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What cops need to know about the DOJ’s police reform progress report

This is not a time to blindly reject calls for change

In December 2014, President Obama issued an executive order that created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Composed of eleven members (from law enforcement, academia and civil rights groups), the mission was pretty straightforward: “The Task Force shall, consistent with applicable law, identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”

A series of public sessions were held during which the Task Force heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses and considered more than 200 written submissions. Ultimately, the input was organized into six pillars:

1. Building Trust and Legitimacy

2. Policy and Oversight

3. Technology and Social Media

4. Community Policing and Crime Reduction

5. Training and Education

6. Officer Wellness and Safety

The task force subsequently made recommendations under each of the above pillars and produced a 100+ page document, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The last 15 pages of the report contain 59 recommendations and 92 action items built around the six pillars listed above. The intent of the task force and the report was to provide a “blueprint for cities and towns to use as they develop policing strategies that work best for building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve while enhancing public safety.”

In July 2015, the White House and the US DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) convened a forum that included mayors, police executives, LE stakeholders and community members from more than 35 jurisdictions, large and small, from across the country to discuss strategy and next steps. That effort resulted in the publication of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide: Moving from Recommendations to Action. Included in this report were five ways for law enforcement to implement Task Force recommendations. Specifically:

1. Review and update policies, training, and data collection on use of force, and engage community members and police labor unions in the process.

2. Increase transparency of data, policies, and procedures.

3. Call on the POST Commission to implement all levels of training.

4. Examine hiring practices and ways to involve the community in recruiting.

5. Ensure officers have access to the tools they need to keep them safe.

The report also provided specific examples of steps taken by agencies as they sought to improve their practices. Here are two that effectively demonstrate how varied the approaches to implementation are:

  • The Sarasota (Florida) Police Department involves the community in recruiting, selecting, and hiring officers as a way to encourage a more diverse workforce. The city works with residents to identify culturally responsive and qualified multilingual candidates for consideration. The community gives input into the hiring priorities considered in selection.
  • The Dallas (Texas) Police Department has tested the use of providing tactical first aid kits similar to what the military uses in the field and training every officer with the skills to properly use them. The result is that officers are saving lives in critical, life-threatening situations, especially those involving gunshot wounds. This can be beneficial in saving the lives of officers, victims, and even suspects.

Take an Objective Look
Building on the earlier efforts and publications, a one-year progress report was issued in early June of this year by the COPS Office, highlighting some of the actions underway by agencies around the country. In addition to maintaining the momentum of engagement, the progress report is intended to provide tangible actions that are being taken around the country as agencies seek to strengthen their community alliances and improve their overall public safety capability. At this point, a lot of effort has been made and dollars spent. It’s appropriate to take an objective look and determine whether this process is working and actually making a difference or whether it’s become a bloated and bureaucratic boondoggle.

I’ve had the opportunity to read through all the reports and specifically the fifty examples (one from each state) that are offered in the one-year report. Candidly, some of the efforts are noteworthy and reflect true and substantive commitment to addressing the issues. Others cause the reader to question whether the example given is actually worthy of mention, especially since it was purportedly put forward by the represented state as a notable best practice.

It’s easy to be a critic and to find fault with specific programs. A much better approach is to view the summaries on a more global basis and determine whether there is truly a collective movement that will ultimately benefit both the protected and the protectors.

Anyone who wears a badge and continues to embrace the philosophy that only cops know what is needed when it comes to policing will quickly find themselves in a shrinking and increasingly ignored group. Better to get ahead of the issues facing our profession than to hunker down and cling to “the way it was.”

How best to do that? Take an objective look at those six pillars identified in the original Task Force report. Use those pillars as a filter when evaluating your public safety capability and the level of confidence that your community has in your agency.

Next, take a look at the examples of implementation that were reported in the second report (Moving from Recommendations to Action) and the state-by-state examples that are provided in the one-year progress report. Although the basics of policing are somewhat universal, communities and acceptable practices vary widely. What works in one area may be unnecessary or unacceptable in another. However, you will most certainly find some good ideas that are worthy of consideration.

Avoid Becoming a Scapegoat
Law enforcement is currently under a great deal of pressure to “get it right” and there are countless examples of police leaders who have been sent packing as communities become increasingly intolerant of perceived missteps. Some of those chiefs needed to go but many others were simply the victim of timing and became the political scapegoat for an elected official fearful of growing dissatisfaction among his or her constituency. The great thing about the policing profession is that we are capable of sharing our lessons learned and building on successes because we’re not in competition with each other. In fact, when one agency hits a homerun, it’s good for all of us.

Over the past twenty or thirty years, countless dollars have been spent by agencies on consultants who would ride into town with a fancy briefcase, do a few staff interviews and perhaps survey a portion of the community. Then they’d pull up a boiler plate report of recommendations and use the “find and replace” function to change out the agency name from their last job to that of their current client.

Once the report was delivered, the consultant would ride out of town and the agency would pat itself on the back while assuring the city or county leaders that their newly minted strategic plan would dramatically improve service levels, boost morale and drive down crime. More often than not, the three-ring binder from the expensive consultant ended up on a shelf and little changed.

Unlike those one-off consultant gigs, the collective wisdom resulting from the Task Force efforts should be viewed as an opportunity for agencies to benefit from a collective brain trust. What we have right now is the criminal justice equivalent of a series of lab experiments. Some will yield new “cures” and others will likely fade to dark. Regardless, there is much to be learned and it is readily available to those who are willing to seek it out.

This is not a time to blindly reject calls for change. Rather, it’s a time to be proactive, to learn from others and to get ahead of the issues. Yes, you may find statements or suggestions in the reports that will make you cringe or shake your head, but you’ll also find some forward-thinking, “we can do this” ideas that may be just the ticket for moving forward in your area. Just as great pressure ultimately turns coal into a diamond, the current stress being placed on police decision makers will yield some real gems. Seek them out and make your agency shine.

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards and training. Dale is the former editor-in-chief of Law Officer Magazine and is the founder of Below 100.