July 25, 2020


This Is a Defining Moment for Policing

Dear PERF members, 

The last four months have been exhausting for police chiefs, and for police officers.

First there was COVID-19, the public health calamity that completely upended the lives of everyone, including the police. Suddenly police were being tasked with enforcing new rules on social distancing, and chiefs had to quickly implement measures to protect their officers against being infected.

Second, the COVID crisis caused an economic recession, which has thrown police budgets out the window.

And third, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, captured on video, became the public image, the definition of policing in the United States.

A lot of the chiefs I talk to every day are feeling challenged, or even bewildered. I think it’s confusing because the three crises are occurring simultaneously, and are having mixed and overlapping impacts.

But there are some assumptions going around that really don’t make sense to me. I’ll mention two of them:

Assumption #1:  “What’s wrong with policing is that police are being tasked with too many things, like responding to calls that are really about mental illness, or homelessness, or drug addiction.”

The killing of George Floyd was a terrible crime. But I don’t see how that reprehensible act had anything to do with police responding to issues like homelessness and drug addiction.  It just seems like a non-sequitur.

It’s true that today’s police officers perform a lot of work they didn’t use to do. There was a time when police didn’t try to help people experiencing homelessness.  And it’s only in the last few years that police have saved thousands of lives by administering naloxone to heroin addicts who are within seconds of dying from an overdose.

But it’s a good thing that police are doing these things.  Police should not be asked to stop performing these humanitarian missions.

Yes, police already work with social service agencies, and they are happy to receive any additional help they can get from drug treatment providers, homelessness case workers, and mental health experts.

But when the call comes in at 3 a.m. about a person on the street overdosing on fentanyl, chances are it will be the police (or fire or EMS workers) who will respond.  If drug treatment agencies want to start putting employees on call 24-7, so they can be summoned at any time of day or night to help with these calls, that’s great.  But the police will probably still be first on the scene, because police are already on the streets at 3 a.m.

Assumption #2:  Policing can’t be reformed, so the only solution is to just defund police agencies. With fewer officers, we’ll see fewer bad incidents.

Many police agencies have implemented significant reforms on issues like use of force. But with 18,000 police departments in the country, 75% of which have fewer than 25 officers, there’s still a lot of work to do, especially in small departments that can’t afford to conduct training programs on the new tactics on use of force and the response to critical incidents.

But when did reform efforts simply get dropped from the agenda?  How will defunding fix any problems?

I think it makes much more sense to say we need a major national investment in implementing reforms – many of which we have already identified, such as stricter use-of-force policies. PERF has already done a lot of work in this area, with our “PERF 30” and ICAT training.  We know that things like policies against shooting at cars, tight rules on police pursuits, and creating a duty to intervene can make a huge difference. We need to invest in these types of reforms in a larger number of agencies.

Unintended Consequences

I believe that most critics of the police are well-intentioned, and there’s no question that reforms are needed. But some of the ideas being floated, and in some cases are already being enacted, will have unintended consequences.

For example, when people call for “defunding” police departments, they don’t realize that in most departments, about 90% of the budget goes to personnel costs, and 10% goes to everything else.

So when police chiefs are told to make a big cut, they generally try to save patrol as much as possible, which means they have to decimate programs like training, which is exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to implement new policies and reforms. 

Or if chiefs go in the other direction, and cut personnel, it’s “last hired, first fired.” So it’s the youngest officers who are let go – the very officers who tend to be the most racially diverse, and the ones who are often most comfortable with new ideas, new technologies, and big changes.

So defunding can make reform and change twice as hard to accomplish.

Similarly, legislating police tactics, such as New York City’s new law that essentially prohibits officers from putting a knee on someone’s back when they are forced to go “hands on” in making an arrest, is likely to backfire.  Officers will be reluctant to make some arrests, and that will impact crime rates.  We are already seeing troubling signs of violent crime increasing in many cities.

Another example: In Seattle, the City Council has banned police use of chemical munitions. A few months ago, who would have thought that we would be having a national discussion about tear gas? Nobody is in favor of using chemical munitions against peaceful protesters.  But a complete ban on this tool removes the best option for stopping rioters who are bent on demolishing buildings and setting fires. Police can’t stand by and watch as buildings are methodically set on fire. Leaving aside the issue of property damage, fires can result in injuries and deaths if anyone is inside the buildings.  If police can’t use chemical munitions in that situation, their other options are using hands-on tactics to make arrests, or using less-lethal weapons – both of which are more likely to result in injuries to the rioters and to officers.  

Two Key Questions

Looking forward long-term, I think we have two key questions to ask ourselves:

--As we think about the future, how do we attract new recruits to policing?  How do we find young people with the communication skills, interpersonal skills, and talents we need, and most importantly, the interest in being a new kind of police officer

--And how do we attract the best and the brightest to be the next generation of police leaders?

At this moment in history, we need police chiefs and sheriffs to speak out, especially as cities consider and choose their reform measures. 

Police chiefs and sheriffs have an opportunity to educate the public about what’s been happening in their departments, where they believe they can make improvements, and what they need to get the job done.

I think that most people have almost no idea of what policing looks like from the inside.  This is a time for police leaders to be illuminating.  This is a defining moment for them.




Weekend Clips

FOX 12 Oregon: Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese voices concerns about federal officers, looks to future of policing in Portland in 1-on-1 interview


In a one-on-one interview with FOX 12, the sheriff of Multnomah County voiced concerns about the conduct of federal officers in Portland, echoing the thoughts of several political leaders in Oregon.


Sheriff Mike Reese has previously served for more than four years as Portland’s police chief. On Tuesday morning, he said he is not surprised to see anger on Portland streets again after more than 50 days of protests.


South Florida Sun Sentinel: Fort Lauderdale’s interim police chief vows to reform troubled department


The Fort Lauderdale Police Department is now in search of a new leader who will transform the culture of an agency long criticized for being insensitive to simmering racial tensions. For now, the task falls to Interim Chief Karen Dietrich, a 30-year police veteran whose late father was a retired Miami police captain.


In an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Dietrich defended the police response to violent protesters who hurled fireworks and tear gas canisters at officers on May 31.


“You can take my streets,” she said. “You can take my sidewalks. We will protect your right to talk. But the moment you try to light my officers on fire, that changes the dynamic.”


Yet she also said the department needs to evolve with the times. And that means training officers to remain professional even in the most intense situations.


NPR: Seattle police chief on proposed budget cuts and calls for reforms


Carmen Best, the chief of the Seattle Police Department, is re-imagining her police force in the middle of ongoing protests against police violence and a global pandemic. She is also facing the possibility that her department's budget could be cut in half.


Here are excerpts from her interview on NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday about potential budget cuts and how she sees her police department shifting in the coming years.


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