Police Chiefs Speak on Reform and What’s Needed

In this “Critical Issues Report” from PERF, Executive Director Chuck Wexler asked five retired police chiefs to offer their best advice about what types of reforms are needed today. I have taken the liberty of highlighting some points that I have argued in this blog over the past eight years.

Charles McClelland, Former Houston Police Chief: We’re Seeing on Body Cameras What People of Color Have Been Saying for Years

I think what’s going on in the country is going to be good for policing in the long run. This reform movement has momentum like I’ve never seen before.

I spent 40 years in policing with the same agency, but I’ve been black for 65 years. So I understand where the frustration and angst are coming from, especially in the minority community. George Floyd grew up in a neighborhood less than a mile from where I live now. I hear from community leaders all the time. And I was racially profiled on many occasions as a young black kid, teenager, and young adult before joining the police department. And there were a couple times as a police officer when I was profiled.

So there is some historical context here that people have to understand. What we’re now seeing on body cameras is what people of color have been saying for years. But they couldn’t prove it, and people kind of wrote them off.

In my opinion, law enforcement agencies won’t be able to just do a couple policy reviews and change a procedure here and there. They’re going to have to do some systemic structural change. In my view, police chiefs and sheriffs have not listened to their communities enough. It can’t be what we think is best for the community. Law enforcement has to be what the community wants. They’re your bosses. We’re the subject matter experts, but the public has to determine what they want law enforcement to deliver in their communities.

I think we’ve let unions go too far, and I’ve been guilty of this myself as a police chief. We’ve stood back and said, “The union won’t go for this. The union is too strong.” It’s because we wanted the union to like us, and we didn’t want that no-confidence vote. But we should have stood up to unions more. Now unions need to understand that if they don’t become part of the solution, they’re going to become irrelevant.

Kathy O’Toole, former Seattle Police Chief and Boston Police Commissioner: Chiefs Must Be Honest, Fair and Decisive. Their Goal Is Not to Be Loved, But Respected.

I haven’t seen a time like this before in policing – although I remember feeling very unsettled as a child in the 1960s, when our country seemed to be in a state of disarray.

I think we’ll get beyond this, and I believe that with every crisis comes an opportunity. In my work here in the U.S. and on projects overseas, including Northern Ireland, I know things can seem hopeless at the time, but they also present an opportunity.

If we’re going to move forward, authentic engagement with our communities is going to be absolutely essential. Many police officials already know this, but there are an estimated 18,000 police agencies in the U.S., so we’re going to have to develop models for reform and innovation that can be scaled from small organizations up to major cities.

I think there are some good models out there right now, and it’s sad to see those being ignored. I use Seattle as an example. We worked so hard to build trust and develop new policies and procedures for use of force, bias-free policing, and crisis intervention. Our indicators of community trust increased each year, and we became much more transparent with our information sharing and communication. But now, in a knee-jerk reaction, the city council wants to defund the police by 50%. My question is who is going to answer those crisis calls? Seattle police respond to over 10,000 serious crisis calls each year.

I’m all for thoughtful discussion about how we work, and multidisciplinary approaches, and repurposing some of our budgets to focus on issues that are important to the city. But I’m really concerned about some of the knee-jerk reactions, because I think they’re very short-sighted. We’ll see dire results if politicians don’t approach this in a much more thoughtful way.

I believe we should focus more on external oversight. I’ve seen the most impressive models outside of the United States. In Northern Ireland, for instance, they have a Policing Authority, an Ombudsman that investigates complaints and wrongdoing, and an inspectorate. The Republic of Ireland has similar structures. And Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in the UK has existed for decades.

Jurisdictions considering democratic oversight of policing need to be thoughtful about the structures they create. Systems should be efficient and transparent, and those involved must be honest brokers, not extremists with anti- or pro-police agendas. Robust, fairsystems can definitely enhance legitimacy and community trust.

Research has shown that occupational culture (in this case police occupational culture) is universal to an occupation or profession. Organizational culture is definitely shaped by leadership. I’ve seen organizational culture shift very quickly under fair, principled leaders with great vision and focus, particularly in times of crisis when department members are desperate to see light at the end of the tunnel. Also, particularly in times of crisis, chiefs must remember it’s their job to keep the community safe and to keep their cops safe. It is not their job to protect the political careers of divisive officials.

It’s impossible to keep everyone happy, and pandering always backfires. Chiefs must be honest, fair and decisive. The goal is not to be loved, but to be respected.

Terry Hillard, Former Chicago Police Superintendent: We Need a National Deadly Force Standard

For the last 3 or 4 weekends, we’ve had children killed by gang members. Where is the outrage? My biggest concern right now is there is no outrage when these young kids are killed.

I feel for the young cops who are in this city right now. They don’t have a lot of backing from the community or from elected officials.

A few months ago, I thought that the pendulum would swing back in our direction, but I’ve changed that tune now. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s not going to be cheap. If politicians think they can defund policing and make these reforms, they’re living in La La Land, because it’s not going to happen. Training is key, but when they cut budgets, the training division is the first thing that gets cut.

If you train people right, constantly train them, and bring community members into the training to interact with the cops, I don’t know if you can change the culture, but you can change the behavior of some of these cops.

I believe there should be some kind of national deadly force standard, because if you leave it up to each of the 18,000 police departments, it’s not going to work out. I’ve never seen anything like what that guy did in Minneapolis. It horrified me. I could not believe that he did what he did, especially knowing that people were there watching and recording it. I don’t know what went through his mind.

We’ve got a real problem here, and I’m worried for the 12,600 cops here in Chicago. Probably 5 or 6% of the cops in the department never should’ve walked through the academy door. We interact with 2,500-3,000 people per day, and the majority of those are positive interactions. But all you need is one negative interaction for the wheels to start to turn on you.

Bill Lansdowne, Former Police Chief in San Diego, San Jose, and Richmond, California:

By Bringing Diversity to the Department, I Found People Who Would Challenge Me

The Miranda decision came out six months after I started as an officer. The older officers thought that was the end of the world. They said we’d never be able to convict anyone again, because we wouldn’t get confessions. But [the Miranda decision] taught us to rely on witness interviews, gathering evidence, and putting together cases that were solid enough to get convictions. It changed the way we policed.

Police chiefs are in trouble right now. They’re not speaking up to defend what policing is all about. We need to make changes and are going to make changes, but society needs professionally trained, experienced, high-quality police officers. That’s where the majority of officers are, and they need support in that process.

We need diversity in law enforcement. We’ve struggled with it, talked about it, and are trying to find ways to accomplish it. You can’t just wish it’ll happen. The chief of police has to make it happen. I made it happen by identifying the two people in the organization who were excited about recruiting and knew exactly what I wanted them to do. They produced and helped the San Diego Police Department achieve diversity. In the promotional process, I made sure we had a diverse agency throughout the ranks.

Then when we had discussions about the police department and the community, we had voices in our command staff who were willing to take me on if they thought I was wrong. They’d explain it so that I understood it and everyone else in the room understood it. Diversity is critical to our long-term success.

When you look at the videos that really nauseate you to watch, you never see a supervisor on scene. The supervisors are tied down with paperwork and not getting out on the street, or they’re not the right ones to supervise officers on the street. If a sergeant gets to that scene within 8-10 minutes, we found in San Diego that the chances of an officer-involved shooting were reduced by about 80%. As soon as they got there, the officers who are cowboys and tend to overreact defer to the sergeant. They let the sergeant make the decision and manage that call.

I’d like chiefs to speak up and defend their officers and the exceptional work they do. If chiefs don’t do that, it’s going to depress officers more and they’re going to start to shut down. But I’ve seen the profession make changes in the past. We’ll get to where we need to be.

Ellen Hanson, former Police Chief in Kansas City, Kansas and Lenexa, Kansas: Officers Know Who the Problem Officers Are, But They Need a Culture in Which They Can Share That Information

I see this as being so divisive internally. I think police leaders are under so much pressure, and there’s no blueprint to know the right way to go. And I’m afraid that a lot of the young officers don’t feel supported internally, and they want out. I’m not saying that’s accurate, but that’s their perception. And they feel so much animosity from the community.

We all know that changes need to be made, and just when you think we’re making some progress, some police officer somewhere creates another big issue. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I don’t know when we’re going to be able to roll up our sleeves and get it accomplished.

I have worked in two very different departments – one with no union and a white middle-class community, the other with a union in community with a significant minority population. To me, police leaders need to recognize that nobody knows better who the problem officers are than the officers working next to them. But in the culture and environment of most police departments, they don’t feel comfortable taking that information anywhere.

In my smaller department, we had a culture where we encouraged officers to correct each other before it got to a higher level. If you can solve a small problem before it becomes big, that’s great. But in my larger department, no way. They didn’t want to share that kind of information. I think that’s where some internal work needs to be done.

Police leaders also need to recognize the terrible pressure that black officers are under. They’re getting it from their communities, and some are getting a lot of negativity from their families, who are telling them to get out of policing. If we don’t recognize that and try to get them support, I think we’re letting them down. And we need to provide support for the rest of the department as well.