Lessons of Ferguson-for the good of law enforcement

I promised to examine the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, just as I did the DOJ’s report on the Brown shooting. The report on Ferguson got the lion’s share of headlines in the past couple of weeks, with most headlines shouting that the PD was engaging in racist behavior, illegal stops, and violations of civil rights. After reading the report in its entirety, which, again, I urge everyone to do, it’s painfully clear that Ferguson has some very troubling systemic problems. I’m not going to tap dance around saying “not every officer”, because common sense tells any intelligent person that’s a given, but the pervasiveness of the policies geared toward revenue generation and statistics alone, paint a picture of a police department in need of a major overhaul. City and Department officials were found to openly request more tickets written from the Chief to increase revenue. One DOJ example:

“City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. In an email from March 2010, the Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

Worse, officials were found to author and forward racist emails on city computers. When people are unafraid of being caught sending racist emails, I’d say the culture is evident. DOJ cites numerous examples throughout the report.

“We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Statistical analysis, combined with interviews of city and police personnel, examinations of public records, to include emails, provide numerous examples of improper practices of using the PD to generate revenues, and in some more damning examples, outright racist remarks in city correspondence. I’m a retired cop, so I’m concerned with the overall city leadership culture and performance standards (a sanitized way of saying quota) that make otherwise good cops do the wrong thing. It’s a slippery slope when leaders aren’t leading in a moral way. Here’s the DOJ take on it:

“The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

In other words, police officers in Ferguson understand that their job security depends upon those tickets. Sadly, they didn’t have a police chief strong enough or honest enough to stand up. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t alone in that leadership vacuum. The problem is that when you stop looking at tickets or other enforcement as the public safety instrument, and only consider the next “stat”, the person you encounter becomes less an individual and simply a number. I get that problem. I railed against stat-driven policing for years. Here’s the thing. Stats should never be an “outcome”. The only measure of police success should be the absence of crime in a community and the ability to work with the community to achieve that goal. Period.

The problem gets worse as it progresses. The City of Ferguson, like many other communities, sets a fine for minor offenses, with usually steeper, often criminal penalties for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court. Of course, when the cop on patrol stops the person again, they have a job to do. The person has a criminal offense or warrant. What’s the cop supposed to do? They have to arrest. It’s their job. So, then the citizen is booked into jail, and the cycle grows. Again, I get it. But, what is the police officer supposed to do at that point? It’s not the cop that sets the fines or criminalizes behavior. Our representatives pass laws that cops enforce. It’s just the cops who get the brunt of the blame for enforcing society’s rules. True story.

So, otherwise decent cops, just enforce the rules of society. The bad cops use the sketchy culture of a city like Ferguson, in ways that none of us want to acknowledge. But, just like I called on the Black community to face some tough thoughts last time, I challenge law enforcement not to look away. It’s a fact. A subpar or flat out bad cop uses stats as a cover for their bad behavior, and they can get away with it without strong leadership. If all his chain of command cares about is being at the top of the arrest/ticket stats, then nobody cares how the numbers come. I’ve seen it.

That, my friends in blue, is where we have to change. Now. Because the animosity that bad policies and policing sow, by even a few, get blown exponentially out of proportion, and the result is that it makes every cop on the beat less safe. Police officers must have the willing cooperation of the citizens to be effective. Sir Robert Peal said that at the dawn of our profession. With the proliferation of guns and violence in criminals today, that idea has never been more important. Our profession must have the courage to address systemic issues that lead to undesirable behaviors in our ranks. Our badge is a symbol of public trust. We have the responsibility to adhere to the ethics it represents and stand for justice.

11 thoughts on “Lessons of Ferguson-for the good of law enforcement

  1. Great Blog and good points. I too agree that we need to police ourselves for lack of better words. That town could use a B12 policy.. that was good for our agency in the long run. It may not have changed peoples opinions but they damn sure couldn’t bring on the job. I have always been against any kind of stats and quota’s. Also, any monetary benefit on behalf of the City as well… Money should go in the big pot that goes to all city departments, but the police department should not be a contributor of most of the money. It puts too much pressure on people. And people have to survive so someone that normally wouldn’t do those types of things (ie: writing tickets, etc) may feel the pressure. Ferguson has a lot to work on I don’t envy them, the police or the community. It doesn’t look like much improvement is going on over there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are right. Ferguson has a lot of hard work to do, and it’s going to be tough. The fact that people were still protesting after heads rolled and two cops got shot says it all about the hole they’ve got to dig themselves out of. But it has to start with an acknowledgement on both sides. Police have to purge the bad and the community has to stop protecting the violent offenders in their midst. I hope other agencies will proactively take a look inside and not wait for their own horrific event. At the end of the day we’re all in this together.

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  3. Don’t get me started on “stats”! You and I come from the same place on that one. I really enjoy both that you have shown both sides of this issue. Hopefully more people from both sides of the fence can try and take an objective look at these issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Gary. I thought the blog was the best way to speak out and also reach like-minded police and community folks who want to talk about real change. The political talking points aren’t going to accomplish it, this is going to have to be from the ground up. Thanks for reaching out. Let’s chat more.

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  4. Right on target or as our UK friends would say, Spot on! The State of Kentucky did away with local courts in 1976 in great part because of the local budget supporting issues. When I was a patrolman I knew my job was to introduce myself to every resident of the community, one state citation at a time. Even though our PD didn’t receive a penny in revenue from it, it wall went to the state. As my career grew and I had some pretty good instructors and professors along the way my attitude changed. When I finally became Chief I realized the citations were just like anything else in my box, it was a tool. So what’s the overall result I expect from traffic enforcement? Voluntary compliance on the part of the motoring public. So in order to get there, is a payable citation more valuable than a written warning? We have proven that not to be the case in our department. Safety for everyone is our goal.

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    • Thank you for your leadership, Chief. My former chief, as a major, asked me to present similar proposals to our staff, explaining other non-penalizing options for traffic and other minor offenses. Unfortunately, under new leadership, stats became the sole measure of success, when they adopted a compstat like model. My former major is now the chief, so I have hopes for my former agency to regain a moral footing and shed those harmful practices.

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  5. Enjoyed the blog.

    As a former chief and a former traffic officer, I was guided and directed to understand the mission of traffic enforcement as a continuation of the basic police goal of protecting life. In the 21st century, with the ready availability of data, officers can be more easily directed to work on problem accident locations from the engineering, education and enforcement triangle. Ticket not for revenue, but to change driving behavior. Ticket to potentially save lives.

    Police leaders have to step up and lead when our politicians attempt to direct us to the wrong ends.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent points, Neil. Thanks for joining the conversation. One officer responds by issuing tickets, the next officer sits at the corner to deter traffic infractions. Who is to say the second officer isn’t doing just as much for safety? Maybe more. Police leaders have to have the courage to reward the outcome, not the input. Bean counting in the stat world is the lazy way to assess officer’s job performance.

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