Committing Your Agency to Honorable Police Practices

The following is part 1 of 2 in our IACP Leadership Series conversation between Benchmark CEO Ron Huberman and Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). In this entry, Mr. Wexler shares his thoughts on the role of policing in addressing and adjusting to COVID-19, as well as the importance of building the right team reflective of values committed to honorable police practices.

RH: Chuck, we’re very grateful for the work that you do in policing. Let me start with a very broad question: Can you tell us a little bit about the current chapter of police reform? I don’t think back in February anyone would have predicted the impact of COVID-19 and certainly, I don’t think people would have predicted that police reform would have shot to the very top of what is on the minds of Americans and politicians in cities. What do you make of it?

CW: Well, I think it’s hard to talk about police reform outside of the context of COVID-19. I just think that you’ve had this combustible mixture from March to the period we’re in now in October. I think that’s important because we’re at an incredible point in American history – actually in world history. We wrote a publication back in 2007 on the pandemic and I thought when we were writing it, “Well, this will never happen.” We talked about quarantines…we talked about social distancing…the delivery of vaccines…the role of the police…what if people don’t want to social distance…what if people don’t want a quarantine…how to manage the economy, and all of those things.

Again, we wrote that back in 2007, almost 14 years ago. Then this thing hits and the police have been in the middle, insofar as being that response unit to all things that have happened as a result of the pandemic and the role that they’ve played in terms of social distancing; how they themselves have had to change during the pandemic, in terms of staffing…in terms of delivery of services…in terms of outsourcing things. Some departments have been devastated. Now, the NYPD has had 46 members of the department who have died, thousands who’ve gotten infected…while there are other departments around the country who have hardly been infected.

Then we’re into the second wave now. One of the things – and you would appreciate this – that’s so good about policing is the ability to adapt to any kind of emergency situation. You take the Yonkers Police Department and the police commissioner there — he realized in one of his areas of the city that his officers were getting infected…so he put them in one-officer cars.

People would say, “Why is that so significant?” Well, you have union agreements. You would never be able to put officers in one-response unit cars in any normal service. Everybody understood, like in New York and then Detroit, officers were infecting each other. Then in terms of dispatch and response, like in Detroit, you had

a dispatcher who got sick and actually, I believe, died. They had to close down the dispatch center and open up another just like that.

Policing was just getting into that groove — it’s almost like having a hurricane or 9/11 or Boston bomber situation, which is like a one-day thing. But what happens when that one-day event happens day after day after day. You have 12-hour shifts. And you have police command that are separated, like Dermot Shea, the police commissioner of New York and his first deputy — they’re never in the same room…they’re in different places. And you have mayors and police chiefs both getting it.

RH: If COVID had not occurred, what would have been the fallout from the George Floyd event, and how would that have impacted American policing versus how it actually did?

Chuck: That’s a really good question because COVID had this impact that people really don’t understand yet. Historians are going to look back at this period and try to figure out what was going on. Because you have this dynamic in which people are staying at home quarantining themselves, and we saw some crimes get lower, while other crimes increased. When the George Floyd incident happened, it was horrible. I mean, it was just devastating.

It reminded me to some degree of the Rodney King incident in terms of the visceral image of someone being beaten, or in this case, who subsequently died. But I wonder what happened when the demonstrations occurred across the country — they were demonstrations unlike anything we’ve seen since the ’60s, both in terms of the number, the degree, and so forth — I wonder if, to what degree the pandemic had on people in terms of getting out of their house, finally being outside expressing themselves…because I’ve also seen an increase in shootings and murders across the country.

I’ve been asking people about that, what impact does the pandemic have on relationships in terms of drug dealing, gang activity, and so forth? Some of that is about things that were happening to people, and that small things might lead to larger things very quickly. Gun sales went way up. So, I don’t know. What do you think?

RH: Chuck, it’s hard to say because I think that before George Floyd, there was a cumulative fatigue occurring in the public around police incidents. It was cumulative, Chuck, in my opinion, not because there has been any fundamental shift in policing, but because video cameras are so ubiquitous in every part of society, that events that historically would not have been that visceral video image, now are. I think much like you, Chuck, I think it’s hard to opine on or know the impact of COVID on the public outcry. But I think it’s very safe to say that long before George Floyd, there was a cumulative exhaustion happening, because the images of all police – and it goes to 800,000 police officers in the United States – and one event, ultimately reflected on everyone, over and over again, which is a complicated dynamic.

CW: I think that’s a really good point. I think that – and you know this because you were involved in Chicago at the time when I thought you were crazy when you installed all these cameras in Chicago ­– I thought, “Oh, my God, that will never work”. But it had a dramatic impact on people, neighborhoods, rather than people wanting them taken away and people thinking, “Oh, my God, big brother, this is surveillance.” They had exactly the opposite reaction. They actually felt safer walking around. I know you were really responsible for implementing that.

It’s interesting because we wrote the guidelines of body-worn cameras for the Justice Department. I remember writing the introduction to that, and basically saying that this is going to change things in ways we don’t know. When all these departments started adopting body-worn cameras, say five or six years ago around the time of Ferguson — what people thought was going to happen with body-worn cameras didn’t really happen. They thought body-worn cameras would prevent these incidents from happening. What body-worn cameras have done is actually captured footage and scenes that the American people don’t usually see. And you had all of these other cameras out there from citizens. What hasn’t changed, quite frankly, is the body-worn cameras haven’t changed how you handle some of these situations, they just record them. Now they may have changed or impacted other things – how you treat people – but at the end of the day, unless you change training and policy and culture, all you’re doing is recording it. It’s just a small footnote of how technology can sometimes have an impact but doesn’t always have the impact you expect.

RH: Yes, isn’t that true, Chuck? Let me ask you this, because you just touched on training and policy and culture. Chuck, you wake up tomorrow and you’re no longer the executive director of PERF, but you are a police chief of a major city. You’re putting your game plan together to figure out what would be your pathway. And, I would argue too, Chuck – and I think you’d likely agree – that whether it’s Chicago or Baltimore or New York or LA or Philadelphia…all of the large cities and midsize cities alike are struggling with the same issues of what we like to say is, restoring the honor of the badge, building back public trust and faith in the police. What would be some of the things that would be on the top of your list for your city, as a chief, to think about or implement to begin down that road?

Chuck: It’s a series of things in no particular order. I’m a big proponent, as I know you are, of Good to Great by Jim Collins. He’s someone I have a lot of respect for and I’ve done a lot of work with him. I think part of it is building your own team, getting the right people on the bus…the right people in the right seats. That management team is really important, how that is reflective of your values. When I look at situations police departments get into, I look at how that command staff communicates with each other. If something happens at two o’clock in the morning that’s a bad issue, how long does it take for that police chief to know what actually happened? In really well-run organizations, that can be very quick. In today’s society, communication is so important. You see police chiefs who handle these incidents really well.

In essence, the first part of the answer is, I want to get a command staff that is reflective of my values, which should be their values. Do they have – honesty, transparency, community sensitivity, responsiveness – all of those things. What’s going to be my relationship with the community? How am I going to manage that? Then look at the internal organization — so key indicators. Where do we stand on a whole set of factors? Where do we stand in terms of policy, high-risk situations? How are we going to handle that? What kind of organization, what kind of feedback loop do we have? If we screw up, how are we going to handle screw-ups? We know how to handle success. How do we handle failure?

RH: Let me challenge you on how to handle failure. I’m going to ask you to tell a story, Chuck, that you shared with me that has resonated with me almost more than any other police chief story that I’ve heard. It’s the idea of what do we do when we screw up? I would say, my opinion Chuck, is American policing has gotten dramatically better. We release tape, we call on the family, we get in front of it. We meet with community, we apologize. By the way, those are just dramatic shifts from even a year ago — the idea that a chief prior to a full investigation would say anything other than we need to let the investigation occur, is lost on the public. To those of us who’ve been deeply involved in policing, it’s a massive shift.

The story that I want to ask you about, Chuck, is a story related to not what you do when you mess up, but rather how do you try to limit the mess-ups before they occur? How do you get in front of that deeply problematic use of force event that will always look terrible on TV? When you and I had this conversation a year ago at IACP, we were sitting there in Chicago, not knowing about COVID-19, when you told me a story about John Timoney in Miami and what he did. Do you mind sharing that story of Chief Timoney and the dramatic impact he had on Miami?

CW: John Timoney is one of my heroes…a renaissance man who was also a street cop and very worldly. Any kind of use of force insights I have I owe to him to the greater degree. He came to the United States as an Irish immigrant with his brother. Basically, he worked his way up through the NYPD. He was there in that Camelot period of time when Bill Bratton became police commissioner in the early ’90s. He had a meteoric rise…he was like a one-star and he was made a four-star…a legendary person in the NYPD because he had the big picture. He was very smart. He was very well-regarded by his peers.

Bratton saw this in him and promoted him. He was a major part of the Bratton team. I would say he was one of the three or four key people. So, he does that, and then he becomes Philadelphia Police Commissioner, where he made some major changes. Then he comes to Miami, where he was also president of PERF. He and I really knew each other for 20 years. He’s really good at diagnosing issues. The one thing he understood better than anyone was use of force.

So, Miami had a major Justice Department investigation…a memorandum of agreement or consent decree, basically, because Miami had been involved in a pattern of use of force cases. But he had these good people around him and he had to identify how to deal with use of force.

He did a series of things. He changed the use of force policies, he brought many of the lessons from New York — don’t shoot at cars, firearms discharge review. Then he recognized that a number of officers were involved in a series of use of force incidents. He actually looked at that himself, and he identified the officers that had been involved in these use of force situations. He basically took them off the street and put them in places where they couldn’t cause harm.

In some ways, it was like he had this intuitive early warning system in which basically, using his good judgment, he looked into these situations: “Wait a second, look at these guys. They’ve been involved in a series.” He identified them and took them off the street. Then something unusual happened. Miami went 21 months without an officer-involved shooting. It was remarkable. He used to pride himself on that; he’d say, “Chuck, got another month, another month.” Importantly, crime went down, use of force off the charts. He then went back to the Justice Department and said, “Look what we’ve done.” They sent him a letter saying, “You are now in compliance.” It was really an amazing story.

RH: Chuck, right before he came, there had been a large number of officer-involved shootings.

CW: There had been a series of them. He inherited a department that had a series of abuse instances and the Justice Department investigated and he comes into that and on his own, he does it. But here is the postscript to this story: This is like an experiment, a real experiment. So, then he leaves…another police chief comes in, let’s call him the “un-Timoney”. He comes in, he takes those officers, puts them back on the street, and the shootings start to go way up and the Justice Department comes back. True story.

RH: Chuck, this is what so deeply resonated with me when you and I were meeting and you shared that story with me. What resonated is that that is exactly what Benchmark as a research organization does and sees — is that you have a small group of officers who are repetitively using dramatically higher levels of force more often. And ultimately, the argument that I make over and over again whenever I get the audience of Chiefs, is that it’s a noble thing and that everyone can be Timoney, in my opinion. Because if you do nothing else, but in a non-punitive, non-disciplinary way, find a better fit for those officers where we know they have a pattern of force that gets used over and over again, is just an easy button, if you will, to try to get in front of what are incredibly complicated incidents.

Timoney is now my hero as well. I was lucky enough when I was a young police officer in the Chicago Police to have met him. He was a legend back then and hearing him talk about the profession and about force was super compelling.

Don’t miss Part 2 of this conversation, where Mr. Wexler discusses generating new policies and procedures for desired outcomes and the need to invest in the future of policing.

This interview has been edited for clarity.