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How one agency implemented Obama’s police reform recommendations

Chief Brandon Zuidema and Lieutenant Christopher Clayton of the Garner (N.C.) Police Department delivered a compelling presentation at IACP on how they responded to the 21st Century Policing Report


Lieutenant Christopher Clayton (left) and Chief Brandon Zuidema of the Garner (N.C.) Police Department delivered a compelling presentation on how smaller agencies can apply the principles of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report at IACP 2016.

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In December 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Five months later, following a series of meetings with police leaders, subject matter experts, community leaders, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, the task force released their final report.

Based on six pillars — “Building Trust and Legitimacy, Policy and Oversight, Technology and Social Media, Community Policing and Crime Reduction, Training and Education, and finally, Officer Wellness and Safety” — the task force made 59 recommendations and dozens of specific action items. For any agency, the challenge to enact all of those proposals seemed daunting. For a smaller agency, it may have appeared to be a nearly insurmountable task.

During an afternoon seminar session at IACP 2016 in San Diego, Chief Brandon Zuidema and Lieutenant Christopher Clayton of the Garner (N.C.) Police Department delivered a compelling presentation on how smaller agencies can apply the principles of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report, and transparently demonstrate to the community how the department is responding to the report. There was far too much covered in the session to capture it all here, so for the purposes of this report, we’ll examine just the first pillar — building trust and legitimacy.

How small is small?
For some perspective, it’s useful to know that serving a population of about 28,000 citizens, Garner PD has 65 full-time sworn officers and 10 civilian employees. The town enjoys a relatively low violent crime rate but a higher than ideal property crime rate, and calls are split about 50/50 between proactive and reactive activities.

Upon seeing the release of the final report from the task force, Chief Zuidema looked at the six pillars and decided to assign one pillar each to his six command staff for review and evaluation. Each pillar was considered within the context of Garner PD’s existing strengths and identifying areas for improvement.

In essence, the team sought to identify what the agency was already doing that they could point to as fitting into the task force recommendations, what the department was doing that it could do better and/or more of, and what the department was not doing that it needed to begin. Following that period of evaluation with a lot of good input from officers and others, the command staff came up with 17 points the department was going to try to address. The team then created a document capturing all of their collective findings and posted that to the agency’s homepage.

“We need to make the argument that we didn’t used to have to make,” Chief Zuidema said. “When I started 23 years ago, we didn’t have to make the argument that we’re the good guys and we’re interested in the community. Like it or not, I think today most of us have to do that.”

As he knocked his knuckles on the front-row classroom table, Zuidema added, “Even if you’re like Garner where we have not had an incident, we have not had a problem, and trust is still generally the default in our community, we’re only one event away from being the next national spotlight.”

One of the other outcomes of the effort to match the task force report to what was happening at the department was to use their assessment as a report card both internally and for the community in order to immediately achieve some of the transparency the public today demands.

Zuidema said that the department uses this document in community meetings because it captures not only the things that the police are doing well, but it is an honest assessment of areas for improvement.

Zuidema said, “I would recommend that you celebrate what you’ve done well. It doesn’t have to be ‘Oh my gosh, this is horrible, look at how much work there is to do.’ You’re already doing a lot of good stuff. One of the things we realized as we put this together was, ‘Wow, there are a lot of good things going on in this police department.’”

Doing the little things well is actually pretty big
When the task force report was first released, there was a lot of hand wringing in the upper ranks of law enforcement. The notion of implementing even half of the recommendations seemed a practical impossibility given finite resources and increasing demands from citizens for police response to crime.

“It can be overwhelming,” Zuidema said. “We recognize — and I think the task force to some extent recognized — that there is limited personnel. You’re not going to get a lot of extra bodies to implement this report. You’re not going to get a lot of extra bodies to do community policing.”

So the command staff did what they could with the available resources they had. That began with going out to various groups in the community to listen to their concerns.

“We decided that we probably needed to have some community meetings,” Lieutenant Clayton said. “We realized very quickly that that would help us with pillar one, in terms of building trust and legitimacy with our community.”

Clayton said that they gathered a lot of information about the community’s perception of the police, and they relayed that information back to the line-level officers.

“What we want to do is understand what our community expectations are,” Clayton said. “I think sometimes where policing hits a little bit of a rough patch is when the police department has a different idea or expectation than what the community has.”

Clayton and Zuidema emphasized the importance of reaching out to groups and individuals who may be seen as adversarial to law enforcement, and to do so before — not after — a major event takes place.

“We’ve met with the NAACP and the ACLU,” Zuidema said. “We handed them an annual department report and a use-of-force report and a bias-free policing report, and two or three other documents.”

The department is active in the schools, with an SRO program, a Police Athletics and Activities League, as well as a reading program in the elementary schools. The department also has a significant presence on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor. This helps the agency tell their story, and strengthen police-community relations. Further, officers from the department are active participants in the churches, recreation leagues, civic organizations and other community groups.

In fact, Garner officers are even evaluated on their community involvement. “One component of their appraisal is community involvement, so they can up their own appraisal score — we have a merit-based appraisal system — and they can do better for themselves if they’re active and involved in the community,” Zuidema said.

An incremental approach
It is undeniable that implementing the recommendations of the task force report will take time and effort, and will produce some growing pains. It is important to note that as was the experience in Garner, not every recommendation will apply to every department. Due to geography, demographics, and a whole host of other factors, some of the report simply will not be applicable. Clayton and Zuidema recommend reading the task force report with a critical eye, looking for ways it plugs into your agency.

“I strongly recommend that you come up with a manual that fits your department and your needs,” Zuidema concluded.

What happened in Garner is proof that by taking an incremental approach, a lot of things can be accomplished. Check out the document on the Garner PD website , and steal from it liberally.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.