Understanding Agency Culture and its Impact on Reform

The following is part 2 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 agency culture, reviewing use of force incidents captured on camera from other agencies to collaborate on generating new policies and procedures for desired outcomes . . . as well as the need to invest in the future of policing in meaningful ways rather than defunding the police.

RH: Chuck, I’d like to go a little bit deeper dive on culture…and for those of you who don’t know, Chuck publishes interviews six days a week (through PERF). I would say it’s pretty compelling…and for those who don’t subscribe to that email, I have found it super important as a way to hear the voices of other folks and what they’re struggling with…and I think your decades of experience helps in synthesizing that information.

You had a column that you published in your email, that you said to me got the most response — and I found it very compelling. It was about Monday morning quarterbacking. Can you give us a quick summary, Chuck, of what you advocated for and why it’s such a sea change from what’s occurring today in American policing?

Chuck: Well, the area that I find the most fascinating and has the most opportunity for change and reform is the one that’s least talked about — and that’s culture…the culture of an organization. I’ve gone into literally hundreds of police departments in the country, as you have Ron, and you walk into a department and you can feel what kind of culture it is. And there’s not just one culture in a police department, there’s the 11th District culture…there’s detective culture, and so on. The point is that culture, in so many ways, drives policy and action.

Like you, I think America has been exhausted from the videos that are seen, whether it’s in Kenosha, or it’s Rochester or George Floyd or it’s Ferguson…it’s exhausting. I began to think about this and I began to think about culture. You know, we teach ICAT, which is Integrated Communication Assessment Tactics, which is going to change policing. When we were in that class with people, we would show them videos because my folks view videos every single day. We’ve been doing this for five years on every officer-involved shooting. We have a Google search engine that’s picking them up, looking at them, analyzing them…and that’s how we develop our training. When you show these videos to a class of police, the first thing they do is they fold their arms, they cock their head about 45 degrees, and someone raises their hand and says, “You weren’t there. We shouldn’t be commenting on it.” We all look at him; we know it’s at that moment they’re in charge of the informal culture in that room.

You have to work through that issue with them. For people who are such tough guys, they can be very sensitive about criticism, and so forth. They want to protect each other — understood. However, today, what we know is with 18,000 police departments and all these videos, if you don’t take that video, and you don’t use that video in your own department and say, “What would happen if we had this situation?” You’re wasting an opportunity.

The idea is this terrible thing happened, like Rochester, for example. You look at that situation, and you say to yourself, “Okay, it’s three o’clock in the morning, we get this call, we have this naked person, we think he’s on PCP…how would we handle that in our city?” My point is that we need to be doing Monday morning quarterbacking and policing because that’s the way the field is going to change. It’s not going to change if we say we can’t talk about that because we weren’t there. That’s the old thinking.

The new thinking is, “This is a terrible thing that happened. How can we learn about that so that maybe a terrible thing won’t happen to our community? And it’s okay…maybe we don’t have the answers.” I’ve even said, take that video from Rochester, and go into a community and bring stakeholders together and show them the video and say, “What should we do in our community? Should the police own this or should a social service agency? Are they available at three o’clock in the morning? Would you like to come with us to that call?”

There’s a way to take these tragedies and use them in a way that’s helpful to your own community so that people get a sense, first of all, how your own department would perform. Sometimes you’ll find out it’s almost like how the NTSB does it with airplanes when they crash…they try to figure it out. This is different. This is much lower risk because you’re not doing your own department. I still believe in that. Chris Magnus in Tucson is doing a magnificent good job but this is a way in which every day you can be teaching your department and learning where you have gaps. “Would we do this? Do we have policy on this? No, we don’t. Oh, okay.” So, I think that’s how policing is going to change. That’s all culture. We have to write this policy. We have to train this way, but what happens in the real world, does that make sense?

RH: To me, it makes a ton of sense. The challenge to do that is you have to make it safe for people and it’s a hard thing to do. Chuck, you know them but a lot of people probably don’t — in my many jobs in life, I was the CEO of the Chicago Transit Authority. I had a few derailments while I was the CEO and the NTSB came out, and the train operator was in the room, the Union was in the room, I was in the room, the NTSB was in the room and it was designed in a way that was safe. We were all just trying to figure out what went wrong in the system so that we could ultimately fix it and make it less likely to happen in the future…and it was wildly effective because we would always end up with action items.

CW: It’s interesting because when you are doing it on your own, there are some risks involved. Let’s face it, it’s like, you can uncover, “Oh, my God, we didn’t do this,” but it is what it is because someone’s going to find out so it’s better to find out right away. What I’m talking about in some ways is very low risk because it happened in someone else’s jurisdiction. You’re trying to learn from it. It’s almost like a very low-risk, high-outcome kind of thing where you have the value of sitting around with your colleagues and say, “What if five officers respond to that?” You’ve seen that in Chicago, right? You can have five people respond and one of those officers somehow knows that the other four are doing something wrong, but he or she doesn’t know how to deal with it — “What do I say? What do I do? This doesn’t feel right”.

RH: I think one of the most befuddling, challenging things for folks to wrap their head around, is this idea of de-fund the police. I think that’s the case because no one really understands what it is. It’s more of a response or an outcry. Two questions, Chuck. One is, what do you think de-fund the police actually means? Why do you think this has become a thing in certain cities in the US?

CW: Well, it’s interesting. I’m just going to go back to Ferguson; if you look at that period, what did reform look like? Basically, it was about implicit bias training…and it was about body-worn cameras…it was about de-escalation. It was about those kinds of things…about training…it was about technology. Now with the George Floyd moment, I don’t think anyone expected that the response to this terrible incident would be how do we take resources away from the police department. It was counterintuitive. It almost felt like people were angry that we can’t fix the police, so let’s reduce the police. Let’s have other people do what the police should be doing.

We did a survey and we saw that about 48% of the police departments somehow have reduced their budget. Unfortunately, it had some impact. Now, I don’t know if that’s because of what’s happening with COVID-19, and the economy and taxes. I think some of that is there. I actually think what’s happening now is cooler heads are prevailing in most places, like in New Jersey and places where people say, “You know what, we need good police.”

The reality is, if you want to fix the police, it takes an investment. You have to invest in the police to fix the police. You look at Seattle. Seattle spent $100 million over five years to put in reforms. I think in terms of training, in terms of technology, in terms of technical assistance, those are relatively small pieces of a police department budget — 90% or 95% is personnel. If you have to cut a police department’s budget, you’re going to wind up either having to cut a class or not hire a class. Look, in New York, they went from $6 billion to $5 billion and in LA, they cut a quarter of a billion dollars. That’s huge…and you’re really impacting the future generations of that police department.

If you’re trying to change the culture, a big part of that is bringing new people in. I think that cooler heads are starting to prevail. It just seems to me counterintuitive if you’re trying to fix the police. Because if you’re trying to avoid that George Floyd situation or any of these situations, it means ultimately finding ways to get the police to respond differently. That requires attention, technology, training, hiring new people, and diversifying your workforce.

RH: Chuck, having run many large organizations like yourself, I can tell you, they only win when you invest in people in a meaningful way. When there is a death spiral of budget and cuts, the impact on morale is I think the exact opposite of what folks who are advocating for this would want to see happen. Rather than raising the standard, raising the expectation of conduct, investing in the training and the technology to achieve it, we’re seeing the opposite in some places.

CW: The only thing I have to measure this against was 2007 and 2008, when we had the great recession, and we did all sorts of reports on that period of time. It was really interesting because we run the Senior Management Institute for Police —you’ve been there, you know about it. What I found interesting was that departments, even though they had to cut back on hiring, they were sending people to SMIP. I remember talking to some people like Chuck Ramsey, and so forth, and I said, “You’re having to do this stuff.” And he said, “Well, you know what, we have to invest in the future.”

It was like you have to invest in people. I think those were the really great managers that recognized, I might have to cut here, but I want to make sure I’m sending my people. I want to make sure that we continue to move forward…even if we can’t hire new officers. I want to make sure I invest in my workforce.

RH: Chuck, we’re grateful for what you do. We’re grateful for the Police Executive Research Forum. For those folks who aren’t super familiar with it, it’s policeforum.org. I can tell you certainly as someone who has been involved or watching or participating in this profession for a long time, I’ve always found the work that you and your organization have done have helped lead the way throughout a lot of difficult times. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.