Over the past several years, America’s law enforcement community has been confronted with an array of challenges. Violent crime rates have increased in many major cities across the country, though in others, police departments are effectively maintaining crime rates at, or near, historic lows.
Police Foundation and Major Cities Chiefs Association, “Reducing Violent Crime in American Cities: An Opportunity to Lead,” January 2017, https://www.policefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/PF-MCCA_Reducing-Violent-Crime-in-American-Cities_FullReport_RGB.pdf(accessed May 3, 2017).
Immigration concerns have grown more complex. Throughout, agency budgets have tightened. At the same time, hostile narratives have emerged in mainstream and social media, which encourage antipathy toward police and paint American law enforcement as “systemically racist.” These accusations attempt to characterize modern policing based on the undisputed fact that throughout much of this nation’s history, police were often tasked with enforcing racist laws and sometimes enforced laws in a racially discriminatory manner, which has left an indelible impression in some communities. The high volume of consent decrees handed out by the Department of Justice under prior Administrations, alleging patterns or practices of excessive force and other violations of citizens’ constitutional rights, has only exacerbated this misrepresentation of today’s police. The predictable result has been friction between police departments and the communities they serve, which has occasionally erupted in violent protests and targeted attacks on law enforcement officers.
Throughout, the police have had few allies. City officials have often been quick to give in to political pressure, blaming officers and calling for prosecutions before investigations are complete and the facts are known. Fearing for their careers and reputations, many police officers are hesitating or ceasing to engage in discretionary enforcement activities, although this is not common to all departments. Some are leaving the force altogether, while potential recruits are opting not to join, contributing to staffing shortfalls. Mischaracterizations of highly successful law enforcement techniques, such as stop-question-and-frisk (“Terrystops”), deny these tools to officers. In the final analysis, anti-police rhetoric has left Americans, particularly those living in low-income communities and minority communities, more at risk.
This prevailing narrative belies major successes and innovations in law enforcement across the country, as well as long-term declines in crime rates, which are now being threatened by some of the developments discussed in this Special Report. The Trump Administration is setting new federal law enforcement priorities, including establishing a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, to focus on reducing violent crime and supporting police. All these factors make this a pivotal moment for American policing and the communities these officers serve.
The Heritage Foundation assembled a diverse group of professionals with extensive background in federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as representatives from police unions and national law enforcement organizations, for a Policing Strategy Summit in March 2017. The meeting had three principal objectives:
- Identify the most pressing problems that law enforcement agencies face today, including the breakdown in trust, adequacy of training, proper use of new technologies, media and community relations, and the gathering and sharing of data.
- Identify the best practices and most innovative approaches that law enforcement authorities are employing to address these problems and combat crime.
- Identify the most effective means of communicating with the public and political leaders, building trust and improving police–community relations, and bringing the needs and concerns
- of police agencies to the attention of federal officials.
The summit was attended by some of the nation’s leading and most-experienced law enforcement professionals. The following is a list of summit participants. Some requested anonymity and are consequently not listed here.
The following represents the proceedings of the Policing Strategy Summit. It does not necessarily reflect the views of specific attendees or organizations but seeks to capture the wide-ranging discussion that took place at the summit.
Allegations of “Systemic Racism” Are False and Harmful
- Some attendees agreed that the concept of broad “systemic racism” in law enforcement is a damaging, false narrative that undermines public support for policing. Others felt it important to acknowledge and address past wrongs and prior grievances to improve race relations.
- Some attendees were critical of the position taken by the Justice Department under past Administrations that police are “systemically racist” for using data-driven policing. Most attendees noted this was an inaccurate portrayal of police tactics, for several reasons:
- Police are deployed based on data derived from citizen complaints and other calls for service, and where crimes are committed—much of which occurs in minority communities.
- Police stops can usually be correlated with descriptions that victims or other witnesses provided to the police.
- The Justice Department nevertheless used this data to suggest that these police enforcement practices are racist, which is not the case.
- Some attendees felt that law enforcement agencies need to explain to the news media and the public the truth about data-driven policing, which is based on objective information. What is too often painted as racially motivated policing is simply responding to fact-driven data.
- Some attendees felt that law enforcement agencies need to be more forthright and transparent about past injustices (real or perceived) and need to do a better job explaining to the public why they use the tactics they use.
- Some attendees felt that the number of consent decrees set in place by prior Administrations, and the fanfare surrounding them, feeds the narrative that police abuse civil rights and cannot be trusted, which in turn reduces citizen cooperation.
- Some attendees felt that the “War on Cops” and the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as other groups) have had a criminogenic effect. Adverse publicity about policing causes some officers to refrain from taking action when minor laws are broken, or when they are intimidated by the fear of negative publicity or a hostile reaction from bystanders. The so-called Ferguson effect discourages proactive policing and ultimately results in more crime.
Countering False Narratives
- Attendees expressed concern that police departments were losing control of the narrative to those with anti-police agendas. To counter this trend, police departments should:
- Develop strategies around marketing, branding, and media relations that promote community trust and transparency in their organizations.
- Craft their own message so that they have better control of the narrative. The typical law enforcement officer faces danger just as the average soldier does, yet the military vastly outspends the police in campaigns designed to enhance its reputation among the public and recruit personnel.
- Refrain from relying on the mainstream media to relay information to the public. Police are not equipped to compete against mainstream media groups that engage in anti-police advocacy, but political leaders—including mayors, governors, and the President—can help to counteract that narrative.
- Most attendees believe that the concept of the “nonviolent drug offender” is one of the most damaging false narratives in policing today.
- Violence often accompanies drug dealing, usually because of turf wars over “territory” and, of course, the ever-present risk of overdose. Violence is also used by major drug traffickers to intimidate or kill witnesses.
- Numerous murders, particularly in major American cities, have been directly related to drug trafficking.
- Police departments need to explain law enforcement policies and procedures to the public, and sell them on the benefits, such as the importance of getting illegal guns off the streets. Stop-question-and-frisk is an illustrative example of this. Police lost control of the narrative and lost a powerful law enforcement tool in the process.
- Anti-law enforcement advocates successfully removed the “question” portion of this term, which alters the public’s understanding of what the police are actually doing. The public now believes that the police are simply stopping people and immediately frisking them, which is not the case. The reality is that when police stop people, they talk to them; the officer will frisk the individual only after developing an articulable suspicion that he or she may be armed.
- The low numbers of guns discovered in stops in recent years are used to portray the practice as abusive,
As examples of this line of critique,see Emily Badger, “12 Years of Data from New York City Suggest Stop-and-Frisk Wasn’t that Effective,” The Washington Post, August 21, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/21/12-years-of-data-from-new-york-city-suggest-stop-and-frisk-wasnt-that-effective/?utm_term=.eb783a1659a0 (accessed August 3, 2017), and Leah Libresco, “It Takes a Lot of Stop-And-Frisks to Find One Gun,” FiveThirtyEight, June 3, 2015, https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/it-takes-a-lot-of-stop-and-frisks-to-find-one-gun/ (accessed May 3, 2017).
but the low numbers are, in all likelihood, proof of the effectiveness of the stops—demonstrating the deterrent effect of this law enforcement technique on criminals who would otherwise carry guns.
The Police Need Political Support
- Police desperately need political leaders who support law enforcement. The role of mayors and local governing boards are important to building and sustaining public support for the police.
- Too often, police officers are blamed in questionable cases involving police encounters in which a civilian gets hurt, because of political or community pressure on prosecuting agencies. Political leaders are also quick to criticize law enforcement officials before all the facts are known, which makes displaying hostility and resisting the police seem more acceptable to some. Likewise, some cities are willing to settle civil cases with the alleged victims of a police–civilian encounter before all the facts are known. Political expediency comes at a price. Political leaders ought to tell citizens that it is a good thing to support and cooperate with the police.
- Officers often feel isolated and are afraid that if they are ever “out on a limb,” someone will cut it off. This results in low morale, causing retention problems that must be addressed. Demoralized police are also less effective.
- The importance of police to the vitality of cities needs to be understood. City governments expend significant resources on public infrastructure, such as parks, roads, and schools, but these go unused—and often become dangerous places—if not adequately protected. Police are necessary for any plans involving infrastructure.
- Too much has been placed on the shoulders of law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are the only professionals who make house calls, confront people on the street, and are expected to address homelessness, joblessness, and mental illness in communities, all at the same time. The police were never intended to serve as an instrument to address every social ill. There is an opportunity to recalibrate the priorities of law enforcement, and to give them the tools and the training they need to address some of these issues.
Improving Police–Community Relations
- Police are the face of the entire criminal justice system and represent more than just their individual department.
- Attendees saw a need to address the cultural shift in attitudes towards police and the need to educate citizens on how to de-escalate the situation during a police stop or “terry stop”. We ought to teach people that it is unacceptable to run from the police. To accomplish this goal, attendees recommended developing public outreach and education programs that familiarize the public—particularly young people—with the police, and teach them about police procedures, as well as how to interact with officers when they are stopped or pulled over. Attendees suggested the following:
- Driver’s education courses expanded to cover appropriate interactions with officers during a traffic stop.
- Police visits to schools, such as the “Officer Friendly” program, and interactive programs designed for young people, such as the “Law & Your Community” program.
National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, “The Law & Your Community Program,” http://noblenational.org/noble-programs/the-law-your-community/(accessed May 3, 2017).
- Sending police representatives to Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings to communicate with parents.
- Building trust requires ongoing communication with community groups, leaders, and the public.
- Effective communication can help police to develop allies as well as temper the community’s expectations about what police are able to accomplish and how long it will take them to do their work. Departments should expand their use of social media as a means of providing accurate information about, and soliciting the public’s assistance with respect to, specific incidents that occur.
- It is important to ensure that residents of a community know what is being done to address crime in their area, including publicizing arrests and convictions.
- The public needs to be made aware of the burdens associated with consent decrees, as well as with zero-tolerance policies that divert resources from investigating serious offenses to make arrests in low-level cases. When a member of a community sees an officer arrest someone for a relatively low-level offense and then leave the neighborhood for a long time while more serious crimes occur, it can seem as if the police are unconcerned about the quality of life in that neighborhood. People do not realize that it takes officers a long time to process an arrestee and to fill out all the attendant paperwork, including reporting requirements under consent decrees.
Effective Crime-Fighting and Prevention Strategies
- Effective crime-fighting and crime reduction require a holistic approach. Performance metrics should include not just crime reduction but also other measures that reflect how the efforts of the police contribute to the overall quality of life for citizens, whether in urban, suburban, or rural jurisdictions.
- This holistic approach should include measurements of income levels, property values, number of complaints received, use of public spaces, and other measures of economic vitality.
- Public information should also describe the “good things” that police do, not enforcement actions alone.
- Police leaders should promote results-oriented policing and crime reduction, using techniques and programs such as COMPSTAT (short for “Compare Statistics”), described by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as “a performance management system that is used to reduce crime and achieve other police department goals.” COMPSTAT emphasizes improving information sharing, responsibility and accountability, and effectiveness. It includes four generally recognized core components:
1.“Timely and accurate information or intelligence;
“Rapid deployment of resources;
2. Effective tactics; and
Bureau of Justice Assistance and Police Executive Research Forum, COMPSTAT: Its Origins, Evolution, and Future In Law Enforcement Agencies, 2013, http://www.policeforum.org/assets/docs/Free_Online_Documents/Compstat/compstat%20-20its%20origins%20evolution%20and%20future%20in%20law%20enforcement%20agencies%202013.pdf(accessed May 3, 2017).
- Collecting data and establishing performance metrics are extremely important in order to provide accountability.
- Police departments should focus data collection and performance metrics on areas they wish to emphasize and areas in need of improvement.
- Thorough data collection will also better enable law enforcement agencies to explain their actions to the public.
- Community policing is a vital part of any effective crime-prevention program. Police departments need to get back to a structure that ties particular officers to particular neighborhoods, so they can develop a familiarity with, and relationships within, that neighborhood, thereby building trust. It is important for a patrol officer to get to know the community to which he is assigned, so that he can better distinguish between the kid who is returning home from the basketball court and the guy who is on the street selling drugs.
- Using intelligence-driven processes, police and prosecutors should focus on identifying and capturing the worst offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate number of violent crimes within a community. Too often, prosecutors will not push for pretrial detention, and judges will allow dangerous individuals to remain in the community, which enables them to continue committing crimes and intimidating witnesses. There is an over-reliance on GPS tracking to monitor the movements of someone accused of committing a serious crime. Faith in tracking is misplaced, since individuals have been known to disable or remove such devices. Too often, prosecutors will plea bargain with dangerous, repeat offenders, allowing them to plead to relatively minor charges, thereby enabling them to return to the streets quickly and commit more crimes.
- Some attendees felt that a key to policing, and especially enforcement, is procedural justice: The idea that how a police officer does something is just as important as what he does. Once someone is stopped and the tactical situation is over, officers have an opportunity to have a conversation with the person about what the officer is doing, and why. Treating people with respect through such explanations results in improved understanding by, and can even engender gratitude from, those being stopped.
- Best practices, whether developed among police departments or by the Justice Department, need to consider the costs of innovations, such as storage for photographs and videos resulting from increased body and stationary camera use.
- Body-worn cameras are sweeping into policing, and the objective video footage they capture helps both police and communities understand the professional actions of law enforcement personnel. The evidence collected by body-worn cameras can help exonerate police officers who are wrongly accused and can also help weed out the few “bad apples” in police departments.
About the author: Scott Bernstein is the CEO of Global Security International LLC headquartered in NYC. He has extensive experience as a Counterterrorist Consultant, International Apprehension Operative, Human & Sex Trafficking Expert and a Military and Law Enforcement Trainer. He is available as a Consultant and as a Speaker. In addition to his LinkedIn profile, you can also interact with Scott on his LinkedIn group http://bit.ly/1LMp2hj.
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