I know we’ve been saying we engage with the community, but it hasn’t really been true for a while now. When I was a new cop in the 90’s our agency fully embraced the concept of community policing. The program was flexible, allowing maximum latitude for innovative approaches tailored to each neighborhood.
Many departments across the country were similarly engaged in fantastic work that fell well outside the definition of what we’d come to know as police work—arrest as the primary response. Part of community policing thinking was the much-heralded Broken Windows Theory emphasizing quality of life (QOL) crimes. Crime fell to historic lows, and correspondingly, police deaths and police shootings fell as well. It was working on paper.
Then came a new century, and in our genuine desire to improve, American policing adopted a new strategy for fighting crime—statistical based policing. The most visible example is NYPD’s COMPSTAT, but almost all of us bought into the stat theory. On the surface, it seemed like a perfect idea. Map your city’s crime and calls for service in order to identify problem areas and more effectively deploy cops. Commanders were armed with real data to attack the problems in their areas. And it worked. Crime continued to decline. We were all feeling good about ourselves. Saturation of crime-ridden neighborhoods made citizens feel safer, and the statistics gave law enforcement leaders an easy way to graph progress and see productivity in individual officers.
When the economy tanked a whole host of societal issues got worse. Budgets were slashed and cops were now asked to handle a lot of non-police related calls. Homelessness, poverty, and mental illness became problems society expected our police to handle. We ignored the many complicated solutions necessary to actually solve these problems. It was far easier to pass vagrancy laws and dial 911 when those people made us uncomfortable in our public spaces. It seemed to line up with the broken windows philosophy, but police handled the problem as we always had: Arrests. That was good because arrests fed the statistical beast. We taught a whole new generation of officers they would be judged on their numbers, not whether crime went down in their zone. Not quotas mind you—quotas are illegal. Nevertheless, cops now knew what was expected of them.
Everything was going great until we got addicted to the numbers.
Politicians, including elected sheriffs and appointed chiefs realized that touting big arrest and ticket numbers made them look tough on crime. Numbers became the go-to answer for accountability. In short, we incentivized punitive actions. In my former agency, this was the formula for officer performance:
Tickets written + Arrests made ÷Hours worked =Performance ratio
The problem with making numbers the engine of policing is two truths:
- Crime will never be driven to zero.
- Numbers and statistics can be manipulated to support whatever you want.
Given these realities, it was inevitable that leaders who continued to press for better numbers—lower reported crimes and higher officer activity—would eventually chafe against both the street cops and the citizens they serve.
We’d already sold everyone on numbers as the answer to everything, so we ignored those tensions and doubled down. This created a systemic problem of “numbers worship” that tells cops that it’s not about humanity, only numbers tallied on the page. That puts cops in conflict with the communities they serve because in a numbers-only system, the criminal traffic “arrest” or the quality of life misdemeanors are the same as an assault or theft arrest that actually clears a crime. The results have been documented in many studies and articles, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily these arrests can be concentrated in poor neighborhoods. It’s called low-hanging fruit, the easiest way for an otherwise well-meaning officer to stay in management’s good graces.
When officers need numbers, the easiest place is in the poor, higher crime neighborhoods. I want to be clear, most cops do this out of a desire to do a good job. I would argue they honestly believe that if they stop people in the higher crime neighborhood, they achieve two objectives: increase their productivity and address crime. What’s actually true, however, is simply increasing numbers as productivity doesn’t work. The officer’s activity must be problem solving activity. We cannot send a mixed message. Law enforcement leaders must be clear that the goal is crime reduction and community relations, by rewarding the absence of crime as benchmarks of success. If we say we value crime reduction, and then continue to reward number tallies regardless of effectiveness, credibility is lost with both officers and citizens. Officers have to know the values of the department and how that translates into how they do their job.
Here’s what happens without solid values leadership: Look again at the formula above. Officers get the message that numbers of tickets and arrests are all that matter. So, they know that somewhere in their busy day, along with taking radio calls for everything under the sun, they must build in time to ticket and arrest. That is the officer’s problem to solve, and human nature is to solve problems in the easiest way. Back to the high-crime (usually minority) neighborhood, where the officer knows she can find a quick stat. With everyone fishing in the same pond, and a young black male gets stopped for his bike light five times in one night, he’s pissed off. That officer, even if he’s polite, becomes the enemy. The police become oppressors.
This antagonism builds, adding to other natural conflicts between law enforcement over arrests that are perfectly legitimate. Too often, police take the position that they don’t have to explain anything; another missed opportunity to engage citizens. Without open communication, anger simmers and festers, increasing the likelihood of tensions and danger to the next officer who responds to that neighborhood. When everyone is on edge and amped up, no one is safe. Our rigid, arrest-driven approach had serious unintended consequences. Angering the citizens we serve.
When that anger boils up in communities who have historically experienced the worst in biased and brutal policing, it’s not hard to see why violence and resistance result. Statistics also show that these communities are over-policed in small crimes and traffic offenses, while under served in violent crimes. Frustration and mistrust are the direct result. Without trust between communities and their police, we know the results are devastating for citizens and officers.
As Dallas Police Chief Brown so eloquently stated, “We are asking too much of cops.” We must come to the realization that policing is one of the most critical components of our democracy. No other profession has as much authority at their discretion. A cop can take your freedom or your life in a second. Likewise, the officer can lose their life when a call goes bad. It’s too important to our safety to ignore what’s going on. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that voting down the one-cent tax increase doesn’t have real consequences. Shrinking budgets force police leaders to eliminate training and adopt policies like those discussed here in an honest, but misguided effort to improve efficiency.
Policing will always be at once revered and reviled. It is the nature of the business. There is much work to do, but the answer is not to sow seeds of discontent and division. Stoking the fires of anger and fear in the name of supporting law enforcement is unfortunate and anti-productive. We need calm, focused leadership unafraid to partner with any citizen who wants to work for solutions. We are the professionals. What’s needed is a culture change that values life and measures crime reduction as performance.
Radical action is needed and police must take the first steps. Numbers put us at war with the citizens we serve and it’s time to end it. Acknowledge our faults and be willing to listen, even if we disagree with the speaker. Change our outlook from the us-versus-them mentality to real outreach and respect for the community. Cops and citizens know the stakes have never been higher. Right now, in the midst of the horrific violence and confusion and mistrust and fear, one thing is certain: We cannot shout or shoot our way out of this problem.