Two years after the Trump Justice Department cooled on the prospect of a federal consent decree with the Chicago Police Department, a judge approved a similar agreement between the city and the Illinois attorney general.
In the culmination of decades of police misconduct controversies, a federal judge has approved a long-awaited consent decree meant to spur reforms in the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. The agreement between the city and the state’s attorney general affects nearly every aspect of policing, notably in the department’s use of force and community policing policies. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow said the consent decree takes effect once he chooses a monitoring team, which he expects to do by March 1.
The new consent decree is the result of a 2017 lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan against City Hall. Madigan pushed for a federal investigation of CPD after the court-ordered release in 2015 of video depicting the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In January 2017, the Justice Department announced its finding of widespread constitutional abuses by police, but the change of DOJ leadership in the Trump administration stalled progress. Eventually Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined forces with Madigan to pursue a consent decree through the lawsuit.
Even though arrests have sharply declined over the last decade, to 10.5 million a year, it’s still a “staggeringly high” number—with detrimental impacts on the quality of life in many parts of the country, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. The report was released Thursday with a new data tool aimed at helping policymakers and police chiefs identify areas where they can change practices.
Someone in America is arrested every three seconds, most commonly for non-violent offenses that do not threaten public safety, the Vera Institute of Justice said in a report issued Thursday.
Although the volume of arrests, more than 10.5 million a year, actually amounts to an historic 25 percent decline over the past decade, the number is still “staggeringly high,” and makes clear that one of the key enforcement tools used by police—the power to arrest—is profoundly overused with detrimental effects on poor and minority communities, Vera said in its “Arrest Trends” study.
“Collectively, the data presented in Arrest Trends, and the findings in this report, challenge the notion that America’s reliance on enforcement is a necessary component to achieving oft-stated public safety goals—or indeed, a means of achieving justice or equity,” Vera said.
Many academics and police chiefs have argued forcefully for changes in both police practices and training. The most widely quoted document has been the task force report commissioned by the Barack Obama administration on 21st century policing.
At the same time, organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Foundation and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) have joined individual police chiefs in instituting reforms in a number of areas, such as conflict de-escalation, reduction of police stops, and implicit bias training.
Yet the findings in the Vera study offer a bleak view—with some exceptions— of the distance law enforcement still needs to travel to regain the trust of the disparate communities it protects across the U.S.
Among its findings:
The estimated volume of arrests of black people rose by 23 percent between 1980 and 2015, making up 28 percent of all arrests (though they comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population), and African-Americans were an estimated 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for “drug abuse violations” than white people—even though research suggests that black people and white people use drugs at similar rates;
Arrests of women increased by 83 percent between 1980 and 2014, while arrests of men decreased 7 percent over the same period. In 1980, women accounted for an estimated 16 percent of all arrests, but in 2014 they accounted for 27 percent;
Arrests of juveniles age 17 and younger decreased by more than 50 percent from 1980 to 2014. In 1980, juveniles accounted for an estimated 20 percent of all arrests, but by 2014 this proportion dropped to 9 percent;
The highest average arrest rates occur in suburban cities (4,604 per 100,000), followed by cities outside of metropolitan areas (4,090 per 100,000), a trend that Vera notes is especially worth watching because of the high-profile cases of police misconduct in suburban or exurban areas ranging from Ferguson, Mo., and Falcon Heights, Minn., to Balch Springs, Texas—all places where controversial deaths caused by police use-of-force against unarmed civilians have occurred.
The study was released along with a special “data tool” that police managers, policymakers and the general public can use to explore policing trends in their communities.
Observing that uniform and dependable data on policing are frequently difficult to obtain, since statistics are collected by a number of federal and local agencies that use different reporting periods and variables, Vera researchers compiled the material into what they described as a single “easy-to-use data platform” that combines many of the datasets into one source.
The platform will allow users to explore topics like demographics trends in arrests, clearances and victimizations, broken down according to geographical and time parameters.
The dataset makes clear that arrests remain a “massive enterprise” in U.S. policing, and are often exercised disproportionately against people of color, with damaging consequences to the quality of life in hundreds of communities, Vera said.
The consequences include, “mass incarceration, diminished public health and economic prosperity, racial inequities, and unwieldy levels of bureaucratic work for officers,” the report said, even as the high volume of arrests “damages already fractured trust between police and many of the communities they serve,” according to the authors.
Vera said its findings underscore the necessity of rethinking traditional police practices in a more fundamental way than even the most recent efforts at reform.
Noting that “fewer than 5 percent” of the arrests are for serious violent crimes, the authors of the study suggested that arresting large numbers of people for minor offenses for nonviolent or comparatively minor offenses can effectively undermine the trust and legitimacy that effective law enforcement requires.
Vera said it was publishing the data tool in the hope that it would serve as an important first step in resetting policing policies in communities across the U.S.
“It can be difficult to lift the veil off policing practices for both community members and police practitioners alike,” Vera said. “The result is that those who do not have the time or technical expertise to go through reams of data often only have access to high-level information—such as overall crime rates—to make decisions.
“At a time when confidence in the police is low—particularly within communities of color—and in the wake of high profile incidents of police violence, increased transparency and access to information about police practices is more important than ever.”
The report was prepared by co-authors S. Rebecca Neusteter and Megan J. O’Toole, of Vera’s Policing Program.
Governing magazine spent six months examining the systems that promote racial segregation in several downstate Illinois cities. This look at policing shows what aggressive enforcement of minor offenses does over the long term.
The intense scrutiny of the residents at the Rockford Housing Authority is common in areas where poor black people live, Governing points out. Heavy-handed enforcement tactics are often employed in the name of protecting residents from crime. But often they catch only low-level offenders, with dire consequences for the offender’s ability to get a job or decent housing. That, in turn, reinforces deep-seated patterns of segregation in the communities where zero tolerance policies are used. Said one critic quoted in the series, “We weren’t providing safety. We were providing military control.”
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions shut down the Justice Department’s efforts to end bias in U.S. police departments, many police reformers lapsed into despair. But reform is alive and well across the country, if you look in the right places, says a policing scholar.
The program involved investigations of violations of peoples’ rights by local police departments and then negotiating consent decrees mandating reform.
The 40 consent decrees and settlements that were initiated under the program since 1994 made notable improvements in previously troubled police departments.
Many experts wondered who would now take the lead nationally in police reforms.
The mood of pessimism was reinforced by the continuing incidents of outrageous police shootings of people, who were disproportionally African American. Had the reforms spurred by the tragic 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, accomplished nothing?
Despair not. Police reform is alive and well across the country. You just have to look in the right places. The argument here is developed at length in an Illinois Law Review article.
First, since Ferguson there has been an outburst of police reform ordinances and laws across the country. A Vera Institute report found 79 separate state laws in 35 states in 2015-2016 alone.
Five states passed new laws either limiting certain types of force (e.g., chokeholds) or mandating training for all offices. Several others enacted laws to prevent racial profiling in stops of citizens. Nine states passed laws to improve police handling of mental health-related incidents. An astonishing 27 states enacted laws related to police body-worn cameras
Nine states, meanwhile, passed laws requiring police departments to collect data on officer-involved shootings, traffic stops, and other critical police actions. A Texas law now requires each police department to post detailed information of police shooting deaths on their web sites (see Houston).
City councils have also been very active. Seattle, Chicago, and New York City have created Inspectors General, independent oversight agencies with professional staff that investigate issues of concern in their local police departments. Seattle, meanwhile, created a permanent Community Police Commission, which can recommend new or revised police department policies.
A group of reform-minded police chiefs, meanwhile, has made important recommendations related to the control of officer use of force, de-escalation and tactical decision-making, and more effective methods of training. Their group, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has published a series of pathbreaking reports in the last several years.
A 2015 PERF report on training blasted the profession for its over-emphasis on force and control issues, while devoting little to officer communication skills. A 2016 PERF report on use of force urged use of force policies that are actually more restrictive than what the Supreme Court requires.
The PERF reports are based on the current work of police departments. Each one is based on a meeting of police chiefs and commanders who report on what they are now doing in their own departments. In short, they provide a window into the law enforcement profession in the process of change.
In short, the evidence is clear: police accountability-related police reform is alive and well. Stat legislatures, city councils, and many police chiefs across the country are active in controlling police use of force, making departments more open and transparent, and providing for community input into police policies.
Sam Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He welcomes comments by readers.
The crisis in U.S. policing often begins at the recruitment stage. A TCR special report examines how police departments are trying to change the way they hire new officers, beginning with locating candidates who care about the communities they’ll serve.
Officer-involved shootings continue to be a major problem for police departments across the country. According to the Fatal Force database compiled by the Washington Post, 3,743 people have been shot and killed by police since 2015, with 746 of those deaths occurring in 2018 alone.
While a number of these incidents may be the result of officers responding to legitimate threats to their safety, and the safety of others, many still point to a pattern of violent and irresponsible reactions to situations that should have ended differently for everyone.
One solution has been to train officers in de-escalation and conflict resolution techniques, an option tried in major departments such as New York and Seattle. But increasingly, members of the criminal justice community say police need to take a much closer look at who they’re hiring, and how those men and women are being selected for a job that puts people’s lives in their hands.
“The traditional police hiring process really tends to eliminate people; it’s not designed to hire the best,” said Tom Wilson, director of the Police Educational Research Forum’s Center for Applied Research and Management, in an interview with The Crime Report.
According to GoLawEnforcement.com, an online employment resource for nationwide law enforcement, the standard hiring process consists of a written exam—usually multiple choice—an oral board interview, a physical agility test, a polygraph, a psychological exam, a background investigation, and a medical exam. Each candidate completes each exam and then moves on to the next.
Wilson, a 25-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, compares it to a “funnel.”
“You start at the top end of a funnel, and you get all these people to apply and then maybe by the time you actually hire somebody you whittle it down to one out of ten, twenty, thirty, forty.”
The “funnel” only serves to weed out those who don’t make it to the next step. Most departments then rely on their training academies to further identify who has the desired and necessary skills they are looking for, and who doesn’t.
“If you don’t pass mustard in the academy, if you’re not able to pass certain requirements and tests, then you will be eliminated from the process,” said Wilson.
But police academies aren’t always reliable filters. With police departments around the country facing high demands for new officers, some cities’ academies are graduating people who are both ill-prepared and ill-suited for the job ahead.
Cities like Chicago and Baltimore, for example, who are under pressure to hire thousands of new officers, have been criticized for the quality of their new hires. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Police Department’s academy graduated more than 97 percent of its recruits over a four year period. According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, a third of Baltimore police recruits set to graduate lack even a basic understanding of the laws governing constitutional policing.
“As long as you have (hiring) quotas, you have targets, and when you have targets you’re eliminating good people,” said Stan Mason, host of the radio program Behind the Blue Curtain, in an interview with TCR.
A 25-year veteran of the Waco, Tx., Police Department, Mason was part of the selection process in his agency for 15 years. He points out that for most departments, and especially those in major municipalities, lowering standards to meet numbers begins at the hiring level.
As a result, even positive efforts like diversification can yield poor candidates when selection comes down to just filling required slots as soon as possible.
“When you have to meet numbers and you get down to the last two black guys, neither of them might be worth a thing,” said Mason. “But, one of them is going to get in there because you gotta fill those books.”
Mason recommends that cities and their departments focus instead on better understanding the demographics of their communities, stressing a need for departments that strive for a cultural diversity that mirrors the demographics of the cities or towns they police and, as a result, are better equipped to provide the kind of officers those communities really need.
It’s a necessity that Wilson agrees is long overdue for recognition.
“It’s time we start recognizing that different people bring different skills to this job, and we need that diverse background,” said Wilson, who adds that even just changing where and how departments hire those people is a step in the right direction.
In the wake of low unemployment rates, negative public scrutiny, and a shift in what younger generations want in a career, developing new and innovative hiring practices to fill the ranks of police departments is critical.
A 2017 national survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that governments are having more trouble hiring police than any other category of personnel. According to Wilson, this may be due, in part, to an outdated hiring strategy.
“It’s not the old standby that we go to the local colleges, or state colleges, or military bases,” said Wilson. “We need to start branching out a little bit.”
Some departments are.
In 2017, the Michigan State Police put full-time recruiters in the field, made community partnerships with the Black Caucus Foundation and America Corps, visited churches that recommended candidates, and launched an aggressive social media campaign with videos posted on Facebook and YouTube. Their most recent academy class, set to graduate in 2019, is the most diverse they’ve had in 20 years.
In Dallas, Chief U. Renee Hall launched a program that seeks to hire recent high school graduates as supplemental public service officers who will receive college tuition reimbursement and, upon program completion and reaching hiring age, become eligible to attend the police academy.
Its goals include attracting a new pool of recruits from different areas in the communities that the police serve and thereby strengthening trust.
However, Mason insists that innovative hiring campaigns like these, while positive efforts, are only successful if the departments know the people they’re serving and choose the right officer for the right community.
“You have to understand your city,” said Mason.
“You can’t hire two Blacks, 17 whites, and one Hispanic and say, ‘wow, look at us: we got more people.’ You just have more resources. If the resources can’t be applied effectively, what good is it?”
And for officers like Mason, making sure that departments are hiring people who know the communities they are policing is essential to ensuring everyone’s safety and understanding.
A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center found that in a national survey of nearly 8,000 police officers, 72 percent considered knowledge of the people, places, and culture of the areas they work extremely important to doing the job effectively.
However, many departments today find a lot of their officers live outside the communities they serve.
Does Location Matter?
According to The New York Times, in cities like Baton Rouge, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, a majority of officers don’t live within the city limits. In fact, data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight reports that only 15 of the nation’s largest police forces even require residency for their officers at all. As a result, the number of officers policing communities they actually know is rapidly dwindling, creating greater risk for potentially deadly mistakes.
“If you have a white officer, who has never been around black people, is this guy going to fit in Detroit, Chicago, or Baltimore?” asked Mason.
“This guy can’t handle it; it’s culture shock.”
Faced with this reality, finding the best officers can’t just be about finding the people that culturally or ethnically best suit a specific community.
For David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading national authority on racial profiling, it must also be about finding the people who are able to make a connection with, and adapt to, any community’s culture.
The first step begins with paying attention to how a candidate behaves at home.
“If I’m recruiting people, I want to know what they do in their own community,” said Harris, a criminal justice author who has also worked as a professional trainer for law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
According to Harris, finding men and women who demonstrate a concrete commitment to the community in which they live, even if it’s not the one they’re applying to serve, is essential to finding out what kind of police officer they will be in the future.
“Do they coach Little League? Do they work at a soup kitchen? Volunteer for meals on wheels? Anything,” said Harris.
“Show me that they are people who care about that sort of thing.”
By finding such community-involved and adaptable individuals, Harris believes that departments can move closer to the more empathetic and conscientious officers that people want. And the departments that will have the best luck in finding these kind of men and women are the ones who reach out to those very same communities and ask, “what do you want.”
“They went to the community and asked them what kind of police department and officers they wanted,” said Harris.
“The people didn’t come up with physically strong, willing to run into a burning building. What they came up with was good communicator, honest, having integrity, being able to talk to people. Those were the things that the community was interested in. What any community would be interested in.”
For Harris, this kind of cooperation and communication should be the norm, especially during the hiring process. For example, by including civilians and members of the community in police department’s review boards, which interview candidates on their qualifications and character, departments may have a better chance of improving the whole process and veering away from hiring the kind of command and control police officers traditionally sought after in the past by boards comprised mainly of a department’s sworn officers.
In fact, according to the Report on 21st Century Policing, released under the Obama administration, civilian involvement with local law enforcement agencies is essential to improving the state of policing in this country. And while police popularity may be low, a 2017 study by the Urban Institute found that large percentages of people living in the most challenging areas of cities like Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Birmingham, also professed a desire to work with police to solve neighborhood issues.
Community Involvement in Hiring
“A civilian group, or the community more broadly, can and should certainly be helping an agency determine what its priorities are,” agreed Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and a former Tallahassee, Fl., police officer, in an interview with TCR.
A member of the Columbia, S.C., Police Department’s civilian advisory council, Stoughton explained that, as part of the department’s inclusive selection process, a member of his council always attends both police applicant interviews and officer disciplinary hearings.
Enjoying an equal voice and vote alongside the police chiefs and commanders in the room, these men and women can ask questions and provide feedback on a candidate that helps to better decide if they are the best choice for the job.
Another example of this kind of successful cohesion is Washington D.C. where, according to PBS.org, the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) has won praise for an effectiveness that is based on community outreach, independence, and authority to approve policy and training recommendations to the department.
But while the OPC may be an example of a best-case scenario when it comes to organizing civilian involvement and cohesion with police in the hiring process, Stoughton warns that no two departments are alike. Things like independence and authority are hard to come by, he said.
“The devil is in the details,” Stoughton observed. “How do you pick which civilian or set of civilians is going to be involved in this? How much say does the civilian have?”
In a country with roughly 18,000 different law enforcement agencies, finding the right answer to these questions is no easy task. A report by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) states that the largest impediment to establishing approaches to civilian oversight are the wildly different practices of any two jurisdictions, which can depend on a variety of political, cultural, and social influences.
Inconsistency of this kind can lead to board members being selected by the chief of police or a political official, a biased situation that some would consider no different than having the chief select an officer.
In addition, further damage can be done by the civilian members themselves, who, according to a study by the ColumbiaJournal on Law and Social Problems, can not only display bias towards the department that hired them, but could also be overly deferential to the police because of a lack of experience.
Shortcomings like these are exemplified by cities like Seattle and Albuquerque where, despite having established civilian oversight and apparent transparency in the past, they find themselves facing an uphill battle to improve their police departments.
In Chicago, a debate continues over whether civilian groups should oversee police at all. While it may be a small step in the right direction, civilian involvement is far from the only solution to finding today’s best, brightest and most empathetic police candidates.
“I think civilian involvement in the hiring process is an easy thing for most agencies and jurisdictions to do,” said Stoughton.
But he added, “I don’t think it entirely or substantially solves some of the problems that various agencies in various communities have experienced.”
When it comes to proper hiring, one of the largest of those problems are known as “gypsy cops.”
Recently, communities in Cleveland were outraged to find out that Timothy Loehman, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, had been hired by the nearby Belair, Ohio police department on a part-time basis.
Despite losing his job in Cleveland for failing to disclose that the Independence, Ohio police department had previously found him unfit to be a member of their own department, Loehman was also permitted to apply at departments in Euclid and RTA. Though he has recently quit amid public pressure, he was still hired in Belair despite his very public and questionable reputation.
“Most would assume that if police departments knew what happened with an officer at a prior department you wouldn’t hire them,” said Roger Goldman, a Callis Family Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, to TCR.
“That is absolutely not the case.”
Instead, police departments around the country have been rehiring officers with terrible records for years. And while some departments may look into a former officers past before hiring, they are too often either not digging deep enough or are willing to ignore prior misconduct and hire people who are a risk in the face of both state laws and department budgetary issues.
“State law can get in the way of screening officers who come from prior service,” said Stoughton.
According to the Washington Post, some states shield police personnel records, including firings, from public records, while state laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s allow police some form of collective bargaining rights. Thus, police unions are able to appeal any discipline taken against an officer and, more often than not, have them reinstated.
The process is lengthy, complicated and costly and, as a result, many departments prefer to avoid liability altogether and only provide a former employee’s start and end date.
“One agency might not want to tell another agency exactly why an officer no longer works there, because they might be afraid of a defamation lawsuit,” added Stoughton.
On the other end, Goldman said that police departments, especially smaller departments, will often choose to roll the dice on a former officer with a poor record just to save money, rather than spend what they may not have in order to train a completely new hire.
It’s a decision that can cost lives.
“What got me started in all of this was a cop at a St. Louis, Mo., department who was playing Russian roulette with suspects, and despite that was hired knowingly by another department that couldn’t afford a better cop,” said Goldman, who adds that the officer later ended up fatally shooting an unarmed suspect in the back.
‘Desperate for Bodies’
“Some departments are so desperate for bodies that they’re willing to hire anyone.”
But Goldman explains that this pattern can be broken by taking sole authority for hiring out of the hands of local departments and sharing it with the state.
For the last 40 years he has successfully crusaded for state laws that allow for decertification of police in instances of misconduct. Noting that state licensing boards already exist for occupations such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, and even plumbers, he argues that the policing field needs this same type of oversight.
Since New Mexico became the first state to get the authority to revoke licenses in 1960, 46 states have followed suit and established commissions with the power to decertify officers and a total of 30,000 officers have been decertified, according to an article from The Guardian.
However, four states—California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—still lack these kinds of regulatory bodies. Twenty of those states that do have the power can only decertify if the officer has been convicted of a crime, according to The Atlantic. Even some states that have the power to decertify often fail to utilize it, such as Louisiana, which The Advocatereports has only decertified six officers in the last 12 years.
While the issue of decertification is currently only an individual state concern, when plagued with these kinds of inconsistencies Goldman states that it may not be able to succeed without federal involvement.
“These are local matters, but you need federal oversight to make sure that individual departments come up to standards,” said Goldman.
Federal involvement of the Department of Justice (DOJ), in a fashion similar to the consent decrees issued after Ferguson in Missouri, Seattle, and Chicago, could help to motivate state efforts by denying funding to departments that fail to comply with set guidelines. In addition, where there is currently no national database for recording decertified officers, activity by the DOJ could require one.
“Just how we now have the National Practitioner Databank for healthcare professionals, that has any disciplinary action that has been taken against the practitioner run out of Health and Human Services; so too if a police officer goes across state lines a licensing board would be able to access a federal databank,” said Goldman.
But, so far, the feds have done very little.
Since 2003, states have been required to submit data on officer-involved killings of civilians to the DOJ, but many have repeatedly failed to cooperate, with little to no resulting penalties, reports NBC.com. The only existing resource for recording decertified officers is the National Decertification Index, an independent databank that 45 states submit to and which accounts for 25,000 of the total 30,000 recorded since 1960.
In addition, the current administration has stated that it considers policing a matter of exclusively local oversight, going so far as to suggest cutting funding for the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which provides information and funding to advance the practice of community policing in departments nationally, a major blow to a seemingly already faulty system.
Yet, step by step, state by state, there are pockets of improvement.
Colorado recently passed a law stating that former officers cannot be hired by another department unless they waive any nondisclosure agreements that they may have made. New York, through regulation, has had the power to decertify since 2016, and Hawaii has recently enacted a decertification bill. In the ongoing effort to find the best possible officers, decertification helps prevent departments from hiring anything less and holds them to the same standards as other professions that are not given a badge and a gun.
“Like we do with lawyers, we can do with cops: take away their license, probation, suspension, so forth,” said Goldman.
“Policing requires the same kind of oversight that all these other occupations have.”
Peter Sarna, a 40-year police veteran and former chief of the Oakland Police Department, thinks that ideas like this are sorely lacking in the policing field overall.
“In policing, thinking doesn’t go very deep and it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t look out over the horizon to see what the long term effects might be,” said Sarna in an interview with TCR.
A nationally recognized expert in police training and use of force, Sarna believes that this absence of foresight has not only led to circumstances like the gypsy cops, but also trapped policing in an outdated and unrealistic performance model: one that expects all their officers to be able to perform a variety of different task specific skill sets, at any given time, and to be able to switch rapidly between those skill sets depending on the task.
In addition to the basic tenets of the job, and the everyday potential for danger, police officers today are now called upon to handle a variety of new situations that they were before rarely called upon to deal with. From policing the mentally ill to performing disciplinary actions at schools, all while dealing with an increasingly popularized negative image of policing in general, police today are wearing a lot more hats—perhaps even too many.
When it comes to hiring and selecting, expecting to find large amounts of people who can perform all these duties effectively might be a tall order.
“Maybe you have 1 percent of your cops that you can recruit who are stars,” said Sarna.
“They have the mindsets, they can move quickly among different types of calls, they can catch bad guys, solve family fights, they can do spectacular work. But they’re a small percentage of the workforce.”
Looking for the ‘Renaissance Cop’
According to Sarna, this model of a “renaissance cop” ignores a stark reality of the profession: it requires a multiplicity of tasks performed by a variety of officers to succeed. While the goals of having de-escalation skills, empathy, and conflict resolution abilities in every officer are important and necessary to pursue, he insisted that there will always be those officers who are better at one aspect of the job than the other.
Instead of wasting time searching for new hires based on an idealized model of the perfect cop, he believes that the whole policing profession needs to be restructured and that police officers should be selected for specific positions based on the strengths they develop and bring to the job before and after training.
It is an idea that mirrors the kind of division of labor found in most hospitals today.
“You go to a hospital and there’s a doctor for every part of the body,” said Sarna. “It’s extensive.”
This kind of division of labor is more than necessary in the policing field, where the types of calls for assistance vary widely. And a recognition that certain types of calls warrant specialization and demand certain skill sets has begun to grow, especially when concerning the handling of the mentally ill.
In cities like New York and Chicago, departments have started Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs and created teams of trained officers who respond to any call involving the mentally ill or those in distress.
Sarna, who served as a rank-and-file officer in Oakland before becoming chief, pointed out that this type of specialization was attributable to much of Oakland’s success at that time. And though the “warrior vs. guardian” debate continues to define how officers are chosen, he insists that understanding the need for both, and how to properly assign them, is the key to a more successful, and safer, style of policing.
But first, departments need to start asking themselves some tough questions.
“Do we need to specifically select a top tier of cops who are crime fighters and can do it well within the law?” asked Sarna.
“And do we also need ‘community service officers’ who can handle a lot of the tedious, mundane things that need to be done to work well?”
For Capt. Victor Davalos, Commanding Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Recruitment and Employment Division, there are no easy answers to these questions. He argues that a department’s ability to implement this kind of overarching specialization depends on specific factors.
“It’s important to know the differences, limitations and environment that every department operates in,” said Davalos.
Though it may be an option for larger departments, he notes that specialization is a luxury that most smaller departments, and even medium-sized departments like the LAPD, can’t afford.
“Unlike, for example, New York, which has about 30,000 officers, we only have approximately 10,000,” Davalos told TCR.
“We have to do a lot more with a lot less.”
And while the LAPD does have a program similar to the CIT teams in New York, where their officers are partnered with mental health specialists and respond to mental health calls together, and can also utilize a SWAT team to respond to very dangerous and high risk situations, Davalos points out that, in any department, there are a lot of calls to service in between those two dimensions.
“We really need officers that are able to respond to all types of situations,” said Davalos.
In order to find them, he and the LAPD feel that, rather than trying to restructure the whole department, a lot of progress can be made by simply making adjustments to policies and procedures that would make hiring easier and better suited to the times. And, for some departments, one such adjustment that is currently up for discussion is the use of marijuana.
Should Past Marijuana Use Disqualify?
In the past, drug use of any kind was considered an automatic disqualifier for service. But as marijuana laws become more relaxed around the country, with Business Insider reporting recreational use legal in 10 states and medicinal consumption legal in 33, police departments are following suit. In places like Chicago, Denver, Portland, police departments are relaxing their policies on past marijuana use in an effort to attract candidates who would otherwise be passed over.
Davalos says the LAPD is following suit.
“As those laws continue to evolve, so must we, so we remain current and we’re not using outdated guidelines,” said Davalos.
In addition, the LAPD and other departments are also reconsidering disqualifying applicants based on credit checks and certain criminal records, both of which, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, disproportionately impact racial minority candidates who are more likely, for multiple reasons, to have low credit scores and more contact with criminal justice in their communities.
By adjusting certain aspects of selection in this way, departments ideally have a chance at widening the pool of applicants they have to choose from.
This was the case in Philadelphia where, in 2017, after lowering the college credit requirements and raising the hiring age, the police department experienced a 20 percent increase in applications from the roughly 5,000 annually that they were accustomed to. More applicants arguably allows departments to be more selective in their hiring and take the time to find the best possible candidate, opening a pathway up to those most needed that gets them through the hiring process much faster for much less.
“If I’m trying to process 10,000 people, many of whom are unqualified, that is a harder drain on my resources than if I’m processing 7,000 candidates who are more qualified,” said Aram Kouyoumdjian, Assistant General Manager (Public Safety) of the City of Los Angeles Personnel Department, the entity that handles testing and produces the lists of eligible candidates certified to be hired for the LAPD’s final review, to TCR.
“It actually makes the process easier for them and for us.”
According to Kouyoumdjian, this more streamlined process, and resulting influx of officers, has allowed his department, which handles every aspect of hiring but the police department interviews, to fine-tune testing to focus more on reading comprehension and communication skills, adjust physical exams to be more in line with what is done in the academy, and take a much harder look at applicants backgrounds than ever before.
“It’s about trying to get more qualified candidates into the process from the get go, as opposed to just testing willy-nilly and spending time screening people out,” said Kouyoumdjian.
Yet some in law enforcement remain concerned that changes such as these could potentially have dangerous results.
A 2016 article for policeone.com warns that a person with poor credit history may be susceptible to bribery, someone convicted of a previous crime may reoffend, or a person who can’t meet physical standards may jeopardize the lives of others.
And in Texas, ksat.comreports that the San Antonio Police Officers Association recently argued that changing the standards for department hires may lower the quality of men and women hired for the job rather than improve it.
Despite these concerns, Kouyoumdjian insists that changing the standards by no means equates to lowering them.
“Our responsibility is hiring officers who can deliver on all fronts.”
“We want officers who can, when circumstances call for it, perform the job of law enforcement, but (who will) also be able to recognize who needs protection and who needs accountability.”
However, although this kind of clear-sighted and optimistic approach may be necessary to finding today and tomorrow’s best police candidates, it might not be enough to tackle the many real hurdles the industry has to overcome.
While practices such as involving the community in hiring, diversifying applicants, decertifying lateral hires, restructuring division of labor, and updating and evolving hiring to suit the times represent some of the best efforts being made today to find the officers we need tomorrow, men like Peter Sarna still remain unconvinced.
“Are we fooling ourselves? Can we actually get people in large numbers, who can perform full spectrum policing? Or is it impossible?”
The answer to those questions may determine the future of 21st century policing in America.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
Delrish Moss has had to do his job under a level of scrutiny that few police chiefs face. As he leaves his post in Ferguson, Mo., after 2 1/2 years of trying to balance public relations with policing, his legacy is a mixed one.
The man who has served for the last 2½ years as police chief of a 20,000-population city in eastern Missouri knew the spotlight would be on him from the beginning — when he learned from a reporter in London that he had gotten the job. Because that city is Ferguson, Mo., the bull’s-eye in police-community relations since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer there, Delrish Moss has had to do his job under conditions few chiefs face. As Moss resigns his post Friday for family reasons, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports he is happy to leave behind some of that pressure while he also leaves behind a mixed legacy. Supporters say his polished look and pressed uniform, media savvy and personable demeanor were exactly what Ferguson needed to calm tension and dim the spotlight. Critics say a manpower shortages in the police force and persisting concerns about crime, despite downward trends, will define his legacy here.
Moss had been a homicide detective and served as spokesman for the Miami Police Department. He took over in Ferguson in June 2016 after two interim chiefs led the department following the 2015 resignation of Chief Thomas Jackson. Jackson left after a Justice Department report found stark racial disparities in the city’s police and municipal court practices. A federal monitor now oversees the police department under a consent decree that requires the chief to get approval from the feds for policy changes. Protests continue in Ferguson to this day. While Moss has won praise for using a light touch with protesters, in contrast with the department’s initial handling of volatile protests over Brown’s death, some residents say they are tired of how Moss “kowtows” to protesters who harass and threaten police officers.
The use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and other forms of “militarized policing” doesn’t deter violent crime or provide the safety benefits (either to the public or to police officers) that many police administrators claim–and it disproportionately affects black communities, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.
The use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and other forms of “militarized policing” doesn’t deter violent crime. Instead it harms police reputation and disproportionately affects black communities, according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences.
Author Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, found that militarized police units do not appear to provide the safety benefits (either to the public or to police officers) that many police administrators claim.
Mummolo used a nationwide panel measuring the presence of active SWAT teams and a list of every SWAT team deployment in the state of Maryland over a five-year period (8,200 deployments in all) to collect data that showed no significant evidence acquiring a SWAT team lowers crime or promotes officer safety.
These findings, he suggested, should inform the national debate about where to draw the line in policing between the protection of civil liberties and public safety.
“The lack of any robust association between militarized policing and public and officer safety shown here calls the validity of these claimed benefits into question,” Mummolo noted.
Moreover, instead of protecting communities, the deployment of SWAT teams had the adverse affect of further angering the public, he wrote.
Using survey experiments—one of which included a large oversample of African American respondents—Mummolo showed that seeing militarized police in news reports diminished police reputation in mass public opinion.
“What we learn from the present analysis is that militarized policing can impose reputational costs on law enforcement, likely in unintended ways. This is troubling, since prior work shows that negative views of police inhibit criminal investigations and are associated with stunted civic participation,” he wrote.
African Americans had an even lower amount of confidence in the police (21 percent) than their white counterparts. Mummolo credits this lack of trust to the over-policing and militarization in black communities.
The routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to increase the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state, with no detectable public safety benefit, he said.
“While SWAT teams arguably remain a necessary tool for violent emergency situations, restricting their use to those rare events may improve perceptions of police with little or no safety loss,” Mummolo argued.
He suggested that SWAT teams should be scrapped as part of an overall effort to curb militarized police practices in the interests of police as well as ordinary citizens.
After eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, retiring Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck gives TCR a frank assessment of the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned.
As he prepares to move on after eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck sits down with TCR’s West Coast bureau Chief Joe Domanick for a candid conversation about the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned along the way.
(Note: This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.)
The Crime Report: Let’s pretend you’re speaking to a group of reform-minded, big-city chiefs. What would you tell them is essential to understand about changing a department’s culture?
Charlie Beck: That you change culture by everything you do. Just saying that you want a more empathetic, more community-building police department focused on helping communities is only one percent of culture change.
What’s essential is how you interact with people and model your behavior. One of my core beliefs is that the way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community. If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out on the street]. They’ll see the way that you deal with conflict and adversity, and how you deal with people you don’t agree with, and act accordingly.
TCR: Once you were selected chief, did you actually sit down and write a reform plan?
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by Ruperto Miller via Flickr
Beck: Yes. A lot of times managers think: I don’t need that, I know where I’m going. But the organization needs a plan. It needs a road map. We wrote a list of things we wanted to do. Of course, they change all the time. You achieve goals or you modify goals, the circumstances change. You can’t write ‘em on a chalkboard and just leave them up there for eight years. You’ve got to look at them constantly; while doing self-evaluation to realize what you’re good at and what you’re not. And then you’ve got to find people to fill the gaps. That’s really important.
TCR: One of the biggest challenges a reform chief faces is getting buy-in from the rank-and-file and key opinion-makers within a department. How did you go about it?
Beck: I did it the obvious way ─ through the traditional chain-of-command-stuff [from the top down.] But I also believe in managing from the ground up. So I went to roll calls in every station. And in every division for my first three years as chief I worked a partial shift side-by-side with officers in their black and whites. And I did all things that are iconic culturally within the LAPD that demonstrate that we’re all cut from the same basic cloth. For example, I hate to run [in department races] but I do it because it’s part of the culture.
TCR: And what did demonstrating that we’re all in this together get you?
Beck: When you say things or take actions that [many officers] don’t intrinsically agree with, like, for example, undocumented folks should be able to obtain driver’s licenses, they’ll think, “I don’t really get why that’s important to (the chief), but I’ll just wait and see.” In other words, it’s not necessarily that they buy into your ideas. It’s that they buy in to you as having their best interests at heart.
TCR: What else can you say about troop buy-in?
Beck: First, understand that it’s going to be very difficult to change an organization. Then create a bond with a peer leader in one station, and that bond spreads through the whole station. (Finally,) you want to create bonds, but not be thought of as one of the boys, because you’re not, and you have to make that clear If you want to command respect.
TCR: The [LAPD] union resisted many of your [progressive] reforms. But you were able to maneuver between a very liberal police commission and a very conservative union to get body/patrol car cameras, and a new de-escalation shooting policy. Talk a little about that.
Beck: First of all, you’ve got to understand why they want what they want, and you’ve got to know what you want and what you’re willing to settle for. Then you have to understand what the real sticking points are for the union. Second, always gauge who has the most support with the rank-and-file. You or the union?
Who will they follow? Make sure beforehand you’ve got capital in the bank [of good will] among the troops; and that you are as good as you can be on that part.
TCR: What’s the biggest lesson you learned about officer discipline?
Beck: Organizations want to overreact to small things and underreact to big things. That is very bad management. As a chief I want to insure that if officers do serious things from which there is no return, that they have no opportunity to return. So officers have to accept that kind of bottom line and deal with it.
But you also have to recognize what’s important and what’s not. We sometimes spend an enormous amount of resources over very little. You can lose a lot of organizational authority by being seen as the kind of a chief who is more concerned about what color your socks are than whether or not you’re telling the truth in court. You know [the LAPD’s] been that kind of organization before. My lesson to anybody is: Don’t do that.
TCR: What’s the most effective way to deal with a civilian oversight entity, the police commission in your case?
Beck: Involve those individuals with the members of the police department enough so they will grow to understand that these are by and large extremely good-intentioned, good-hearted people. And if they are involved enough, they’ll see just how difficult this job is. And that maybe that expectation of perfect handling of every incident or perfect handling of any incident in my estimation is something that is a false expectation. I think that’s really important.
And I think that’s what you have to look at with police commissioners. They’re going to influence you, but you can also influence them.
TCR: Talk about the political skills and strategies that a chief needs in order to deal with the multitude of players.
Beck: First, you’ve got to know the lay of the land and that every city is different, and that every political group is different. Then you have to know who are the lever-pullers. Who are the actual people that have influence? That is an art in and of itself.
No one person can truly know that. That’s why you’ve got to surround yourself with people who understand at a really deep level who’s influential in these individual communities. Recognize that there are some people that you’re never going to change. Then you’ve also got to recognize those who, no matter what you do, will think that you’re fantastic. That’s about 10 percent on your end. And then work on the middle.
TCR: And how do you work on the middle?
Beck: First of all, you have to explain your actions as best you can in public so people gain trust. You’ve got to show respect, spend the time necessary─or make sure you have emissaries doing so if you can’t spend the time. In every major community I have a chief’s liaison person who works within that community to have an impact, especially in the African American community.
Then you have to know which divisions are important on the macro level. I have 21 divisions. Three or four of them could be a flashpoint for a riot; that could cause a huge political upheaval with very small incidents. A couple of others in which people have a huge political influence. And then you’ve got to pick the right people to go to these places, [people] who understand the dynamics.
People in these areas have one or two issues that they find immensely important. So you’ve got to recognize what those issues are, whether it’s human trafficking in the San Fernando Valley, or immigrant rights in East LA, or African-American interactions with police. You’ve got to not only know that, but make sure you work to address that with them individually. It’s just about understanding the way they are. If you don’t, then you need to find people who do, and use those people to educate you and to do the outreach in those communities that they have contact with.
TCR: How about recruit training? What are the first things a reform chief should tackle with recruit training so that when those recruits leave they understand the game as the chief wants it to be played?
Beck: When they get out of the academy, recruits are uninformed beyond the initial nuts and bolts of policing. They still have to learn about political savvy, understanding of the goals of the department, etc. What we’ve done to address that is bring the recruit class back after they’ve been out in the field for a year. Then they’re ready to understand the bigger policing picture. Because now they’re not worried about whether they’re going to keep their job, not afraid of the great unknown, what are the radio codes for a purse snatch. They’re just not ready for this stuff when they leave for the academy.
TCR: You’ve managed to keep yourself and your department out of the daily news cycle that was a key feature of the way most of your predecessors operated. Do you think that was effective, and useful?
Beck: I certainly have seen police chiefs and city attorneys who love being in the papers. They crave it. They solicit it. They take every opportunity to put themselves out there. I have no interest in that. I understand that I’m going to be out there plenty anyway.
Being a police chief is a serious job. We’re dealing with life and death, with people’s safety. When you talk, you should be taken seriously. Less is more. If you go out there every time somebody saves a cat out of a tree, clamoring for attention, pretty soon you’re just a loud person clamoring for attention, and people see that. You come out to the public for things that are important, that you do believe in and which you have some depth of understanding and ability to discuss.
TCR: Why do you think it served you well?
Beck: It’s added authority during the times when we do have to use the media. Because we do have to use the media. When I call the press conference I get the press, I get a lot of it. Because it’s not common. I think it gives you a bigger megaphone for the times when you need it. Again, the more you put yourself out there you also create vulnerability. The more times you talk the more opportunities to trip up and all that kind of thing.
TCR: What should future reform chiefs avoid at all costs?
Beck: Thinking the organization is more important than you are. Thinking that it is about you, or that an organization can be sacrificed for your own personal needs. That’s my bottom line. You cannot be seen as somebody who will throw employees or the organization as a whole under the bus in order to save yourself. And I’ve seen people who did that just lose all the authority. You have to avoid that at all costs.
That doesn’t mean you never take action. I’ve arrested employees, all that. But that’s not the same as abandoning somebody for political expediency. You cannot do that.
That shouldn’t stop you from calling it as it is when something has happened and doesn’t fit the standards of the organization. But you can’t shape the standards of the organization to fit unrealistic expectations.
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 four books on American Policing and incarceration. His latest, now out in paperback, is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.” Joe welcomes comments from readers.