October 22, 2022

The PERF Town Hall Is Back!


PERF members,

When I bump into chiefs during the course of the year, they inevitably tell me that one of the most anticipated events of the year is the PERF Town Hall. 

The group of chiefs who founded PERF in the 1970s wanted an organization that would embrace debate and discussion on the issues chiefs face, and they started the Town Hall to help accomplish that. It was originally called the Open Forum but became the Town Hall meeting, a name that reminded me of the Norman Rockwell painting of a man standing up and speaking his mind. Real Jeffersonian democracy, where anyone who raises their hand gets to speak.

Those early discussions could get heated, with chiefs like David Couper, Betsy Watson, Patrick V. Murphy, and Neil Behan talking and aspiring chiefs, academics, and government leaders joining in. This was a free marketplace of ideas, where you went to hear new ones and to knock down old ones.

That seminar nature of those early conversations has evolved over the years into a larger conversation where we hear many perspectives. What’s unique about the Town Hall is that many attendees have been “in the room” throughout their careers — first as curious and ambitious rising police leaders, then as chiefs or sheriffs, and lastly as those who have begun “Chapter 2” careers. It is genuinely a learning environment where triumphs and mistakes are openly shared. 

For example, I remember when Norm Stamper discussed the missteps in the police response to the Seattle demonstrations in 1999. Or we would look at the rollout of new technologies; sometimes manufacturers would promise one thing and something quite different would happen in the field, and the Town Hall was the one place where someone facing a troubling issue could find that they weren’t the only department affected.   

I have spoken with a number of chiefs over the years who discovered the Town Hall and watched as iconoclastic chiefs talked openly about their successes and failures. And new chiefs or rising stars in a department could challenge conventional thinking and introduce a new idea or spark a debate about an accepted practice. In short, the Town Hall has become the one place where we all feel like a family that learns from each other.

I have enjoyed moderating these forums, which give people who are quietly making a name for themselves in their own communities an opportunity to gain wider visibility. PERF staff take weeks to gather information and prepare me for what I consider the best part of being involved in PERF.

During this year’s Town Hall — our first at the IACP conference in three years — attendees took on tough issues such as police suicide, consent decrees, and whether community policing is actually working. Here’s just some of what we discussed:

ATF Director Steven Dettelbach

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in recent national history, which took the lives of at least 58 people in Las Vegas. Speaking about the likelihood of another tragedy occurring on such a scale, ATF Director Steven Dettelbach said that it is even more of a possibility today.

America has experienced over 500 mass shootings this past year, according to Dettelbach, as we have seen the proliferation of gun-modification devices similar to the now-banned bump stocks used by the Las Vegas gunman. These conversion devices all share the same function: to allow firearms to fire automatically, thus becoming more dangerous.

The use of 3-D printers makes such devices available to criminals in a matter of minutes. In response, ATF has trained more than 5,000 members of state and local law enforcement to recognize these devices, which are often difficult to identify.

As the nation faces such a challenge to public safety, I asked Director Dettelbach what sort of legacy he hopes to leave as head of the ATF. He identified three key points: making sure everyone knows the incredible work being done by the men and women of ATF to protect the public, expanding partnerships with state and local agencies, and never allowing Americans to grow callous to the gun violence that kills 109 people each day.

Some of the most powerful moments in the Town Hall came in our discussion of officer suicide, a complex and difficult issue. When an officer dies by suicide, can we determine what role trauma associated with their job might have played? How should police departments classify deaths by suicide in terms of death benefits and funeral honors? Could treating suicides as line-of-duty deaths have unintended and tragic consequences? There are no easy answers to these questions.

A number of PERF members spoke out, including former Philadelphia Commissioner Chuck Ramsey, Nikki Smith-Kea, who is a Stoneleigh Fellow at the Philadelphia Police Department, Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief of Staff Ben Haiman, and Seattle Police Executive Director of Legal Affairs Rebecca Boatright. Town Hall participants discussed these issues and why it’s so important for departments to reduce the stigma that can discourage officers from seeking mental health care.

Newark, NJ Deputy Mayor and Minneapolis Police Chief nominee Brian O’Hara, Cleveland Deputy Chief Harold Pretel, Chicago Superintendent David Brown, Baltimore Commissioner and PERF President Michael Harrison, Phoenix Interim Chief Michael Sullivan, and Aurora, CO Interim Chief Dan Oates

The conversation around consent decrees can be a difficult one, especially for agencies subject to their demands. Departments operating under consent decrees have to implement reforms — which requires changes in policy, technology, and training — while also meeting their ongoing challenges of delivering services and driving down crime.

At our Town Hall meeting, we heard from several departments in various stages of the consent decree process. Some are still being investigated, while others have agreements in place, either with the federal government or the state, and are working to come into compliance.

Departments that want to avoid a consent decree would be wise to examine the agreements that other departments have entered into. No department should be surprised at what changes a consent decree might require — there are common themes in these documents. In 2013 PERF published a report on consent decrees, Civil Rights Investigations of Local Police: Lessons Learned, which covers many of these issues and is still relevant today.

Clearwater, FL Chief Dan Slaughter

Clearwater Chief Dan Slaughter, who also serves as PERF’s Vice President, discussed some challenges he’s had with his department’s communications center.

“In trying to deal with [communications center] staffing problems, I found the communications center hadn’t evolved as much as the rest of the police department,” Chief Slaughter said. “It wasn’t necessarily a learning organization. It wasn’t adapting and leveraging a new generation of employee. We were seeing increasing turnover, which we were trying to solve with more overtime, which created more turnover, which created more overtime. It created a spiral.”

“We instituted some changes,” Chief Slaughter continued. “We restructured the training. We restructured the compensation package. With inflation, if we paid $15 per hour, people could go work at Starbucks for one dollar less and not have people yelling at them on the phone. And we had rigid, poorly designed scheduling system that gave all the preferred shifts to those with seniority. So I had new people coming in who never got a weekend off. Our communications staff need our support, and we need to overcommunicate with them and invest in them.”

Members of the National Police of Ukraine

We were honored to be joined by ten members of the National Police of Ukraine, and First Deputy Chief Sergiy Panteleyev gave a powerful presentation on war crime investigations after the Russian invasion. The agency is going to great lengths under horrific circumstances to ensure all crimes committed on Ukrainian soil are fully investigated. Sergiy and the other members of the National Police have endured the unthinkable over the past eight months, and they have continued to do their jobs with bravery and professionalism. I’m very grateful to them for sharing their experience.

First Deputy Chief Sergiy Panteleyev, National Police of Ukraine

Several federal officials addressed the Town Hall, including:

CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus on the rewards and challenges of heading CBP:

“The best part is getting to know the people at every level of the organization. I’ve gotten out to our different sectors and ports of entry, even in some of the toughest locations, and these folks are really amazing. And they have a really tough job. The worst part is trying to make things happen and be a progressive change agent in a highly politicized environment. I thought I knew what that looked like in local government . . . but this takes politics to a whole other level.”

NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne

National Institute of Justice Director Nancy La Vigne on community policing:

“A lot of people talk about and treat the community as though it’s a monolith. . . . We know that that’s just not true. Even within small geographies, there’s diversity of opinion, and there’s diversity of interest in whether they want more policing or less. . . . The traditional survey methodologies tend to underrepresent the people who, I would argue, matter most in the context of community trust in the police, and those are people in the highest-crime, most heavily policed communities.”

BJA Principal Deputy Director Kristen Mahoney

BJA Principal Deputy Director Kristen Mahoney on crime reduction:

“[If local police departments need assistance,] they can call us and we can get our National Training and Technical Assistance Center to be on-site doing a violent crime strategic review. We can review some of your core competencies in investigations, Constitutional policing, and crime analysis and technology, and leave you with an assessment of where you’re strong and where you need to grow.”

COPS Office Acting Director Robert Chapman

Robert Chapman, Acting Director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, on how the COPS Office supports community policing across the country:

“We like to be able to provide flexible funding, to allow agencies to incubate good ideas, because we know that the very best ideas come from the local level . . . . [We make funding] as flexible as possible for agencies to tailor those federal resources in a way that is going to advance their community policing work. . . .  We want to collect those good ideas, support them, and then at the end of the day, try to understand the implementation lessons learned and package those up for the rest of the profession because we know that in the very best way possible, the field learns from itself.”

Chattanooga, TN Chief Celeste Murphy, Seattle Chief Adrian Diaz, Tucson Chief Chad Kasmar, Santa Monica, CA Chief Ramon Batista, and Madison, WI Chief Shon Barnes

First meeting of the PERF Immigration Group

The PERF Immigration Group held its inaugural meeting on Monday, with those in Dallas attending in person and others attending virtually. The group will work to share the perspectives of local police and sheriffs’ departments on immigration-related issues with policymakers. These issues may include increases in asylum seekers in cities; trafficking of guns, drugs, and people through the border; immigrants being targeted for victimization because they are afraid to report crimes; and conflicting immigration-related policies in cities and counties. Look for more information from this group, including a survey of all PERF members, in the coming months.

The PERF booth in operation

Rebecca Neuburger, part of PERF’s Executive Search Team

Research Associate Danielle Fenimore, Senior Research Assistant Zoe Mack, and Chief of Staff Laura Wyckoff

PERF Executive Assistant Soline Simenauer

Thanks to Soline Simenauer and the many other PERF staff who organized the Town Hall, built and manned the PERF booth, and in many other ways contributed to our participation in this year’s IACP Conference.