Tue, Mar 28, 2017

The Value of an Independent Police Department Review: Getting Ahead of the Next Crisis

A series of high-profile police shootings of African American males and other persons of color over the past few years, many captured on smartphones and video cameras, have sparked national protests and international media attention. In July 2014, protests erupted in New York after Eric Garner, allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes on the streets of Brooklyn, died of a chokehold during an arrest. A month later, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking nationwide protests.

Three months later, Cleveland police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a public park. In April 2015, police in North Charleston, South Carolina, shot and killed 50 year-old Walter Scott after pulling him over for a non-functioning brake light. In July 2015, a University of Cincinnati police officer shot Samuel Dubose in the head, killing him instantly, when he started his car’s ignition during a traffic stop. More recently, the Chicago Police Department came under fire after officials released a dash-cam video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times while apparently walking away from the police.

The above are but a sample of police shootings around the country that have spurred public protests, negative media coverage, and calls for reform. Some cases resulted in criminal indictments and federal civil rights investigations; others led to leadership changes and independent monitors. Extensive national and international criticism has caused morale to plummet in police departments throughout the country. Many good police officers are understandably tired of being painted as the enemy. Certain communities, especially communities of color, sometimes feel under attack by the very people sworn to protect them. No police department is immune from the possibility – over time, the probability – of confronting a similar crisis. Every law enforcement agency in the United States is one controversial incident away from experiencing a critical fracture in community trust. What are police chiefs and public officials to do? How can they get ahead of the inevitable crisis?

Although budgets are understandably limited in every state, city, and municipal police department, many departments have benefited from the knowledge and insight that only an independent, top-to-bottom organizational review can provide. An organizational review conducted by an independent group of law enforcement experts, who know what it is like to run a police department and have decades of real-world experience and in-depth knowledge of best police practices, can identify current practices that may inhibit compliance with existing policies or which leave a department vulnerable to improper tactics and preventable encounters. Implementing identified best practices can help departments prevent allegations of racial profiling, incidents of excessive use of force, expensive litigation, and other potential controversies.

What Does a Comprehensive Organizational Review Involve? Depending on the Scope and Nature of the Review and a Department’s Needs, in Most Cases an Independent Expert or Consultant, Should:

  • Compare a department’s written policies with its operational history. This will be determined by interviewing key department command personnel, rank-and-file members, and community stakeholders; observing officers in the field; and examining statistical data on arrests, traffic stops, use of force, complaints, and other trends.
  • Determine the underlying reasons for any statistical disparities.
  • Assess the department’s data collection system to ascertain whether it adequately maintains, integrates, and retrieves information necessary for effective supervision and management. How does the department’s data collection system help in evaluating the performance of officers across all ranks, units, and shifts; manage risks and liabilities; and promote constitutional policing? Does the department effectively use the data to monitor and measure officer performance?
  • Assess information generated by early warning data collection systems to determine if reports are produced in a timely fashion to ensure real-time corrective action. Are the reports being used to identify and address problems? Are the reports being used as an effective risk management tool or merely tabulating non-actionable statistical information?
  • Explore ways in which a department may better utilize statistics to improve transparency and community trust.
  • Assess traditional and social media strategies and policies to determine how effectively the department’s command structure collaborates in communicating with the community on issues of public importance. In general, the more information that can be shared without compromising police investigations or negatively impacting citizen and officer safety, the more effectively a department can build trust and confidence in its operations.
  • Assess the department’s community engagement strategies and ability to present information to the public about the department and its operations, including initiatives to increase community participation and foster better relationships.
  • Review and assess all in-service training and field training (i.e., FTO Program) provided by the department
  • Assess the department’s supervisory oversight capabilities, including its field deployment plans and practices of implementation, and whether the ratio of supervisors-to-patrol units and specialized units in the field adequately addresses supervisory span of control issues and other important police management concepts.
  • Assess the department’s disciplinary process and determine if the policies and procedures for imposing formal discipline are consistently applied.
  • Examine the department’s efforts to recruit, hire, promote, and retain personnel, including efforts to increase ethnic, racial, and gender diversity within its ranks.
  • Evaluate the department’s marketing and messaging programs relating to its recruitment efforts. Increasing diversity within a police department means affirmatively reaching out to diverse groups that fully reflect the community the department is policing. Informational campaigns should be assessed on how effectively they address issues such as benefits, salaries, educational and promotional opportunities, and the meaningful nature of the work performed by the department.
  • Assess if the department sufficiently collaborates with community groups to identify potential testing and processing locations that are familiar and accessible to targeted diverse groups of applicants.
  • Assess the use-of-force options and equipment available to officers and the situations in which such force may be necessary; the training provided by the department on use-of-force options; the clarity and applicability of policy mandates that require de-escalation; and policies which identify when and in what manner the use of lethal and non-lethal force are permitted.
  • Review the policies, procedures, and practices related to pedestrian and traffic stops. This should include a review of statistically valid samples of pedestrian and traffic stops to determine if a lawful justification existed for the initial encounters and was not based upon improper criteria. The races of the persons stopped or detained, the locations of the stops, and the reasons for the encounters should be analyzed to determine any patterns or trends that demonstrate an inappropriate bias.
  • Finally, assess the extent to which policies and training practices provide department personnel with the necessary skills and information to interact effectively and safely with persons having mental health concerns.

An effective organizational review should utilize qualitative and quantitative approaches, as appropriate, in assessing and evaluating a department’s operations, the manner in which the department implements and enforces its policies and procedures, and the impact of a department’s operational practices on the community. Information gathered from an independent review can help a department improve its operations, community trust, and morale, and minimize the risks that an unjustified police-civilian encounter, the use of improper police tactics, or poor supervision will result in tragic consequences.

Mistakes will continue to be made. Police officers are fallible human beings who work in extremely stressful, dangerous, and volatile environments. But proactively addressing gaps in performance and being open to the experiences and observations of independent experts retained to consider the best interests of the department can potentially enhance a police department’s professionalism, ethics, integrity, and community trust for years to come.