Chief Concerns: Re-evaluating Policing Models

By Guillermo Fuentes, MBA, and Chief Melanie Bevan, EdD

What has become clearer than ever before in today’s rapidly evolving police environment is that traditional policing models are being questioned and challenged.  In many instances, police agencies become quickly reflexive and do so without the requisite research, employee buy-in and systematic approach that would ensure success, just to stay ahead of a growing and seemingly unstable political environment.  These internal and solitary reforms, while often encompassing a much larger portion of the social construct, are coming to fruition at the most fundamental level and at their core, address the interactions of the police with its citizenry.  Simple avoidance of the issues is no longer an option, rather, thoughtful, compassionate, strategic, tactical and operational level responses by agency leaders must emerge as the norm.  Simply put, the most successful policing agencies of the 21st century are those that can effectively adapt to citizen-centric policing philosophies in redefined and evolving ways.

The father of community policing, Herman Goldstein, stated “The initiatives associated with community policing cannot survive in a police agency managed in traditional ways.” Yet decades later, what have agency leaders done to break from long-held traditional systems and processes?  While many agency leaders tout their successes in this realm using a combination of data-driven approaches in conjunction with community-oriented outreach, the harmonized and symbiotic community vs.  officer success they had hoped for has simply put, with rare occasion, has never materialized.

Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing recognized early on that “…. The police are the public and the public are the police”.  It was Sir Peel’s intent to develop and define an ethical police force.  But what do those words really mean in today’s politicized environment?  And how might police executives finally realize this interconnectedness-based success within their agencies and communities they serve?

The series of articles to follow, are authored by a conglomerate of municipal Law Enforcement Chiefs,  a Director (ret) within Homeland Security, an Inspector with a Canadian Police Service, a City Manager and Public Safety Director, a Chief Administrative Officer and a career politician.  The goal of these articles is to give law enforcement at all levels, particularly chief executives or those aspiring to be one, an understanding of both important and timely subject matter, as well as the tangible strategic initiatives to consider.

The first area of concern in this collaborative discussion is communication.  In the United States there are more than 53 million police interactions[1], of which approximately one thousand end in a police involved death[2]. Of the one thousand deaths, approximately 25% are African-Americans.

In the current environment with attention given to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public discourse surrounding police involved shootings, what is lost is context.  Are law enforcement executives effectively communicating or contextualizing the statistics or more importantly, the subject?

Strategic Campaign Platform

First knowing the facts
Contacts Between Police and The Public, 2015[3]
Elizabeth Davis, Anthony Whyde, BJS Statisticians, Lynn Langton Ph.D., former BJS Statistician
October 11, 2018    NCJ 251145
BJS (The Bureau of Justice Statistics) functions:

  • Interviewed more than 135,000 citizens in about 76,000 households regarding experiences they may have had as crime victims.
  • Describe characteristics and consequences of approximately 21 million criminal victimizations.
  • Analyze operations of some 50,000 agencies, offices, courts, and institutions that together comprise the justice system.
  • Count populations and conduct sample surveys among the 7.2 million adults who during an average day are subject to the care, custody, or control of federal, state, and local criminal justice authorities.
  • Maintain more than four dozen major data collection series from which it publishes and distributes reports nationwide.
  • Undertake special data collections and analyses to respond to programmatic, policy, and legislative needs of the Department, the Administration, Congress, and the criminal justice community.
  • Maintain a website and data archive that has up to 24,000 visitors a day, including scholars, students, policy-makers, the media, and others around the world.
  • Provide assistance to users in identifying sources of BJS information, interpreting statistical data from BJS series and data collections, and in understanding the methodologies of BJS surveys.

BJS presents data on the nature and frequency of contact between police and U.S. residents age 16 or older, including demographic characteristics of residents, the reason for and outcomes of the contact, police threats or use of nonfatal force, and residents’ perceptions of police behavior during the contact.

Highlights: All statistics are a snapshot of the entire United States as an aggregate, all differential statistics are normalized.

  • The portion of U.S. residents age 16 or older who had contact with the police in the preceding 12 months declined from 26% in 2011 to 21% in 2015, a drop of more than 9 million people (from 62.9 million to 53.5 million).
  • The number of persons experiencing police-initiated contact fell by 8 million (down 23%), the number of persons who initiated contact with the police fell by 6 million (down 19%), and the number experiencing contact from traffic accidents did not change significantly.
  • Whites (23%) were more likely than African American (20%) or Hispanics (17%) to have contact with police. These statistics are further contextualized through out the rest of the article.

Police were equally likely to initiate contact with African American and whites (11% each) but were less likely to initiate contact with Hispanics (9%).  This may seem misleading but the statistic is the probability of police initiated contact and is already corrected to the population concentration by race. The facts above are in stark contrast to the narrative currently being portrayed in the United States. The difference in perception is due to oversimplification of the issue and as such it has become common practice to categorize police contacts based solely on race above all else.  Based on this formula, African-Americans do appear to have a disproportionate amount of police contacts and violent outcomes.  That assumes, however, that criminality is equally distributed amongst society and race, which from a population standpoint is not the case.  Since most Police contacts are initiated through 911 for an “in-progress” activity, one could argue that race is a very poor common denominator and is being used to explain a complex and multi-faceted societal issue that arguably misleads public discourse from identifying underlying issues that require greater attention.

In framing this issue, it is important to remember that statistics are merely capturing enumerative values and therefore cannot support a contention that racial disparity or inequitable treatment doesn’t exist.  This simply means that the narrative is being portrayed disproportionately and as such, can create disproportionate counter-corrections and over-corrections, that in the end may be harmful and/or, have unintended consequences.  It is difficult in any organization to successfully plan for the future without accurate measurements of the problems of today.

So, what does it mean to become strategic as an organization?  It isn’t as simple as a Police Chief standing up and quoting statistics and defending their agencies policing successes. Anecdotal evidence will always overwhelm numerical or empirical knowledge.  The reality is that one good story will beat statistical jargon, such as average and mean, every day.  However, it does mean that specific circumstances in areas of opportunities such as during neighborhood meetings, community forums, and press conferences, informed discussion and information needs to replace anecdotal discussion and information. There are steps that police executives should consider in order to achieve a level of success that can sustain their respective agencies.

One of the first steps is to create a team of advisors in order to develop strategic outreach and management of public affairs.  Police departments for far too long have been introspective and tight -lipped about information management.  Agencies have used internal resources to interpret and disseminate messaging to agency members, local elected officials, the public at large, and special interest groups to include minority groups and policy makers.  A better strategic model would be to create and utilize  the input and counsel of specific groups of advisors in order to develop messaging that is specific to each one of the categories and/or topics that they are attempting to address.  The lack of internal diversity, absent in many police agencies, affects even the most well-intended and effective communication strategies.  A lack of effective and on-point guidance often results in messaging that remains largely unheard in the public forum, specifically within the social media realm.  While many police executives are pushing back from forming citizen advisory committees, the pendulum has shifted within the past few months, with more progressive agency leaders seeing this cadre of community members as more of a benefit to their agency than not.

The second step within the creation of effective and strategic communication, is to ensure there is an intelligence-led and data-driven component to any strategic outreach or public communications strategy.  These types of influencers; community leaders et al, need to be better informed than their neighbors, with knowledge provided directly to them by police leaders.  In short, the narrative needs to change from anecdotal to a larger societal based discussion.  Agencies fail their communities by not addressing the issues with a blend of real knowledge and data, and personal approach.   It is imperative that the dialogue propagated by police leaders to community leaders and eventually to the public as a whole, should be borne of factual information; what is really happening in their communities versus what the public might come to believe via erroneous messaging.  It is time to address more effective information sharing, as it truly belongs to the communities served.

The third step is to develop a systematic, proactive messaging model. One of the largest challenges within police agencies lies in the fact that they and their legal representatives do not want cases to be judged by public opinion.  Providing the public their right to know while maintaining the privacy afforded for a fair and unbiased trial or discipline-related matter, is a legal and sometimes ethical balancing act.  While this fine line exists, it is clear that reactive messaging is simply not working. To say nothing is even less successful.  In today’s social media market where opinions versus fact are often blurred, police and the public find themselves at a crossroad, far from the symbiotic relationship that Sir Robert Peel imagined so long ago.   Whether in a tribunal, arbitration hearing  or court of law, the police may have done their job and be found not guilty of their actions, however, in the court of public opinion, they have been tried and convicted long before the actual justice system weighs in.  Cell phone camera footage, which may only capture a fraction of the story, is posted to social media long before an officer has a chance to explain their side of the story.  Police Departments need to be proactive in social media and participate in dispelling misinformation and creating their own narrative in order to accurately share and dispel some of the bias toward the incident or agency as the incident unfolds, and to counteract incomplete or misleading information being streamed by the public in real-time.

The fourth strategic step relates to mainstream media. While potentially having a diminished role within today’s modern ‘news-now’ social network information exchange, mainstream media still shapes much of the narrative in today’s society.  Police Chiefs and other law enforcement officials must have proactive and clear lines of communication with their media partners.  It is imperative to have an established level of trust with local mainstream media in order that a balanced message can be delivered at a point where negative incidents occur. The concept often referred to as proactive forgiveness is that mainstream media can deliver good messaging, expert messaging, and create a sense of righteousness around a subject, so that later, when social media attempts to diminish it, people will say “but that’s not what I heard on the news”.

The fifth step is to recognize the power of direct messaging through social media.  While it does have its downfalls, as it is often raw and allows for uncontrolled exchanges, it carries with it the power of immediacy. It also allows for complete candor and accuracy in messaging by the agency before media outlets put their spin on things.  More successful police agencies have an established social media footprint within all forums (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) in which their message can be shaped and shared at the appropriate time to an oftentimes larger audience than mainstream media can offer in some instances. Case in point, a single post gone viral might garner 2 million views, while a local community newspaper might have no more than 40k subscribers.  The problem remains that the 2 million viewers may or may not be in your community and opinions may not be reflective of the community you serve. It is important to balance local mainstream media with at-large communication in social media.

The final and most important step in a successful strategic plan is to establish an increased level of trust and accountability with the public. While the term transparency is often thrown around as a blanket statement for communications in policing, it has a very specific meaning and one which many executives have not fully embraced. For police agencies to establish transparency, more communication is always better than less. This may mean that police services allow all levels within the organization to communicate with the public. Police agencies and their oftentimes antiquated and conservative hierarchy, struggle with communication on a vertical axis. Top-led communication, while important in crisis in the paramilitary history of policing, may not be the only way in which a police service can share with, and learn from, our communities.

For police departments to properly communicate challenges, they need to establish a clear communication pathway that allows upper management to know the challenges the frontline are facing and to be able to use that knowledge to both change policy and assist the frontline with the communication to the public.

Sir Robert Peel understood, in the nineteenth century, the very nature of community engagement.  One of his nine principles states, “To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” Now more than ever, it is crucial for police executives to recognize the need to cast away arcane long-held beliefs and operating philosophies. Police executives need to recognize the power of public opinion and the need to work together in creating a strategic plan, in order for both sides to fairly share information and arrive at a consensus-oriented outcome.  In fact, the future of Community Policing in America may depend on this.

[1], Bureau of Justice Statistics


[3], Bureau of Justice Statistics