly, there are a lot of cops in the United States who think it’s a mistake to send police on those calls. They don’t want to do them;, they don’t believe that what they’re doing helps; and it’s incredibly fraught.
TCR: Why is there such reticence on the part of American police forces to adopt international examples of successful alternative policing methods like those practiced in the UK?
AV: Because it has nothing to do with the police. This is not their decision to make. This is a decision that’s been made by political leaders not to fund adequate community based mental health services due to a bipartisan consensus around the politics of austerity.
TCR: In the debate on how best to deal with the mentally ill, there’s a strong push for diversion methods such as mental health courts. Do you see that as a successful step of reform?
AV: The courts are not always that successful in diverting people. Whether it’s mental health courts, trafficking courts, or drug courts, they rarely provide the services that are often most needed in these situations: stable supportive housing and access to a stable income, whether it’s through employment or government transfers.
They engage in a lot of therapeutic regimes, which may provide some aid in helping people stabilize, but don’t totally do so in a way that avoids future interactions with these systems.
Instead, we see a lot of churning of people through these courts, through therapeutic regimes and, also, through emergency rooms, police lockups, and jails—often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per person. I think what we should be looking at is not pre-incarceration diversion, but pre-arrest diversion. Instead of limiting access to drug treatment to people that get arrested, why not have drug treatment on demand for anyone who needs it? Why not have actual adequate community based mental health services?
Then, if we have those services in place, and there are people who are still producing problems in the community, let’s talk about how to address those individuals from a comprehensive standpoint. Instead, we make no services available, and then we criminalize people for engaging in antisocial behavior.
TCR: Another issue your book addresses is the militarization of the police, both in tactics and the supply of military-grade hardware, a reality memorialized by the protests in Ferguson. Please explain your perspective.
AV: Political violence is a political problem, and it needs to be solved in the political arena. But, too often, rather than addressing those political concerns, our political leaders hand it off to the police to deal with. That leaves, again, police in a no-win situation where they feel the need to use force to resolve what are ultimately political problems. The other thing is that militarization of policing is about a lot more than humvees and tactical vests. It’s about a whole ethos that has become widespread in policing in the United States. About politicians telling police to wage a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and a war on disorder and then giving them budgets to buy military equipment and create paramilitary units with training regimes that treat the public as enemies to be neutralized.
We have seen that ethos at work in some of the most horrible abuses of policing. So what is to be done? Quit telling the police they’re at war with the public, scale down the kinds of thing that they’re being asked to deal with, and then think about what kinds of tools, training, and technologies are best for accomplishing that. In my mind, that would result in a vast reduction in the use of militarized equipment and training.
TCR: In your book, you point out that poor and minority populations almost exclusively shoulder the burden of overpolicing. Why?
AV: We persist in a fantasy of color blindness that says the police response is merely a professional technocratic response to where the crime is, but ignore the ways in which our society has been structured along racialized lines and the ways in which poverty in the United States is growing and becoming more entrenched. This includes a lot of white rural communities that are suffering from opioids and other kinds of crime problems.
Our political leaders have chosen to define those communities as criminal rather than as communities that are in deep distress because of entrenched joblessness, discrimination, geographic isolation, etc. If they were to admit that the problems in those communities were the result of market failures, rather than individual moral failures, then they would have to intervene in markets in ways that those who put them in office don’t want them to. To address the problems of inequality in any way other than policing is politically unacceptable in our current political environment.
TCR: As you write in your book, today’s policing issues have deep historical roots—in some cases as far back as the 17th century. Does this history hold any lessons for policing today?
AV: Our popular culture, which is the main source of information that people have on policing, is suffused with the myth of police as neutral, professional crime fighters. In the book, I discuss things like Adam 12, which was created in the wake of the Watts riots, as a tool that the Los Angeles Police Department was actively using to restore public confidence in police along really invented lines. That has become the way police are portrayed primarily in our popular culture. What we don’t see, are the concrete ways in which the police reproduce enforced ghetto segregation, Jim Crow, and carry out the war on drugs and terror along racial lines.
TCR: In your book you describe the “hero narrative” that dominates police thinking about their role. Does that need to be addressed at the start of police training?
AV: Most young people that I know, who have wanted to go into law enforcement, are motivated by a very real and genuine desire to help their communities. They believe that policing is the way to do this. What they don’t understand is the profound legacy of the structural impediments to using policing to truly solve community problems. So, police officers are often very frustrated in their jobs, because what they thought was going to be both exciting and helpful is bureaucratic and pointless. If you read memoirs from police officers, you often get “we spent years arresting people for drugs, and yet everyone in the community could get drugs any time they wanted them.” It’s the utter pointlessness of the enforcement.
TCR: The motivation to help the community is behind many police departments’ renewed drive for adapting community policing methods as a means of creating safer and more effective policing practices. Is this a step in the right direction?
AV: No. I think that community policing merely expands our reliance on police to deal with social problems that would be better handled in other ways. As long as the police are asked to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, terror, disorder, and crime, they cannot do this in a friendly and respectful way. And what the police consider to be the community excludes large portions of these neighborhoods and consigns them to being the enemy.
TCR: So much of your book emphasizes taking money out of criminal justice and putting it into viable progressive social programs. In your opinion, on a party level, is there any push for this kind of monetary change on either side of the fence?
AV: No. My hope is that the theatrical excesses of the Trump administration will create more political space to talk about the kinds of reforms and shifts in social spending that will actually make a difference. But I don’t see too much of that in the works among existing big city politicians. New York City Council members have written me letters, some elected officials came to my book launch in New York, but we have yet to see a true political tendency.
Of course, there are community- based organizations all across the country making these same points. What we need to do is bring together those groups, critical academic researchers, and progressive political leaders, and turn this into a real political movement.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
Massachusetts is one of four states that ban civilians from possessing Tasers and stun guns. A U.S. District judge is expected to rule soon on whether the ban violates the Second Amendment.
Since its landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court has largely left it to lower courts to decide how far the government can go in regulating firearms.
Those limits are now being debated again in a challenge to a state law that has nothing to do with guns. Massachusetts, one of four states that ban Tasers and stun guns for civilian use, has become a new battleground in the fight over the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Lyn Bates spent years training herself in firearms and self-defense techniques, and helped start a group that teaches other women to do the same. But because of the ban on stun guns, she says she’s forced to choose between using lethal weapons or using nothing at all.
Lyn Bates. Photo courtesy Lyn Bates
When she first heard about the ban, Bates recalled thinking that it was “bad law that made it harder for women in Massachusetts to be safe.
“It never occurred to me that that law might be unconstitutional.”
Bates and two other plaintiffs, represented by a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., are challenging the Massachusetts ban as unconstitutional. On the other side, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is defending the state’s power to prohibit the weapons for the sake of public safety.
The case, Martel v. Healey, is now in U.S. District Court, awaiting a judge’s decision on summary judgment.
Less than a year ago, the same Massachusetts law was challenged by Jaime Caetano, a woman who was convicted under the ban after police found a stun gun in her purse.
Caetano’s case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the state court’s rationale in upholding her conviction was improper and vacated the conviction.
But the court did not directly address whether the ban itself was unconstitutional.
Now, Bates and her co-plaintiffs are challenging the law head-on.
Taser “Pulse” model, used by civilians. Photo courtesy Axon Enterprise Inc.
Their argument is that stun guns are neither dangerous nor unusual, a key standard under the Heller ruling, in which the Supreme Court recognized for the first time an individual right to bear arms.
Attorney General Healey insists that the weapons are both dangerous and unusual, and without any direct precedent in the colonial era. And even if they were protected under the Heller precedent, the state argues that it has a legitimate interest in banning them to protect the public.
“While they are less lethal than firearms, they can nevertheless be deadly,” the Attorney General argued in her brief.
(The Attorney General’s office declined to offer further comment beyond its briefs in the case).
Tasers and stun guns have drawn controversy in recent years, though primarily over their use by law enforcement. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post identified at least 48 deaths that year during incidents in which police used Tasers, but called the link between those deaths and the Tasers “unclear.”
That year, a Department of Justice report found that the percentage of local police departments authorizing the weapons increased from 7% in 2000 to 81% in 2013.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, Tasers and ordinary stun guns are actually distinct. Stun guns require direct contact and deliver a painful shock, while Tasers can be deployed from a distance and can immobilize a target for as long as 30 seconds.
Massachusetts is also arguing that alternatives to stun guns are readily available to those seeking tools for self-defense, ranging from guns to pepper spray.
For Donna Major, another of the plaintiffs in Martel v. Healey, that choice is not good enough.
According to court briefs, Major “has a moral aversion to taking human life and cannot contemplate any circumstances under which she would use a firearm, even in self-defense.”
The case is just one piece of a bigger debate that has been simmering for nearly a decade: how far should the Second Amendment go in protecting an individual’s right to bear arms?
Second Amendment law remained dormant for decades until the 2008 Heller case and a 2010 case which applied that ruling to the states. Those decisions left open major questions surrounding the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and how far legislatures can go in regulating guns.
That is typical for the development of constitutional law, according to Clark Neily, who was a co-counsel in the Heller case and is now Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.
With First Amendment law, for example, “the Supreme Court didn’t try to answer every question that might come up about free speech all in one case or all in two or three cases,” said Neily.
“The whole judiciary has to kind of feel its way along from that initial point when the Supreme Court says on a particular right: yes, this is something that courts need to be protective of.”
Gun rights advocates have taken those open issues to the courts in an effort to develop and expand the meaning of the Second Amendment. They have challenged laws over who can be prevented from owning guns, where guns may be prohibited, what kinds of weapons can be banned, and much else.
“I think it would be fair to say that in the federal judiciary as a whole there remains a kind of a skepticism — and perhaps a dislike — of guns and gun rights,” said Neily, while noting that there are many exceptions.
Federal courts of appeals have been divided over the contours of the Second Amendment, and until last year, the Supreme Court stayed silent over those circuit splits.
But in its first Second Amendment case since 2010, the Court took on Jaime Caetano’s challenge to the Massachusetts stun gun ban. After dispensing with the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the law, the ban is now back in court.
The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which filed a friend of the court brief in the Caetano case, saw an opportunity this year to levy the challenge more directly.
The group has previously been involved in several high-profile cases, including challenges to affirmative action policies, the Voting Rights Act, and public employee union fees.
“The court has not yet squarely held that electrical weapons are covered by the Second Amendment, but a fair reading of recent decisions provide good reasons to think that it will, and that it will also find that a complete ban on such weapons unconstitutionally violates the Second Amendment rights of individuals,” said Jennifer Flagg, a spokesperson for CIR.
In recent years, stun gun bans in several other cities and states have been repealed or reversed.
To bring the case, CIR found Bates, Major, and a third plaintiff named Christopher Martel, an electronics sales engineer who wants to carry a stun gun for self-defense.
Bates was sympathetic to their efforts. A few years earlier, she found out about a woman arrested for carrying a stun gun outside a nearby supermarket in Ashland, Massachusetts, where she lives.
“The first I heard of that incident I remember thinking how awful it was for her to be arrested for breaking a bad law just to protect herself,” Bates said.
That woman was Jaime Caetano, whose case ultimately reached the highest court.
“How amazing is it that a situation in my little town made it to the Supreme Court and I could be part of it?”
Yoni Wilkenfeld is a freelance journalist based in New York, covering the courts and the criminal justice system. Readers’ comments are welcome.
In his forthcoming book, former Dallas Chief David Brown ponders the lessons learned over a 33-year career in law enforcement, capped by the July 2016 shooting tragedy that left five Dallas officers dead. In a chat with TCR, he discusses the need to change the “culture of policing” in order to bridge the divide between communities and law enforcement around the country.
Many people see today’s tense debate over policing in simplistic terms: a problem of “us and them.” Until he retired last year, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has been at the center of the debate, winning national admiration for his actions during and after the July 7, 2016 tragedy in which a lone sniper killed five Dallas police officers and left nine injured.
At the height of that tragedy, which represented the biggest loss of life for law enforcement since 9/11, Brown made clear that community residents and police shared the goal of public safety. The “divisiveness between police and citizens” must end, he said then.
Chief Brown has expanded on that point in his forthcoming book, Called To Rise, where he draws on his 33-year-career in law enforcement to develop a vision for the next generation of policing, and opens a window into the technical, logistical and often traumatic realities of a job that few civilians understand.
In a conversation with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, Brown discussed why he believes the “tough-on-crime” approach doesn’t work, why modern police chiefs sometimes have to risk their jobs to provide leadership, and how his own personal tragedy influenced his approach to policing.
The Crime Report: One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was your candor. Should there be more transparency between law enforcement and communities?
David Brown: I think that’s really one of the major things in the book for me. I am a very private person, but I felt the urgency to tell the story and reveal my personal life. It’s almost to propose how police should become more transparent, more revealing, more open, more willing to discuss all the flaws, [as well as] the good stuff that we do, and the challenges that we face, so that people can really make their own assessment. We need more information, rather than having just snapshots of information.
TCR: What prevents that type of transparency?
DB: You’re first fighting an internal debate with the culture of policing, because it’s just been so tried and true to be kind of secret. Not necessarily in a villainous way, but you convince yourself that if you tell the public everything, it might jeopardize a case or an outcome, it might slant a jury pool, or it just might expose our flaws. At the same time, because I’m an inner-city kid, Dallas is my home town, I have a real sense of obligation to the community, to be more of a public servant and community-policing advocate, and to be as revealing and transparent as I can. I truly understand the community’s sentiments and how the issue is wrapped in race and inequality. I really understand, as a Black American male, the community concerns, and I fully understand the policing concerns.
TCR: You describe in the book how, as a young officer, you experienced an initial reticence towards community policing and its supposed benefits. Now you’re an advocate. What changed your mind?
DB: I understand how people may not get it initially, including people who are policy makers. I [came] into the profession without a full range of knowledge and experience on what the shortcomings of traditional policing does to the community. I fully understand, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanting to revert (to tough sentencing guidelines). He doesn’t have that experience, so it just seems like the way to fight crime is to just lock people up. We know through research and experience that we weren’t any safer when we are in a “lock them up, tough-on-crime culture.” But human nature sometimes drives us to make decisions not based on facts. People generally sense that if you put a bad guy in jail, they’ll be safer, when that is absolutely not the case.
You have to find a way to peel back the layers, and find root causes, and mitigate the root causes where they occur, whether that’s mental illness, drug addiction, job training, opportunities in the community, or economic development. You have to find those root causes to have a really clean sense of what would make us safer, what impacts these communities. We criminalize poverty, we criminalize mental illness, we criminalize drug addiction, and those are treatable things that we can resolve with policy. Handcuffs are not the solution.
TCR: What do you say to skeptics who feel that community policing doesn’t work, that it actually detracts from real police work and doesn’t yield results?
DB: That was my life. Our police unions wanted to fire me because what I believed differed from their beliefs. You’re not going to convince people entrenched in their beliefs. Police leaders have to be principled; they have to understand what the data shows, what the impact on the community is, and not just be there to appease the beat cop. They have to be able to put their job on the line (by imposing their) will on the police culture.
Many police are stuck in the idea “let’s put them all in jail and let God sort them out.” But the realities are that we don’t have enough jail beds to arrest our way out of crime. There’s bipartisan support for the idea that mass incarceration was not effective. But you get political and you move away from what we all know based on facts. That’s where leadership comes into play, not so much what you say, but how you lead.
TCR: Many police departments across the country, including New York City, are rolling out new training programs for recruits and veteran officers. Is that part of the solution to developing more community-conscious policing?
DB: The history of policing is you don’t train enough because you don’t have the time. You have to commit the time of your department, which often means more dollars towards the police department and more officers, so that you can have the basic level of staffing needed to have enough people to both train and answer the demands of the job. You have to be committed to more training. [Until recently] it’s been training when you can, not necessarily as a prerequisite of the job.
Secondly, the type of training is also important. We are an increasingly diverse country and our departments are increasingly less diverse. It’s more and more difficult to recruit people of color. So what you have to do is immerse your officers in different cultures. That is a template for community policing: communicating and slowing things down, rather than rushing in and making it an athletic event, where you think you have to do things right away. That will make everyone safer. Don’t get into quick-draw interactions where the fastest to the trigger survives. That won’t always be in your favor.
TCR: You write that as a young officer dealing with the traumas of the job, it was sometimes necessary roll with the punches, to suffer in silence. Are there better ways for police officers to handle stress?
DB: There’s a lot of discussion about this particular area of policing, which I would describe it as well-being. Police need coping mechanisms in dealing with traumatic experiences, whether it’s investigating homicides, suicides, tragic deaths like car wrecks, or the adrenaline of chasing a suspect one minute and the next minute you’re at a very low frequency interaction. You may be involved in a life-or-death shooting and then you’re expected to get right back to work and act normal.
Psychology and psychiatry (suggest) that’s not the healthiest type of emotional environment. You need to decompress your emotions so that your reactions are not on a video of you not doing what society expects you to do. If there’s a police-involved shooting where an officer acts out of character, and doesn’t have any previous misconduct, we all wonder why. But it may point to a problem with the well-being of the officer, their emotional health. It’s not an excuse for misconduct, but it may be a reason for it. And if we diagnose it correctly, the outcome is that officers are safer and citizens are safer.
TCR: The idea that police are human too can be a hard sell to people in some communities.
DB: Police are very human and fragile and they have the same reactions you would. Even though they have specialized training, it doesn’t take away their frailty or humanity. That’s why I tell my story. I’m very revealing on the effects of the job on me and my family, and all the tragedy that I’ve dealt with. I want to un-layer the superman/superwoman characterization of police officers because this is a false narrative. Many times, it’s police officers who believe in this idea and take it on, and then the public believes, and they take it on.
The effect of trying to be that character has been detrimental to the profession and detrimental to the public. People need to know that it was not just a white officer who did something that shocked us. This was a human being likely in emotional crisis. That’s not to defend explicit reactions and bias in officers who shouldn’t be cops because they have a character flaw. These are the officers who make a mistake because of some of these other traumatic reasons. Rather than making excuses, let’s try to understand it so we can recruit for it, treat it, diagnose it, and keep these officers from making those kinds of mistakes.
TCR: Your own personal brush with trauma and tragedy was the catalyst for your position on mental health in this country. You lost a son, a brother and a former partner to violence. How should policing evolve to meet the challenge of dealing with emotionally disturbed and mentally ill individuals?
DB: The untreated mentally ill are a driving force for the crisis in our country. The active-shooter dynamic is mental health untreated and unrecognized. It is the mentally ill who get access to a high powered rifle. In Sandy Hook, in Dallas, this was the untreated mentally ill. It’s the scourge of our country. We can make ourselves safer if we were able to get funding and policies that support treatment for the mentally ill.
Because I experienced tragedy, I feel strongly that I need to be an advocate and marry myself to other advocates who see how this has driven our country in the wrong direction when it comes to gun safety, mental health treatment, community policing policy, and our prisons. Our prisons have to be some of the largest mental health facilities in the country. That’s not who we are. We can’t criminalize mental illness. It’s neither effective nor is it making us safer. This is a have-to-do moment and I hope the discussions on my upcoming book tour can reveal some of that and maybe push some policy makers to move the bar up a little bit further in this area.
TCR: You address the issue of police militarization in your book. For many people that brings up images of military-grade hardware at protests like those after the shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Is that what American policing should be?
DB: Using Ferguson as an example, I think everyone in the leadership community of policing sees the militarization of that department, at that particular protest, as inappropriate across the board. Inappropriate use of tear gas, inappropriate use of sniper rifles, inappropriate use of the equipment. Everyone sees that, but policing has been painted with a broad brush, as if everyone does that, and that’s just not accurate.
We all see that when we’re rescuing people from an active shooter with a high-powered rifle you need an armored car to rescue people. If we’re running drug warrants at very hazardous locations, and the drug dealers have high-powered rifles, we need extra ballistic protection because those dealers are likely to kill us to protect their dope and money. I just like to talk in more specific rather than broad terms when it comes to militarization and the equipment needed to rescue officers and rescue citizens, versus the images from Ferguson and other protests where I can specifically say that’s inappropriate.
TCR: You describe how, as chief, you were constantly racing to get ahead of whatever story the press was pushing. Does coverage of policing need to change?
DB: I think the media is just responding to the public’s shortened attention spans. They’re trying to be quick and short, and trying to hit the highlights. But I think the media can broaden or balance their coverage and still meet the public’s demands for more information. Instead of looping negative video for an entire news cycle, they could loop the positive interactions police are having. But no network shows do that. You never see a positive, life-saving moment where an officer dives into the water to rescue a baby, risks his life in a burning house to rescue a family.
There’s hardly ever a panel discussion or town-hall format for positivity in the policing environment. You never see communities in a town-hall setting talking about why they love their cops. I just reject the idea that bad news sells. People say this happens because people want to hear bad news. But the media can get high ratings if they tell a balanced story in a short format. They just need to make the effort to do it.
TCR: A recent poll revealed widespread dissatisfaction among officers in the NYPD. Around the country, there has been an increase in resignations and a decrease in applications. Is this a trend that worries you?
DB: You get what you pay for in attitude, performance and quality. I wish our cops could throw 100-mile-an hour fastballs. I wish they had a 40-inch vertical leap. I wish they could throw the ball 70 yards, because that is where our money goes. What we prefer is what the public is willing to pay for. Cops are underpaid, but city budgets don’t compensate them. And there’s a pension crisis.
It’s just not a stable environment for compensation. Millennials see this. It’s really difficult to recruit into this profession, not only due to (inadequate) compensation, but because when they do a good job it’s not appreciated in the way that, for example, sports entertainment is. Between the two, which is more important to society? The best players in sports entertainment are appreciated and compensated. The best cops in this country aren’t appreciated, and they’re compensated no better than the worst cops.
When you see a cop you ought to say thank you for their service and sacrifice. You ought to advocate to your local representatives in your city to pay cops more. You’re highly likely to have a better-quality police officer as a result. You’re saying how you feel about them. When the one percent or two percent of cops make a mistake, they’re battered, (but) when cops do a good job they’re not treated any differently in the public space.
That’s why there’s such high dissatisfaction in this profession and why it’s so difficult to recruit and retain cops. It’s reached a peak, a boiling point, of cops reconsidering whether this is the type of profession that’s healthy for them, and whether they’re going to be compensated in the ways that the job demands.
TCR: Racial tensions are a big factor in the debate about policing today. How can these tensions be addressed?
DB: It’s a two-sided coin, and it’s complex. The protesters will never create change in the ways they want. If you look at our history, it’s tells a consistent story that protest alone doesn’t create significant change. It was activism, participation, voting, becoming public servants, running for public office, getting elected, being a part of the government policy making, and full engagement in our democracy. That’s what they’re missing: participation. That’s what our democracy requires to create change.
On the policing side, until local democracies push the agenda for police transformation it won’t happen. That includes the policing leadership, the local aldermen, the city councilmen, the city managers, and mayors who are elected as a representative government. You can’t have one without the other. Significant change has to come through the local democracy, and the way we vote on the local level right now is not enough to create change. Only 10%-15% vote for aldermen, for mayors, for councilmen; that leaves 85%-90%, particularly in communities of color, sitting on the sidelines. They’re dissatisfied but they’re not taking the steps to fully participate through voting and becoming part of policy-making to create change.
That is what Black Lives Matter and the policing culture are missing. They can’t come together without that full participation in our democracy. You want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
This conversation has been condensed and edited. Chief Brown’s book, “Called to Rise, written with Michelle Burford, with be published tomorrow. Isidoro Rodriguez is a New York-based staff writer for The Crime Report, and is studying for a degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.