Is Controlling Police Now More Important than Crime?

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In the rough and tumble climate of the politics of policing, another chief “bites the dust.”

Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Chicago’s “top cop,” Garry McCarthy. McCarthy had come up through the ranks of the New York PD and then went on to Newark as chief of police. He led the Chicago Police Department for a little over four years. (See Chicago news report HERE.)

Since Ferguson, the playing field for chiefs of police and those whom they lead and serve is slowly shifting and becoming more slippery in our nation’s cities. In the past, the major requirement for police chiefs was that they control eight reported crimes (the number of which has steadily decreased for the most part over the past three decades) to what I believe to be an expectation that a chief of police will build or re-build the trust of the community; that is, essentially, to control police behavior.

It wasn’t too long ago that I heard some inner city residents say that they can tolerate the crime, but not the bad cops; not the shooting of their unarmed children.

I suggest the focus today needs to be away from the number of reported crimes (a shaky statistic in and among itself) to reducing the use of deadly force by our police, holding them accountable for their behavior — that is, things that a police leader can have some effect on and builds the trust of the community.

When it comes to reported crime, a police leader actually has little control over it. You don’t have to be a sociologist to figure out that crime and its occurrence is, for example, more the result of the economy, demographics, availability of legitimate employment opportunities, effectiveness of our educational system, and deciding who gets to possess a gun. I would also add that that what control a chief has over reported crime is more along the line of manipulating crime definitions and data than any crime control strategy.

But what we can and should hold our chiefs accountable for is for them to get rid of dishonest, brutal, violent, and disrespectful cops. And that means having the ability and support to do so. And it is making sure every officer on the department practices “procedural justice;” that is,

  • Treats people with dignity and respect.
  • Gives individuals a “voice” during encounters.
  • Is neutral and transparent in decision making.
  • Conveys trustworthy motives.

How procedural justice or other trust-building behaviors happen is through the unwavering, committed, clear and passionate leadership of the chief of police.

Now here’s the rub: police, like most of us, generally don’t like change, and so they will resist it — at first. Their union or employee organization representatives will say bad things about the chief — he or she is “out of touch,” “puts police officers in danger,” and so forth. They may even cast a vote indicting “lack of support” for their chief, do end-runs around the chief to the mayor’s office, and hold media conferences. In the world of policing these are fairly common change-avoidance actions.

Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent McCarthy.
Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent McCarthy.

All this, of course, will get the mayor (or other appointing authority of the chief) nervous. Police may not live in the city, but they have a significant impact on almost every city’s politics.

Therefore, if we are serious about improving police and their behavior we will have to make sure that the chief can stay around long enough for him or her to do what is expected — to build trust; to have a significant and lasting impact on whether or not the police act with honesty, respect, fairness, and controlled use of force. And all this takes time.

  • In fact, in my experience and observation, it takes 7 to 10 years to implement sustainable change in a police organization.

Now the question before us as we respond to the problem of police mistrust is whether or not we will we have the nerve to put into place police leaders who see themselves as creative change-agents and not just the representative of city business and financial people, but also common work-a-day folk and those who may have been left behind or even disfranchised as to the American Dream — that is to say the chief should not be just one of the “boys and girls in blue,” but also the visible police representative of the people of the city — all of them.

Let us never forget that our system of government is constitutionally-based and predicated upon the assumption we all have that America is to work for all of us, not just a few. And when America is not working for some of us, our values as to their worth will never be diminished but, in fact, protected by our police.

Leading a police department is not for the faint-hearted.

A number of years ago I wrote this in How To Rate Your Local Police:

The police chief should be a visible and accessible leader who thoughtfully strives to improve the effectiveness of police services. The leadership ability of the chief is the single most important ingredient in a good police agency. Police agencies, like all large bureaucracies, tend to resist change. Improvements can be made only if the person at the top is willing to challenge the status quo, take risks, be innovative, and build a coalition of support for change.

Improvements are not automatic with a committed police chief, but they are impossible without one… To make those improvements, the chief must have a clear vision of the agency’s objectives, the role of police in a democratic society, and how to successfully and collaboratively achieve those objectives. Additionally, a police chief must have the vision, self-confidence, persistence, and passion to chart an improvement course and see it through.

  • In order for a police chief to do the work he or she is expected to do, the chief must have job tenure for 7-10 years.
  • The focus on the performance of the chief must be more on the proper and lawful behavior of police officers in carrying out their duties than the number of crimes reported to police.
  • Along with this, an independent survey of the community as to the professional performance of their police is far more important than using the Uniform Crime Report to evaluate the performance of a chief of police and the department.