Stay on the side of right

The news in the past few days has been filled with the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and tough guy Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who is selling a new book. I’ve seen praise over the past couple of years from law enforcement officers and former colleagues for both of these men. There is this narrative that they represent tough, no-nonsense leadership that make them the quintessential cop’s cops.

Are these guys who we really want to emulate?

I know it’s easy to get caught up in the tough guy rhetoric. So, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the men being touted as the example for law enforcement to follow. That way we can ask again if these are our values.

As sheriff in Maricopa County, Arpaio famously bragged that his tent city jail was a concentration camp. Investigations since the mid-90’s have exposed extreme abuses in Arapaio’s jails, where even paraplegics demanding catheters in order to urinate are physically abused. People who require insulin or other medication for survival are denied and some die as a result. You can read more about the abuses at his jails here.

But let’s move on to his street law enforcement abuses. Arapaio ordered the arrest of reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like. He fabricated an assassination attempt on his life, trying to frame a convict for the non-existent crime. He said he considered the comparisons of his department to the Klan as an honor.

These shocking cases pale in comparison to Arpaio’s most far-reaching and devastating attack on the rule of law, professionalism, and integrity in law enforcement practice. In Arpaio’s county, race wasn’t one factor in a law enforcement reasonable suspicion for a stop, the way most law-abiding cops do their jobs. In Arpaio’s world, racial profiling is the only factor necessary for a stop. Officers only need to say the individual “looks like an illegal immigrant.”

These are the reasons that the Bush DOJ opened investigations to the sheriff. Arpaio has been well known as a sheriff who consistently violates constitutional rights. It might fun to wax poetic about what a great world it would be if we could ignore the pesky laws that govern police behavior and just stop anyone we want at any time. Message boards abound with posts about how working for Sheriff Joe would be great. But, no upstanding cop with integrity should be defending the actions by this thug masquerading as a lawman.

In Milwaukee, Clarke’s dubious resume isn’t quite as long, but he also has many complaints racked up, including an inmate who died of thirst after deputies turned off the water to his cell. He became furious when a man on a flight “disrespected him” and had deputies, including a K9, meet the man when he disembarked from the plane in Milwaukee. He said the man threatened him. No charges were filed.

These men attract lots of attention for their bluster and bravado, but nothing about their actions or words are helpful to law enforcement. Police departments rely on good community relationships in order to effectively solve crime, and more importantly, cops need good relationships for their personal safety day to day. Cheering civil rights violations and abusive behavior is not the path to improved community relations. If we truly believe and worry about the dangers for cops in our current national discourse, then we should reject the rhetoric of these kinds of leaders.

We need to be very careful in the way we show our commitment to our profession. Cop’s support for abusive and illegal policies should be a red flag to all who care about our future. Police have to stand on the side of the constitution, because that is the foundation of our freedom. When cops are willing to encourage civil rights abuses and thuggish behavior from so-called real lawmen in some twisted need for validation of our worth, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Blind loyalty in our ranks has never been the answer.

Good cops know the difference between right and wrong. Stay on the side of right.

Be safe.

Numbers started this war with citizens

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:

  1. Crime will never be driven to zero.
  2. 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.

Peace.

Leading from the bottom

 

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale

The forced resignation of the police chief in San Francisco caused a bit of a stir in law enforcement circles recently. Chief Suhr follows a string of such actions, including the high-profile Superintendent in Chicago, and Chiefs in Baltimore and Ferguson. Chief Suhr and the others had long and distinguished careers by many accounts, and it is not my intention to disparage or throw stones at these men personally. However, it seems painfully obvious that doing business according to the status quo that has existed for decades is no longer working—for cops or the community.

In these contentious times, we need communication and leadership above all else. Policing in a democracy means change will always come as the public’s attitudes change over time. That’s reality. Law enforcement must always be flexible to adapt to those shifts, and leadership is supposed to drive change in a positive way. For instance, the 1966 Miranda ruling radically changed the rules for questioning suspects. No doubt, the chorus of doomsday predictors back then asserted that cops would never get another confession or make another case. Wrong. We worked smarter, adapted and got better at our jobs. We were fast and loose with stop and frisk, touting ever-increasing arrest and ticket numbers, but now we have to refocus on quality not quantity. Changes in pursuit policies and a host of other issues hasn’t ended law enforcement as we know it.

Our current reality is the proliferation of videos in our technology age that can celebrate outstanding police work, but also unfortunately exposes bad police behavior for the entire world to see. It’s not that those minorities of officers weren’t always there in our ranks, it’s just now harder to hide or ignore. That’s where we are today. So, law enforcement leaders have two choices: Rise to the occasion and drive positive change or lash out at anyone remotely questioning procedures and reinforce the status quo. Sadly, too many in leadership positions have chosen the latter.

The law enforcement leaders railing against any suggestion of change are not helping to bridge this divide with the community. I’ve seen these public servants say things like, “cops are afraid to do their jobs”, “cops are in a fetal position”, “cops are going to start sitting under trees”, or really incendiary things like “the mayor has blood on his hands”. Even the FBI Director has inferred that crime is rising because cops feel under attack. I have to shake my head. Some of these same leaders are the ones who sold the myth of statistical utopia, which pitted street officers against the communities they serve to begin with. Yes, these are difficult and stressful times, but fanning the flames and giving excuses to reactionaries who resist any change is not the answer. Lashing out against anyone who questions policing is not the answer. That’s not leadership.

Leadership requires honest self-examination and assessment for growth. Leadership requires that we reach across divides and listen to the communities we serve. Leadership urges the best officers to continue to do their best in spite of the noise around them, by reaffirming support for good work. We can’t partner with citizens if we continue to only look for blame externally rejecting any suggestion of self-critique or improvement. Criminals do kill more black citizens than police ever will. Yes. But that doesn’t excuse any cop from crossing the line. Law enforcement leaders need to re-evaluate and address our own shortcomings, not just whine about exposure of what we’d rather not have the public know. It is a shame that some in high-profile positions take such small-minded and defeatist attitudes. Their public statements pander to the worst behaviors, rather than the highest ideals of our profession. It’s lazy and wrong.

Forget leading from behind, that’s leading from the bottom.