Not everyone welcomed the election of reform-minded prosecutors around the country last fall. The case of new Suffolk County. Ma., DA Rachael Rollins is an example of pushback from tough-on-crime advocates, warns a reform advocate.
A month before Suffolk County (Ma.) District Attorney Rachael Rollins was elected to become Boston’s District Attorney—and the first woman to hold that post—she announced that she would not prosecute 15 petty offenses.
They range from charges such as “minor in possession of alcohol,” which needlessly suck normal teenagers and young adults into the criminal justice system, to “disorderly conduct,” a statute so broad that it criminalizes whatever a prosecutor feels like it does.
Now, the National Police Association (NPA), a little-known nonprofit formed in 2017, has filed a bar complaint with the Office of the Bar Counsel in Massachusetts in a presumed attempt to strip Rollins’ law license.
The complaint itself is unlikely to succeed, as it fails to clearly state how she violated the Massachusetts Bar’s ethics rules. But it is worth highlighting as a significant attempt to close the main “safety valve” against American mass incarceration: reform-minded elected prosecutors.
We also lack a culture of restraint when it comes to criminalization and punishment. Unlike most European countries that leave the drafting of penal codes to scholarly experts, our laws are an inconsistent patchwork created by state legislators who generally know nothing about criminology and do not care to know. (Criminal law is a mere fraction of their work.)
However, head county prosecutors, often called District Attorneys, are interested enough in the dynamics of crime and public safety to make criminal justice their entire jobs. While they may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on sound crime control and public safety tactics, they take a more macroscopic and systemic view of potential crimes than the average police officer.
The reason is baked into their job descriptions.
Ultimately, a beat patrol officer in Chelsea, Mass.,—a town with a population of approximately 37,000 people—has one main directive. When there is probable cause a criminal law has been broken, the officer is to arrest a person, drive him or her to the jail, and give a report to prosecutors about what was observed.
In contrast, the District Attorney of Suffolk County (population approximately 800,000) must decide whether the crime is probable beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether it is in the best interest of the public to use limited resources on that case.
That is not to say that policing cannot or should not be more strategic or preventative. David M. Kennedy, now a professor of justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, developed a group violence intervention strategy dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” that was considered responsible for the plummeting of Boston’s homicide rate in the 1990s.
However, the implementation of such strategies by police departments is not bottom-up but top-down—a result of partnerships with police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders.
The U.S. is not about to move to the European model, in which advisory boards of academic experts essentially write state criminal codes in lieu of popularly elected legislators.
As such, the closest thing we will get to employing crime expertise to informing criminal justice policy on a day-to-day basis is through our District Attorneys, to whom state legislatures grant nearly unfettered discretion.
This is more or less the conclusion that University of North Carolina Law Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick arrived at in a blog post about Rollins’ petty offense declination policy in September.
In a world of limited resources, District Attorneys cannot prosecute every single crime and petty offense that occurs within their jurisdiction. Instead, they must make decisions on how to use their resources, within the permissive borders of deliberately broad and plentiful criminal laws.
Bill Otis, the Georgetown University law professor whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and who has been sharply criticized for his pro-mass incarceration views—Slate called him “obsessed with black-on-black crime”—has joined the chorus of Rollins critics.
“If I wanted to make a living being a small time thief, would I not be well-advised to move to Suffolk County?” he said, in response to Prof. Hessick.
But Otis ignored the fact that there are many other statutes Rollins could use to crack down on this sort of behavior, one of them being “organized retail crime,” which can fetch up to ten years in state prison.
It is unfair to suggest that Rollins’ plans amount to ineffective crime control measures or will hurt the interests of crime victims. Instead, she is trying to give people a chance to grow from their relatively harmless mistakes without getting clawed into by the criminal justice system.
The same point needs to be emphasized as other reform prosecutors across the country face criticism from those who want to reverse the nationwide movement for justice reform.
It is often said in reform circles that people are more than their worst moments.
If a person’s worst moment is shoplifting a shirt, making a mean comment on an internet video game, or shooting up heroin while chemically dependent, perhaps desistance from the behavior should be good enough for all of us.
Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney and he tweets at @RoryFleming8A. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) tell a conference sponsored by the conservative Charles Koch Institute that they are campaigning hard to pass an overhaul of federal sentencing laws. The Charles Koch Foundation released a four-volume report on “Reforming Criminal Justice” that is aimed at being accessible to policymakers and to the public.
The long-stalled effort to overhaul federal sentencing laws still stands a decent chance of passage in Congress despite opposition in the past by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, two Republican senators told a criminal justice conference on Thursday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that Sessions, a longtime former colleague in the Senate, “is willing to work with us on sentencing reform.” Sessions voted against a previous version of the bill on the ground that it would have gone too far in reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.
It is widely assumed that Sessions would play a major role in determining the Trump administration’s views on the bill. Grassley said there is “some support” for the measure in the administration, a possible reference to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been assigned by the president to work on criminal justice issues.
Grassley and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) were among speakers at a day-long conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the conservative Charles Koch Institute. The conference was titled, “Advancing Justice, An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety.”
During the high-crime 1980s and 1990s, when Congress enacted many of the mandatory minimum sentence laws still on the books, Grassley said that as a new senator, he supported them.
Grassley still supports some mandatory minimums, but he now agrees with critics that some of the laws have resulted in “significant costs,” both to taxpayers who must pay to house inmates for long terms on minor offenses, as well as costs to “families and communities.”
Sessions was a leader in the successful 2010 effort to amend sentencing laws that imposed a much higher penalty for crack cocaine offenses than powder cocaine violations, Grassley said, demonstrating that the Attorney General does not oppose all changes in federal sentencing laws.
In a separate program at the conference, Sen. Lee said that the sentencing-reform bill would get at least 70 votes in the Senate if it were brought to the floor.
Lee called it a “lazy argument” that favoring sentencing-law changes means being “soft on crime.” He said, “We are tough on crime. We also have to be smart.”
“What we’re doing now [on sentencing] is not working,” said Lee, a former federal prosecutor. He challenged those who oppose reform proposals, “Let’s hear their ideas.”
Lee spoke along with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) in a session subtitled, “Redefining Tough on Crime.”
DeMint said, “We have entirely too many people in prison,” observing that many inmates behind bars on minor drug offenses “come out hardened criminals.”
While Congress has failed to pass most criminal justice reform bill in recent years, states are a “bright spot” by tackling various justice issues, Lee said.
Before the conference, the Koch Foundation released a four-volume report titled, “Reforming Criminal Justice,” which editor Erik Luna, a law professor at Arizona State University, said is “meant to enlighten reform efforts in the United States with the research and analysis of leading academics.”
The volumes, which are available at this site, include 57 chapters covering dozens of topics within the areas of criminalization, policing, pretrial and trial processes, punishment, incarceration, and release. Luna said the report is written with the idea that it should be easily understandable by policymakers and lay readers.
Among other subjects addressed by conference speakers Thursday were policing, lessons for cities in tackling violent crime, a holistic approach to the opioid crisis, militarization of police, the future of marijuana policy, “restoring victims of crime,” and “reining in overcriminalization in America.”
At the violent crime session, former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, now a professor at New York University Law School, urged reformers to spend more effort on the “front end” of the criminal justice system, so all suspected offenders are not “funneled in” to a “one size fits all” legal process.
Milgram urged more attention to diverting crime suspects to mental illness and drug treatment rather than putting many of them on a path to prison.
Asked to discuss why Chicago’s crime problems are so much worse than those in other urban areas like New York City, Milgram said that shootings in the city are down as much as 20 percent this year, and that a disproportionate amount of Chicago’s homicide totals are concentrated in five neighborhoods.
In opening the conference, Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, called criminal justice reform “an issue whose time has come” and forecast that “there is progress on the horizon at the federal level.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, says he will propose tough-on-crime legislation–including longer sentences for repeat offenders–to address the acute problem of violence in Baltimore.
After a closed-door meeting about “out of control” violent crime in Baltimore, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he plans to propose a major crime package during next year’s General Assembly session that includes truth-in-sentencing legislation, reports the Baltimore Sun. The Republican governor met for about an hour in Baltimore with elected state and local elected officials, all of them Democrats, as well as Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and acting U.S. Attorney for Maryland Stephen Schenning. Afterward, Hogan said he was frustrated that violent repeat offenders are not receiving long prison sentences. “We keep putting the same exact violent people on the streets,” Hogan said.
In other states, truth-in-sentencing legislation has often meant eliminating parole and good-time credits that reduce the sentences of prison inmates. Hogan did not provide details about the bill he will propose. Attendees at the meeting included Mayor Catherine Pugh, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Hogan invited Baltimore judges to attend the meeting, but they declined, saying it would be inappropriate.
Under get-tough anticrime laws from the 1980s and 1990s, prisoners’ average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000, a report by the Urban Institute finds.
Despite the enactment of justice reforms in many states, the nation’s prison and jail population has dropped only slightly in recent years. Well over two million people remain behind bars, and there has been little dent in the “mass incarceration” that that has been criticized by many on both the left and the right.
A new report from the Urban Institute tells much of the reason why: Prisoners sentenced to long terms under laws passed in previous decades still are locked up, and there is little hope for many of them to get out soon.
The key phrase used by those who follow the criminal justice system is “length of stay,” or the amount of time that a convicted person ends up spending in prison despite the stated sentence.
In “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons,” the institute said that “more people have been going to prison and staying there longer, mostly because of “tough-on-crime” policies that swept the country in the 1980s and ’90s. The prison population boomed as sentences got longer and release policies got more restrictive.”
In the past, many convicts were released by parole boards or by other policies well before the maximum time they could have served. Reacting to criticism of these so-called early releases, many states enacted laws requiring all prisoners to stay through at least 85 percent of their sentences.
The Urban Institute report found that the average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000. In almost half of states, the top 10 percent of prison terms increased in length by more than 5 years between 2000 and 2014.
States that have data going back further reported numbers that the institute called even more dramatic. In Michigan, the average time served among the 10 percent longest- serving prisoners was 10 years in 1989 and 26 years in 2013. In California, it was 9.7 years in 1992 and 24.9 years in 2014.
The report took a look at “stark racial disparities” that it said grow as people serve longer terms in prison, judging from figures in the 35 of 44 states with complete data. In Pennsylvania, black people make up 49 percent of the state prison population but 60 percent of those serving long prison terms.
One in five people in prison for 10 years or more is a black man who was incarcerated before age 25.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of those serving the longest prison terms went to prison before 25, despite research showing that brain development is not complete at younger ages.
Advocacy groups in recent years have touted reforms states have adopted to reduce their prison populations. Yet those changes have focused mainly on low-level crimes. Some new laws have reduced prison time for minor offenses, but the “the narrow focus of these reforms has intentionally excluded those who stay in prison the longest,” says the new report. “These changes have an outsized effect on the prison population, because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long prison terms.”
One effect of the longer terms is that states are spending millions of dollars caring for an aging prison population although many inmates could be safely released, the institute says. Also, people serving long terms leave their families behind, a problem confronted disproportionately by minorities. Many who finally are released are unprepared to live in a different world, and recidivism rates are high.
To get a realistic view of the impact of long terms, authors of the study interviewed several people who have served long terms.
One of them was Stanley Mitchell, who spent 35 years in a Maryland prison. Sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he was released in 2013 at 63. “Does prison, long-term incarceration, change people?,” he said. “Sure it does. Does it change them for the better? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. More times than not, it doesn’t. It makes a person more bitter, more hateful, especially when…the rules are not applied fairly.”
Another ex-inmate, Elvin Garcia, said, “I’ve seen individuals do long sentences…[and] by the time they’re released, both parents died. They have no immediate family left. No one.”
Advocates of the tough-on-crime policies that resulted in today’s long sentences argued that they would improve public safety and bring healing to crime victims. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s Attorney General, is a proponent of longer prison terms.
The institute’s report argues that “decades of experience have revealed long prison terms to be a weak antidote to the problems that cause violence and a painfully inadequate answer to victims’ calls for resolution and healing.”
The report notes that long-term inmates often are among the last in line to get educational programming behind the walls and may have little incentive to take part if they don’t see release coming any time soon.
The institute suggested a series of principles for reform, including that sentences should be proportionate to the offense and the circumstances surrounding it, that punishments should be no more severe than necessary, that victims be offered a variety of ways to support justice, that everyone deserves a meaningful chance of release, and that “reforms must seek to dismantle systemic disparities” along racial and ethnic lines.
A series of specific recommendations to implement changes includes: assessing candidates for parole based on who they are now, not on their original offense; and establishing a standard of “presumptive parole,” releasing prisoners when they are first eligible “unless there is clear evidence that their release poses a significant threat to public safety.”
Several reform advocates have proposed significant shortening of prison terms. For example, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project maintains that most prison terms should be no longer than 20 years. And a group called “#cut50” contends that “we can smartly and safely reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails by 50 percent and keep communities safe while doing it.”
No states have enacted such a plan, and most have not even seriously considered it.
In Louisiana, the state with one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, the legislature approved changes this year that would reduce penalties for low-level offenders, but elected sheriffs and district attorneys blocked more sweeping bills that would have affected violent criminals.
The Urban Institute’s report aims at convincing policymakers to “dismantle the disastrous policies that have inflicted so much damage while doing little to address the real problems of crime.”
The report was funded by the Open Society Foundations, which did not determine the research findings. The authors are Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King, and Serena Lei.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. 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.