Changing a Troubled Police Department

imagesCAEDOZ3S     Here’s a good case study for police leaders who aspire to be transformational.

The city is Albuquerque, New Mexico and the U.S. Justice Department has just given the mayor of the city a 46 page report documenting a pattern and practice of violating the constitutional rights of citizens in 20 fatal shootings since 2009.

I wish this was an isolated incident, but it’s not. There are too many Albuquerques in America; too many police departments in our nation are, or have been, under supervision (consent decree) by the federal government for “patterns or practices of violating citizen rights.” It’s a shameful statistic.

There are 1,000 sworn officers in Albuquerque and whoever takes over this job will have his or her hands full for at least a decade.

Change takes continuous effort and it takes time. Put yourself in this position. Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque has just called you and asks you to what to do. What do you recommend? And why do you recommend it? (NOTE: I would advise anyone seeking this job require the city to provide an insured 10-year contact. Anything less than this will not insure the changes that are so desperately needed will be made and sustained.)

Here’s one paragraph from the report. I have highlighted the major areas:

“We have reasonable cause to believe that officers of the Albuquerque Police Department engage in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Section 14141. A significant amount of the force we reviewed was used against persons with mental illness and in crisis. APD’s policies, training, and supervision are insufficient to ensure that officers encountering people with mental illness or in distress do so in a manner that is safe and respects their rights. The use of excessive force by APD officers is not isolated or sporadic. The pattern or practice of excessive force stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy. Chief among these deficiencies is the department’s failure to implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system. Force incidents are not properly investigated, documented, or addressed with corrective measures. Other deficiencies relate to the department’s inadequate tactical deployments and incoherent implementation of community policing principles.”

There are four major findings:

• The department’s officers “too often used deadly force in an unconstitutional manner,” and of the 20 fatal police shootings since 2009, most were not constitutional. Albuquerque police not only use deadly force when there’s no imminent threat of bodily harm or death, they also “used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed. Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”

 • The department’s officers also use less-than-lethal force unconstitutionally. A review of 200 use-of-force reports since 2009 indicates that officers use Tasers on people who are nonthreatening, posing minimal threat, passively resisting or “unable to comply with orders due to their mental state.” In one instance, officers used Tasers on a man who had doused himself in gasoline, setting him on fire and endangering everyone in his vicinity. Officers also use “takedown procedures” in ways that increase harm, and they “escalate situations in which force could have been avoided had they instead used de-escalation measures.”

 • Officers used a “significant amount of force” against people with mental illness and in crisis. “APD’s policies, training and supervision are insufficient to ensure that officers encountering people with mental illness or in distress do so in a manner that respects their rights and is safe for all involved.”

• There were “only a few instances” of supervisors scrutinizing use of force and seeking investigations. In almost all of the cases reviewed, supervisors endorsed their subordinate’s version of events even if an officer’s account was incomplete, inconsistent with evidence or ‘based on canned or repetitive language.’”

Read the full DOJ report here (PDF), CNN’s news report and video of the most recent shooting, CLICK HERE, and an account in today’s issue of The New York Times.

What has not been discussed is just how difficult it will be to change this “culture of violence” (my term) in the APD. Changing policies and training practices is one thing. Changing hearts and minds is quite another.

I am talking about putting important values of our society into practice. What is the primary purpose of a police department in a democracy? What do the practices of the police department have to do with the values of our society?

I would suggest that whoever gets the job of leading the changes that are necessary in the APD begin with the values and qualities of democratic policing and then start teaching, modeling, and putting them into practice. You can find them described in my book along with the seven steps necessary to improve our nation’s police.

Qualities of Police in a Free and Democratic Society

  1. Accountable. Police recognize the nature and extent of their discretionary authority and must always be accountable to the people, their elected representatives, and the law for their actions, and be as transparent as possible in their decision-making.
  2. Collaborative. Police must be able to collaborate, as appropriate, with community members and other organizations in settling disagreements, choosing policing strategies, and solving policing problems. This collaborative style must also apply to the way police departments are led and managed. This means police leaders must actively listen to their officers and work with them in identifying and resolving department and community problems.
  3. Educated and trained. All police officers with arrest powers should begin their career with a broad and advanced education in the sciences and humanities. Training should consist of rigorous and extensive training courses in an adult-learning climate that teaches both the ethics and skills of democratic policing.
  4. Effective and preventive. The mark of a good police department and the officers who work within it is that they continuously seek to handle their business more effectively and fairly, emphasizing preventing crime and disorder and not merely responding to it, and applying research and practical knowledge, using problem-solving methods, toward that end.
  5. Honest. Honesty and good ethical practice are essential. The search for and cultivation of these traits begin with the selection process and continue throughout an officer’s career. Only those police candidates who have demonstrated good decision-making so far in their lives should be selected.
  6. Model citizen. Police officers must not only be good police officers, but good citizens as well, modeling the values and virtues of good citizenship in their professional and personal lives.
  7. Peacekeeper and protector. The police role is, above all else, that of community peacekeepers, and not merely law enforcers or crime fighters. Their training, work, and values all point towards the keeping of peace in the community. As gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, police must see themselves as defenders and protectors of Constitutional and human rights, especially for those who cannot defend or care for themselves in our society.
  8. Representative. The members of police organizations must be demographically representative of the communities they serve, both because it reflects fair employment opportunities and because it enables the police to be more effective in achieving their objectives.
  9. Respectful. Police officers should treat all persons with unconditional courtesy and respect, and be willing to listen to others, especially to those without social power or status. Likewise, police leaders should treat their workers with courtesy and respect their employment rights.
  10. Restrained. The preservation of life should be the foundation for all police use of force. Police officers should continually prepare themselves to use physical force in a restrained and proper manner, with special training in its application to those who are mentally ill. Deadly force should be used only as a last resort and only when death or serious injury of the officer or another person is imminent. Less-than-lethal force should be preferred where possible.
  11. Servant leader. Every police officer, regardless of rank, must simultaneously be a good leader and a good servant, to the public and to the police organization. Servant leaders use their authority and influence to improve others’ welfare.
  12. Unbiased. Although some bias is inherent in human nature, police officers recognize that they can and should train themselves to reduce their biases and deal with all people fairly and without regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic condition, national origin, citizenship status, or sexual orientation. (David C. Couper and Michael Scott)


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