Book excerpt: The Blue Continuum: A Police Chief’s Perspective on What’s Wrong with Policing Today And How to Fix It
Retired Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly, Jr., has written an operator’s manual for developing and managing effective police forces on any scale
The following Best Practices chapter is excerpted from "The Blue Continuum: A Police Chief’s Perspective on What’s Wrong with Policing Today and How to Fix It" by Chief Robert W. McNeilly, Jr. Chief McNeilly served as the chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from 1996 until his retirement in 2006. Sworn in as a Pittsburgh police officer in 1977, he served as a patrol officer, plainclothes officer, sergeant, lieutenant and commander before being promoted to chief. His new book demonstrates how to fix policing problems. McNeilly was involved in negotiations with the Department of Justice and led the first national policing “pattern or practice consent decree” case, utilizing his own accountability and training blueprint. The book can be purchased on Amazon or on his website at www.thebluecontinuumpolice.com.
“Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” — Robert F. Kennedy
There are around 18,000 police departments in the country with more than 800,000 officers in the United States. I contend that 1-2 percent of officers are in the midnight-blue group. That means they number between 8,000 and 16,000 officers in the United States. They should have never been hired as officers and should not be permitted to continue serving as officers.
There are reasons those officers remain in their jobs. Responsible police managers may know what needs to be done but they lack the political support to accomplish the difficult tasks of disciplining and terminating problematic officers. Second, with 75 percent of departments having fewer than twenty-five officers, budgets may be limited for conducting searches for the best chief and for providing that chief with the training needed to lead a department. Many times, a municipality will sacrifice training funds for a department at the first sign of a budget crisis. This is penny-wise and pound foolish. Third, some police managers do not have the courage required for dealing with problematic officers and will not venture to jeopardize their careers by taking measures that could result in significant backblast.
If elected officials can hire the best available candidate for chief, provide sufficient funding for training and supervision of that chief, and offer support when discipline is necessary, the municipality will have taken the first steps toward having an excellent department.
Unfortunately, most municipalities will opt to promote from within because it is less expensive and more politically beneficial. Conducting sufficient testing and background searches of officer candidates is imperative. Although it may be expensive and time-consuming, it won’t be as expensive as the lawsuits, the expenses related to disciplining and termination of officers, and the amount of citizen dissatisfaction when complaints are filed.
Municipalities must have sufficient training funds. In both agencies I led, I requested doubling and quadrupling training funds. I would rather have had fewer but better-trained officers than more officers with less training.
I’ve always said that when an officer gets into trouble, 95 percent of the time it’s the fault of the department that didn’t provide good policy, sufficient training, adequate supervision, or appropriate corrective action (including counseling, retraining, reassignment, or discipline). A municipality can help their department avoid future problems if they provide for the immediate needs of their department and their officers.
Although my observations do not include every possible best practice, it is a good start to protect one’s community, its police agency, and the officers working for the department.
The two most important steps a municipality can take to ensure it has a good police department is (1) hiring the right chief and (2) hiring the right officers. As Jim Collins explains in "Good to Great," “The old adage, ‘People are your most important asset’ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” I would much rather have inexperienced people who have the right attitude and motivation than officers who are experienced and well-trained but will pollute the workplace with their negative attitude and lack of motivation.
There are many ways a municipality can ensure they have the best chief. A legitimate search should be conducted by an organization such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum, a state chiefs of police organization, or a company specializing in searching for police chief candidates.
A good chief should excel in these three areas: technical skills, people skills, and conceptual skills. Technical skills for police include emergency response driving, handcuffing, and use of firearms. People skills are being able to listen, communicate well, and work well with others. Conceptual skills enable a person to develop creative solutions to complex problems.
The municipality must hire a workhorse chief who can get things done rather than someone who is considered a good street officer or who has good people skills. An officer who excels in technical skills will be one of the best performing officers in the department. However, if that officer does not also have good conceptual skills, the officer will not be able to perform the chief’s job as well as s/he performed as an officer.
The chief who has good people skills will be viewed as a “nice person.” Even if that chief is not capable of doing what needs to be done, the community will probably keep this chief because s/he is well-liked. Again, without conceptual skills and a strong ethical base, the chief probably won’t survive the first crisis.
Once a chief is in place, the chief and the municipality must hire the best candidates for police officer positions. The time and effort expended during the hiring process will help ensure that only the best-qualified candidates are hired. The interview process should seek to establish the reason(s) a person chose to become a police officer. The interviewer should ask questions to determine whether the candidate’s motivation is in line with that of sky-blue and light-blue officers. The first step to avoid having bad officers in your department is to make sure you don’t hire them in the first place.
Mass hiring should be avoided. If it is unavoidable, screening of candidates is imperative in conjunction with additional training, adequate and accountable supervision, immediate and appropriate discipline for violations of policy and training, and a means of tracking employee performance.
A good chief should have access to publications from a variety of sources to develop best practices and incorporate them into policy. A Police Executive Research Forum membership provides access to the most recent studies, best practices (including thirty recommendations on use of force), ongoing executive training, and daily publications that provide access to the latest information and best practices. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) provides access to model policy, publications, training sources, and meetings. The Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) Office has a wide variety of free publications, including the final report of the “President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” published in May 2015.
Other free resources containing best practices can be found in any of the United States Department of Justice consent decrees. A chief reviewing the requirements listed in the consent decrees can determine if his/her agency is lacking in any area. If so, the chief will know exactly what to fix and how to fix it since the consent decree will include all the requirements to bring that agency into line with national best practices regarding use of force, citizen complaint investigations, custodial interrogations, photographic lineups, domestic violence investigations, officer assistance, and other critical areas.
Dr. Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has said there is no excuse for any department in the United States to be sued by the Department of Justice in areas covered by consent decrees since the best practices have been available to everyone since 1997.
I came to realize that most officers and supervisors who failed to perform properly can attribute their failures to inadequate training.
Every officer should receive initial and ongoing training in the areas of ethics, cultural diversity, and communication skills. Officers benefit from being reminded that ethical conduct is important because they’ll be confronted with temptations that cause too many officers to lose their jobs, get arrested, or commit suicide. As society changes, officers need regular diversity training to ensure they can interact well with every segment of the community. Regular communication skills training should lead to effective interaction with those they serve. More than half the complaints in Pittsburgh were about officer rudeness. The second vice-president of the union in Pittsburgh told me that the verbal judo class helped him not only on the job but in his personal life when interacting with family at home.
Field training should be provided to new officers and officers not performing to standards. Field training should only be conducted by the best officers in the department. Many careers were damaged or destroyed because of improper field training by officers of questionable character.
Specialized training should be provided to personnel expected to perform jobs beyond patrol. They include officers assigned to tactical positions, detective positions, and positions where specialized equipment is used. There should be lesson plans, officer manuals, checklists of duties to be learned, and testing for each specialized position. The department is better served if officers work in varied assignments during their careers. They will be more well-rounded as officers and more knowledgeable as supervisors if promoted.
All personnel, especially supervisors, need training to work with the media whose portrayal of the department can become a source of stress for officers. Training should enable personnel to handle interaction with the media with more ease once they realize the needs and the timelines of reporters. Too many times officers and supervisors are reluctant to speak to the media for fear of making a mistake or violating policy. It’s important to train personnel in media policy and encourage them to cooperate with the media to get the police explanation of an incident on record. Supervisors shouldn’t judge harshly if an officer does make a mistake. To do so could discourage other officers and supervisors from future media interactions.
One of the critical areas requiring training should be addressed through “Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement” (ABLE) training or “Ethical Policing is Courageous” (EPIC) training. These courses are designed specifically to teach officers to save their careers and those of other officers by intervening when they observe officers involved in unacceptable conduct. Although the New Orleans Police Department has provided EPIC training for years, the urgency of that training has been paramount since 2020.
Critical incident training is especially important. The Integrating Communications Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) training includes the latest effective methods of teaching officers how to handle use-of-force incidents.
Departments need strong policies and training regarding bias-free policing and sexual harassment. Supervisors need specialized training to know how to avoid even the appearance of inappropriate comments or actions. Thorough investigations are needed when complaints are filed, and the disciplinary process must be used for violations.
Every police supervisor and manager should read or view Gilmartin and Harris’s "Emotional Survival" training program and read Jim Collins’s book "From Good to Great." Although departments train for the physical dangers of police work, "Emotional Survival" training is vital to the emotional health of officers and their families. "From Good to Great" is an excellent training source for those leading any part of a police department. The best classroom training I ever attended was the Police Executive Research Forum course “Senior Management Institute for Police.” The course is taught by experts and stresses leadership in changing and challenging situations.
Formal training in all aspects of supervision is essential to performing a supervisor’s role well, including submitting officers for awards, conducting investigations into citizens’ complaints, and initiating disciplinary and non-disciplinary corrective action. Annual training should be provided to all supervisors to provide them with the tools they need to manage disruptive officers.
Supervisors should not be assigned to supervise any subordinates until the supervisor has received supervision training and field training for new supervisors. As personnel rise through the ranks, their responsibilities change. Each new rank should include training specific to that rank. As the promotions above first-line supervision occur, the person should receive management training. Having a well-trained and experienced mentor greatly increases a supervisor’s effectiveness and chance for success.
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The best policies and training do little to serve the public without effective supervision. Supervisors need more than training to be effective. They must also have the moral courage to confront officers who have demonstrated a lack of productive work and to hold them accountable for their attitude, motivational level, and actions.
Supervisors should be evaluated according to how well they prepare and assess the performance of their subordinates, how they enforce adherence to policy, how they provide direction and train officers on a daily basis, how they use the early intervention system, and how well they address deficiencies through counseling, training, and discipline.
Staff meetings are critical to any agency. They not only provide an opportunity for the chief to give direction but they also provide a forum for discussion, so that ranking officers can keep the chief informed of problems within the department, including what officers are feeling and whether the needs of the community are being served. Every department should have regular staff meetings.
Performance evaluations and positive discipline are the primary tools that supervisors should use to keep their subordinates informed as to their performance. All departments should conduct performance evaluations for all officers and supervisors.
Some states, such as California, have a Peace Officers Bill of Rights and confidentiality laws that limit the department’s ability to disclose internal disciplinary measures to the community. This may leave the community with the idea that discipline is non-existent or not effective. Unfortunately, without a change in the law or collective bargaining agreement, many people will continue to question the fairness of any police discipline.
In Pittsburgh, an arbitrator ruled that officers’ disciplinary records are subject to specific reckoning periods. Records of oral reprimands are permanently removed after one year. Written reprimands are removed after two years and suspensions after five years. Some officers have been dishonest enough to claim they were never subjected to any discipline once those records were removed from their files. Reckoning periods hide continued poor performance.
Many unions and many officers will oppose any effort to make changes. Even though an officer can accuse the chief of wrongdoing, a chief is powerless to provide a balanced picture of the complaints being made since the chief is prohibited from discussing personnel matters and officers’ disciplinary records. The public hears only one perspective. If transparency is considered a good thing when an officer makes accusations about a chief’s performance, then transparency must also apply to the accuser’s performance so that the community and elected officials can form educated opinions.
Police unions may be referred to as fraternal associations, benevolent associations, or protective agencies, but they are essentially unions. Many arbitration decisions are based on previous arbitration decisions rendered in non-police union cases. In some municipalities, officers are represented by the Teamsters Union.
Police unions can serve an important function and have contributed to better benefits for officers in some departments. Caution is needed when making decisions to ensure that management rights are not given away during collective bargaining or in establishing a precedent. Some municipalities may trade away some management rights, such as setting work schedules, to save money during austere years. Management rights that are traded away will have a cost later. Departments that trade away work schedules may not be able to later adjust work schedules to conform to the policing needs of the community without paying enormous overtime costs.
Some union members equate seniority with better policing. There is a benefit to seniority if it brings experience and poise. However, having experience does not necessarily make a senior officer more motivated or knowledgeable. Seniority is important to assure officers of fairness, but it can’t be the sole factor in deciding training opportunities, assignments, or promotions.
One department assigned minority officers to work with a federal agency investigating street gangs in minority communities. The police union filed a grievance and the arbitrator sided with the union. All the young minority officers had to be withdrawn from the task force. Sending older, white officers instead to infiltrate young, minority street gangs was a preposterous decision that effectively hindered the success of the investigation.
A union president in Pittsburgh insisted that access to all training be determined by seniority. He believed that an older officer assigned to patrol who was retiring in a year or two should be given the first choice of available homicide training instead of a younger homicide detective who was only recently assigned to the homicide unit.
A conflict of interest exists when supervisors and officers belong to the same union. One sergeant once told me he could not investigate a complaint against two of his officers since they were union brothers. It is difficult to wear two hats – as a supervisor and as a member of the same union as one’s subordinates. A supervisor attempting to discipline an officer must be cautious when dealing with a union representative since that representative may be the same person who will be needed if the supervisor should be subject to a complaint, investigation, or discipline. Good supervisors may find a way to wear both hats, but it will create some conflicts for them.
A municipality should not assume that the number of grievances filed by a union reflects the chief’s abilities. Grievances also provide evidence of the union’s intentions.
Establishing and maintaining a good working relationship with the union(s) can create an environment that serves both the personnel the union represents and the public.
An article titled “Police in misconduct cases stay on force through arbitration” (Associated Press, 6/24/20) included this quote by Michael Gennaco, a police reform expert and former federal civil rights prosecutor who specialized in police misconduct cases: ‘“Arbitration inherently undermines police decisions. It’s dismaying to see arbitrators regularly putting people back to work.”’ Until another system is developed, many police agencies will be forced to abide by arbitration decisions that have extremely limited chances for appeal.
Generally, anyone who makes a workplace decision must justify that decision with a superior. Officers answer to supervisors. Chiefs answer to elected officials. Elected officials answer to voters. There is no clear-cut superior authority for arbitrators. The best method to ensure accountability for an arbitrator’s decision is to make that decision public.
At the conclusion of each arbitration decision, the public should be informed of:
- The charges against the officer
- Disciplinary recommendations
- Adjudication of charges and measures employed, including discipline
- Each appeal and the ruling of the decision-maker
- The name of the arbitrator, the arbitrator’s decision, the history of the arbitrator’s decisions in favor of the officer (or union) and in favor of the municipality
EARLY INTERVENTION SYSTEMS (EIS)
Some of the officers who appear to have the most potential in police agencies damage or destroy their careers through poor decisions that were not detected and acted upon by superiors. If those officers had obtained help through an early intervention system, many would have saved their careers or, in some cases, their lives.
An early intervention system does not need to be elaborate. It can consist of spreadsheets for every officer, having a separate page for each of the following:
- Citizen complaints
- Traffic stops
- Use of force
- Off-duty employment hours
- Civil claims
- Officer counseling
- Disciplinary action
- Missed court
- Criminal investigations
- Weapon discharges
- Sick leave
The EIS can identify officers in need of training, counseling, transfer, and discipline. Perhaps even more importantly, it can identify the high performers, the 20 percent doing most of the work. The information culled from the EIS can help to determine the best use of available training funds and the best candidates for assignments, transfers, or promotions. The information can aid in the defense of management decisions and in the defense of the department if and when lawsuits claim the department knew or should have known about officer deficiencies.
Early intervention is common in policing today, so much so that the IACP has developed a model policy for the use of EIS by police agencies. In the foreseeable future, agencies without the ability to track, review, and base management decisions on essential numbers related to officer performance may be regarded as lacking the “best practices” or even “acceptable standards” in managing their employees.
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The International Association of Chiefs of Police has conducted studies regarding the best practices for investigating citizens’ complaints. One study, “Protecting Civil Rights: A Leadership Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement,” was published in September 2005. I participated in that study and I presented two portions of the IACP annual workshop presentation covering the investigations of citizens’ complaints and the use of early intervention systems.
The investigation of citizens’ complaints has ten main parts:
- Establish a citizen complaint process. This applies to small departments just as much as it does to large departments. I encountered many small departments that did not have a process in place.
- Establish clear policies for investigating complaints. Again, many small departments do not have policies.
- Have a central authority clearly responsible for the investigation and resolution of complaints. The person conducting the investigation should be different from the person who will determine follow-up actions, which may include discipline. Since the chief will, most likely, decide the appropriate follow-up action, someone else in the department must oversee the investigations.
- Complaints should be classified. A decision will need to be made as to whether a complaint should require an administrative investigation or a criminal and administrative investigation. A criminal and administrative investigation will entail two separate investigations. The complaint should also identify allegations of major or minor misconduct. Administrative action, such as a suspension, may be needed for serious allegations of violations.
- The department should accept all allegations of misconduct. Mandating that a complainant come to the police facility and make a sworn statement can be viewed as an attempt to prevent the citizen from filing a complaint.
- Establish fair, thorough, and transparent investigations. These investigations should be as fair, thorough, and transparent as any homicide or sex crime investigation.
- Select and train investigators specifically to conduct investigations into citizens’ complaints. Only trustworthy and morally courageous officers should be selected to conduct these investigations.
- Protect officers against false complaints. Body-worn cameras have proven to be instrumental in identifying untruthful allegations against officers. The department will need to consult with the municipal attorney and the district attorney to determine follow-up action against any person filing a false complaint.
- Track and analyze complaints to assess overall performance. The results of the analysis should identify officers in need of intervention, policies needing to be updated or clarified, and departments needing training.
- Make summary reports of data available to the public, elected officials, and the media.
I would also suggest that the chief not arbitrarily change the findings of any internal affairs investigation any more than s/he would overrule the findings of a homicide or sexual assault case.
To ensure transparency, another police agency should investigate any incident leading to critical injuries or deaths.
External sources may be necessary to investigate internal police corruption in a large agency. For a small police department, only an external agency can be effective in preventing officer corruption.
Corruption extends beyond unscrupulous police officers to a department having ineffective regulations, lack of proper training, ineffective supervision, and lack of appropriate disciplinary action. Unbelievably, there are many police agencies operating without written manuals or a method to address citizens’ complaints or a system to track uses of force, searches and seizures, and other important matters.
These failures may be identified and addressed if an agency seeks accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) or their state system for accreditation. Those departments not seeking accreditation should have either a state or county organization or private company review their policies and procedures to ensure they comply with best practices.
Without a method of ensuring that a municipal department is operating with best practices, the department is only one bad incident away from being dissolved.
INTEGRITY – REPORTING/UNITS/TESTS
Officers need a place to report wrongdoing anonymously so they aren’t labeled or ostracized by other officers. A great deal of improper pressure is sometimes placed on officers who attempt to do what is right by other officers and supervisors within the department. Those conscientious officers are actually betrayed by the officers pressuring them. Many police officers will not report misconduct when they experience it firsthand since they still must work with the same officers and for the same supervisors. They depend upon those officers for backup in dangerous situations and they can be sabotaged by the supervisors who are supposed to be looking out for them.
Every police department should have either an Integrity Unit or an external agency to report undue pressure from corrupt police officers. Once officers know it is safe for them to report corruption, they will use the system. If an agency does not conduct its own Integrity testing, another agency should be responsible for doing so whether it is a county, state, or federal agency.
Integrity testing helps all officers avoid temptations. Good officers will pass an Integrity test and not worry about the results. Some officers will be hesitant to succumb to temptation since they don’t know if the temptation is a test. It will help them stay straight.
CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARDS
PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, about his extensive research on police oversight and civilian review.
Chuck wrote, “Professor Walker noted that while many people today are calling for civilian review boards to have more authority, including the power to impose discipline, his research has found that civilian boards tend to be more lenient on officers than police executives are. He believes that to enhance accountability, final decisions about police discipline should rest with the police chief and that departments should be subject to a strong auditing body.”
Civilian review boards that are created solely to appease a community demanding police accountability but lacking the tools to investigate and take action will probably have too many weaknesses to accomplish what the citizens expected.
Civilian review boards need to operate as though they are conducting a fair investigation with unbiased hearings. The review boards that begin by accusing officers of wrongdoing or whose executive directors immediately denounce officers without having conducted an investigation may appease the 20 percent of the community that dislikes policing and police officers, but they won’t garner the respect from most citizens to be taken seriously.
Review boards that are not empowered to interview officers are only empowered to conduct half of the investigation. There is no way they can reach an accurate assessment of the complaint.
Police chiefs are restrained in available disciplinary measures by municipal guidelines, collective bargaining agreements, or a police officers’ bill of rights. Review boards that make disciplinary recommendations that exceed the chief’s ability to impose discipline may appease the same police critics, but they won’t establish a record of having a meaningful impact on police misconduct.
Review boards without the authority to impose discipline themselves can recommend any disciplinary measure to emphasize how “tough” they are toward the police. If the officer and union can appeal to an arbitrator, the review board should either be forced to present the case to the arbitrator or should make meaningful recommendations to those who will present the evidence to the arbitrator.
All officers, especially ranking officers, should take advantage of non-threatening situations to develop relationships with the media. In the event of a critical incident, there is not enough time to establish a connection that will include mutual trust. The lack of a good working relationship with the media gives police critics a one-sided view of events.
Departments need to demonstrate transparency, especially regarding critical incidents. It does not take much effort to inform the public that an investigation is being conducted and the results will be relayed as soon as possible.
An annual report should be published and distributed listing important department measures such as:
- Police budgets
- Use of force incidents
- Citizens’ complaints
- Vehicle collisions
- Officer injuries
- Officer awards
- Crime rates
- Clearance rates for crimes committed
- Traffic stops
- Number of officer sick days used
- Weapons discharges
- Traffic citations
- Calls for service
- Personnel strength
- Overtime expenses
- Agency accomplishments
- Citizen surveys (if completed)
- Officer morale surveys (if completed) number of disciplinary cases (with findings)
In addition to accountability, the main characteristics of a successful police department are a competent chief, well-disciplined and motivated officers and supervisors, an elected body that supports the chief, and the resources the department needs to operate with best practices. Any municipality providing for these needs will be rewarded with an ethical, efficient, and well-respected department. That department will be made up almost entirely of sky-blue and light-blue officers. That is what the public deserves for its trust and its taxes.