Welcome to the OnPolicing series.
OnPolicing captures the thoughts of some of the country’s most important voices on contemporary policing. It is intended to stimulate debate about the state of policing and the myriad of challenges involved in controlling crime, disorder, and terrorism in a democracy like ours. The opinions are the authors’ own and may not represent the official position of the National Police Foundation. All comments are welcome—especially contrarian ones. We reserve the right to remove hateful or profane posts.
Please refer to the essay entitled “An Introduction to OnPolicing“ for an in-depth introduction to the series by the National Police Foundation’s former president and founder of the OnPolicing blog, Jim Bueermann. If you would like to contribute to the OnPolicing series, please send your 500-1000 word essay to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stories about police use of excessive force continue to appear in local and national news headlines. Community-police relationships continue to be strained by these incidents, many of which have been captured on camera and circulated in media. Witnessed and recorded incidents have reportedly led to a loss of trust in the police1 and for calls to defund local police departments. In a post-2020 era, public protestors are calling for replacing police responses with alternative, non-police emergency service members, such as social workers or mental health professionals, with the intent being better outcomes for all parties involved. The emergence of Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training is, to a great extent, an outgrowth of this strong sentiment across the country, gaining traction after the shooting of Michael Brown.2
Strengthening Community Policing and Trust
In 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its report with recommendations to strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.3The report showcased the disparity between the level of confidence in law enforcement among various communities while including a special emphasis on de-escalation—a technique used to reduce the potential for a conflict to become more volatile or violent.3 Pillar 2 of the report, which focused on Policy & Oversight, Action Item 2.2.1 stated, “Law enforcement agency policies for training on use of force should emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to arrest or summons in situations where appropriate.”3 While the statement is general enough to allow room for interpretation and adaptation to local community preferences and needs, it was the subject of much discussion among police leadership as it was not adequately defined.
November 25, 2020—Through the cooperation of more than 50 of the largest law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Canada, our research team was granted access to the most detailed dataset ever collected on fatal and non-fatal shootings by officers while on duty. Covering the period from 2015 through 2018, these data cover over 1,000 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents, including characteristics regarding the reason for and circumstance of the encounter, the location, and the officers and the other individuals involved. While differences in data availability and policies impacted our ability to collect every detail across all agencies and incidents, the data provide important insights on these statistically rare, but massively important, events. In particular, the data shed light on an often overlooked aspect of the events that likely contributes significantly to the problem and yet remains understudied and unaddressed.
Although traditional and social media content may lead some to believe that officer-involved shootings most often begin with encounters involving a traffic or vehicle stop, our data reveal that in the large agencies we worked with and those providing sufficient data to assess the origins of these incidents, over half of these events began with a community member calling 911. Slightly less than half of the encounters began by an officer-initiated activity (e.g. initiating a traffic stop).
Thus far, 2020 has produced indisputable evidence of the perils facing law enforcement in the United States and around the world. A global pandemic has taken more than 200,000 lives in the United States including more than 200 deaths of those serving in law enforcement and corrections services.  Adding to that toll are stressors created by natural disasters, peaceful protests, civil unrest, riots, and ambush attacks on officers which, of late, occur on a daily basis. The pressures on law enforcement agencies, and the remarkable men and women who lead them have never been greater, and the list of those leaving their agencies, not of their own volition or timing, continues to grow. As a member of this small group of stalwart leaders, I wonder, when was the last time someone asked, “How you are doing? Chief, who has your back?”
From a physical, emotional, and cognitive perspective, this is much more than a rhetorical question. At a time when so much is expected of law enforcement leadership—from the community, your agency, elected officials, and the media—taking care of yourself is likely to be very low on your priority list. With so many demands for your time and attention, what does your self-care even look like? While you may be able to recognize the impacts of anxiety and distress in others, can you recognize when the same stressors have pulled you off balance? And are you willing to take the necessary steps to restore equilibrium and invest in your physical, mental, and emotional health?
The late New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra is perhaps remembered more for his malapropistic quotes than what he achieved on the field. The irony about “yogi-isms” is that his words can actually be quite profound. One such statement, “In baseball, you don’t know nothing” likely speaks to the unpredictability of the game. It could, however, be read as an indictment of sorts. Yogi played during baseball’s golden age, long before the sports analytics revolution, when the game was guided more by tradition and conjecture than objective knowledge. The same critique could very well be made against our own vocation- “In policing, you don’t know nothing.”
How do we know what we know? The classic answer that cops use on the witness stand is “training and experience”. As much as training and experience can help officers on the street, we may overvalue these characteristics when it comes to running police organizations. Most police training is not evidence-based and years of experience is a poor proxy for occupational knowledge. Policing needs to look deeper.
Like modern baseball, the private sector of the 21st century runs on data. It is challenging to find a major corporation that does not track consumer behavior, measure employee sentiment, or solicit customer feedback. It is true that policing has made great strides toward becoming data driven in regards to crime. The Compstat revolution of the late 20th century along with the advent of crime analysis transformed police operations, particularly in large cities. As good as law enforcement is at tracking crime, blind spots remain when it comes to understanding community concerns and the needs of our own officers.
Policing is a fast-paced environment as departments are consistently responding to community demands for service and chiefs are consistently responding to crime trends. As strategies are implemented though, too often, its impacts are assessed based on weekly or monthly comparisons for crime, yet little thought is given to possible blow-back effects, or to the unintended outcomes of strategies—the type of effects that damage relationships with those we serve. Although a strategy may appear to work at first glance, we must ask ourselves, “Does the strategy cause unintended harms?” and “How can we best measure those harms?”
Misapplication can be malpractice
In February 2015, I was at a police executive meeting where former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was speaking to a room full of law enforcement officers and college students gathered at Rutgers–Newark. Bratton was the featured speaker for the Police Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series. During his address, he detailed how he used disorder policing strategies, better known as the broken windows theory, to reduce crime in New York City and Los Angeles. He also warned against the theory’s misapplication, a topic rarely discussed in policing circles.
It is said that St. Peter was fleeing the City of Rome to escape persecution by the government when he met the resurrected Jesus walking the other way, toward the City. “Quo Vadis Domine?”—Where are you going, Lord? asked Peter. In reply, Jesus explained he was returning to Rome to be crucified again. His work was not yet done. Jesus’ selfless commitment gave Peter the courage to continue his ministry—his service to humanity. He too ultimately sacrificed himself in the name of service to others.
American policing, Quo Vadis—where are you going?
I understand. You, the police, have become subject of criticism boarding on persecution. Daily, you engage in tens of thousands of acts of service, courage and kindness with little recognition. But, let one of your 900,000 members engage in misconduct, in any one of the tens of thousands of police contacts that occur nationwide and your entire profession is once again subjected to virulent criticism.
In 2019, government organizations were the intended targets of nearly two-thirds of all known ransomware attacks in the United States. While many of these events go unreported, at least 70 state and local governments are known to have been attacked last year alone, representing a notable uptick from prior years. Ransomware attacks generally take the form of hackers obtaining access to a network and deploying malware to encrypt the victim’s data; they then charge a ransom in order for the victim to regain access to their data.
These attacks can bring government operations to a standstill, and result in costs to the municipality that range from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars to return to full capacity. It is estimated that between April and June of 2019, government victims of ransomware attacks paid an average ransom of over $300,000. However, even when the financial demands were met, the hackers did not always remit control, and the integrity of the system remained compromised.
Despite the challenges that exposures to the coronavirus (COVID-19) present to police operations, agencies around the nation continue to respond to public safety issues in our communities. According to the National Police Foundation’s (NPF’s) Law Enforcement Impact Dashboard, thousands of law enforcement officers across the country have been exposed to COVID-19. As members continue to respond to the call to serve and protect, data collection and analysis is helping the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) make informed decisions about staffing and resource allocation that ultimately affects the safety of our members and the level of service we provide to our community. At the same time, our agency has an eye on ways that this data could help us and our federal, state, and local partners plan and prepare for the next wave of COVID-19 or the next pandemic we are faced with.
No level of planning could have fully prepared us for the difficult news coming from our nation’s jails and correctional facilities. Heightened levels of contagion, and the associated stress and anxiety are impacting our medical, security, and behavioral health staff that work in these facilities as well as those in custody.
What more can we do to address the crisis, reduce the risk, and provide much-needed support? If I were still on the job today, these six steps would be on my to-do list and I hope they’re on yours as well.