Guest Opinion: Real police reform may require new ways of looking at results

By Hubert Locke
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle police escort a 2009 protest group.

By Hubert Locke

A single page in a recent edition of the New York Times offers a stark picture of the present state of criminal justice in these United States.

The April 4 newspaper features three stories. The first reports the release of an inmate after 30  years on Alabama’s death row; the U.S.  Supreme Court ruled that his defense, by a court-appointed attorney, was so feeble as to be “constitutionally deficient.” An attorney declared the released inmate “was convicted because he was poor. We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent and his case proves it.”

A second story announces the decision of the San Francisco chief of police to dismiss seven S.F. officers for sending or receiving text messages about burning crosses and lynching African-Americans. The messages, including denigrating comments about homosexuals, Hispanics and Filipinos, were sent or received by 14 members of the department. Lawyers, in their defense, state the texts were little more than naïve banter “meant to blow off steam in their high-stress jobs.”

The third story appears to be another chapter in the unending saga of policing in Ferguson, Missouri. It reports on the release of emails circulated by the chief clerk of the court and two police supervisors that include such gems as a photo of president Ronald Reagan feeding a chimpanzee with a baby bottle of milk, accompanied by the caption: “Rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in early 1962.”

Taken together, these three stories can only add to a growing debate around the nation. Do they depict admittedly alarming exceptions to the network of police, prosecutorial, judicial and correctional institutions that constitute the “criminal justice system" in America? Or are they all-too-frequent examples of people and a process that seems to have gone haywire, one in which the rule of law is administered by increasing numbers of individuals who have little respect for the law and even less for certain categories of people who are subject to it?

For those of us who try to defend the first proposition, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the Alabama death row inmate is the 152nd person to be exonerated from a death sentence since 1973. Racially disgusting jokes and photos, and other paraphernalia, are no longer confined to dingy bars and sweaty locker rooms. In this digital age, they increasingly appear in emails and tweets as manifestations of a cultural sewer, coursing through the society in places where we would expect more elevated behavior.

Perhaps, and in part for this reason, the San Francisco story may be the most despairing of all. The City on the Bay has long enjoyed an image of left-wing respectability where the kinds of antics reported by its police chief simply don’t occur. That they have occurred — and in the veritable Citadel of Liberalism — ought to be a wake-up call to all the nation’s smug advocates who proclaim that we are living in, or quite close to, a post-racial America.

So, what do we do about this pernicious, persistent, diseased attitude that seems to afflict so many criminal-justice practitioners in our midst? I have a pretty good idea of what won’t work. We’ve had an overabundance of T-groups and sensitivity training, along with other attempts to convince bigots that they ought to behave better. Clearly, something different and more effective is needed.

In the search for different and more effective police practices, one that is persistent and almost universal should warrant particular attention to those hoping to see changes. I was introduced to it a half-century ago, while serving as the civilian assistant to the police commissioner in my hometown. It seemed — at the time — a perfectly reasonable thing for police commanders to do. Only over the years has it become apparent how a useful management tool has become subject to flagrant abuse and how much it has contributed to the present state of mistrust and conflict between law enforcement and those the police are supposed to serve and protect.

Police commanders have always faced the problem of how to monitor and measure the performance of the rank-and-file. Patrol officers — once they leave their precinct stations — are, for all practical purposes, on their own. A police sergeant or lieutenant — if he or she is good at his job — will also be out on the street, making firsthand observations of how officers are going about their work. But the command officer cannot be everywhere at once.

So, some other device has been and still is needed to assess whether patrolmen and patrolwomen are doing their assigned tasks.

Someone somewhere came up with the clever idea of using certain standard police practices as measures of police performance. On the face of it, it would seem a straightforward, unbiased way of assessing officers: One determines that, on an average shift on a given day, an officer who is alert and on the job will — also on average – observe a given number of traffic infractions and a likely number of misdemeanor offenses. If the patrol area or neighborhood has a serious crime problem, an alert officer will find the occasion to make a given number of arrests. All this, again, has been advanced over the years as perfectly reasonable, objective ways to evaluate police job performance

It is an unfortunate and relatively small step from this age-old police practice to the situations we have to read about currently, in which an officer ostensibly sets out to write a ticket or issue a citation for some petty offense — jaywalking, a broken tail light, etc. — and ends up with the offender shot dead.  It is even more egregious to find out that what began as a way to measure police performance has become, in cities and towns all across the country, a way for municipalities and counties to balance their budgets — using income from tickets that police officers write to augment tax collections and other sources of government income.

(In some jurisdictions, including here in Washington state, insult is added to injury by courts that turn over the process of collecting delinquent fines to private collection agencies that promptly add outrageous collection fees to the fine and proceed to add interest charges for those that go uncollected. To all this, some jurisdictions add the practice of incarcerating citizens who can’t or don’t pay their fines!)

What we have, in brief and in essence, is a disgraceful system of unlawfulness and disorder that desperately needs to be dismantled and redesigned. We might begin by figuring out a different way to assess police performance on the streets — one that places at least as much emphasis and weight on community order and stability as a performance evaluation measure as it does on how many traffic tickets an officer writes.

Gary Marx, an astute observer of police behavior made an insightful observation over 40 years ago about the whole enterprise. When it comes to measures used by police to assess officer performance, Marx states, we tend to ask how much, rather than how well. We need, in brief, to develop measures that will tell us about the quality of police performance rather than accumulate data on how many tickets an officer can write in the course of an eight-hour shift.

It might be assumed that police unions and their leadership would be the first to resist this new approach, but enlightened union leadership ought to be among the first to embrace it.

Given the chance to engage in the definition of what a professional cop really is and does, police unions ought to be in the forefront of efforts to state forthrightly what that constitutes. Such a definition, with generous community input, might set us on the path of a new and unprecedented rapprochement between the police and those they serve.


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