First Person: Why some police departments still do bad things

John DeCarlo served as a police officer and then chief of police for 34 years in Branford, Conn., before getting a PhD in criminal justice and going on to run the Police Studies program at John Jay College in New York. Here’s what he thought about the violence in Ferguson, Mo., where police unleashed tear gas Wednesday night on a largely peaceful crowd protesting the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. This interview has been edited for clarity.


Police in Ferguson, doing it wrong. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The ratio of citizen demographics to police department demographics is always something being looked at. There’s greater diversity in urban areas than suburban or rural areas. We find that demographics are better in bigger cities, but only 500 cities have more than 50,000 people. That leaves us with a national police presence that is overwhelmingly white.

The association that works on accreditation for police departments, CALEA, has 480 standards. One of them is that the police department should demographically reflect the community. And if it doesn’t, you have to show that you’re trying to recruit to balance your demographics. There are currently about 1 million cops. In 1987, we saw that one in six officers was non-white. Now we’re seeing one in four. It’s getting better, but very often the police departments look like this because of recruitment issues.

The riots in the 1960s were a different time in the country and a different time in law enforcement. In the ’30s and ’40s, police officers walked beats, and they were really more a part of the community. In the professional era, starting in the ’60s, police rolled up their windows, and they weren’t part of the community. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were moving back toward the community policing era, and problem-solving. It’s extremely important that police departments be integral and positive parts of their communities. You can’t just enforce the laws and walk away.

When we make a procedural change that is going to begin to improve policing, it has to diffuse through 18,000 departments. It takes a long time in the United States because of that home rule concept. The Home Office in the UK really oversees all policing — there’s a national police academy. We have them in every state.

It’s not that [departments like Ferguson’s] are holdouts. I think everyone in theory wants to do community policing, but they don’t have the resources, wherewithal or knowledge.

A lot say they’re doing it, and they legitimately think they are, but there’s so many interpretations of it and no efficient method to get out training. The Department of Justice has its Community Oriented Policing Services unit, but where do I get the money to send people to these schools? Where do I get the expertise?

Police are not soldiers, and they shouldn’t strive to be. Soldiers have enemies, and police do not. Police have communities.

Police depend on legitimacy for the efficiency of doing their job. You can arrest someone, but if you do it in a procedurally just way, it increases the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the community. Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing from 1829 — ‘the police are the people and the people are the police’ — are just as germane today.

The NYPD has 36,000 officers. They’re in a position to learn. They have training and resources and funding; they’re in the public eye every day. After the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, it was a learning curve. What they found was that they can’t force people to do what people don’t want to do. Crowd control became subsumed in a community policing model. The police officer spraying pepper spray — that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Vancouver BC, around the Olympics, used all these soft techniques — they didn’t have any trouble. And when they did start to have trouble, it was mitigated, because they didn’t use outright force.

With military equipment, we saw a decided militarization of police in the United States. Having done the job for 34 years, I want to say this without any equivocation: Police are not soldiers, and they shouldn’t strive to be. Soldiers have enemies, and police do not. Police have communities. With about a million cops in the United States, there’s a culture of policing. Very often, what we see is the tail wagging the dog. What they see is, they pick up a police magazine, and you see all these cats in black with shoulder weapons and everything, and cops think, “Well, that’s what we’re supposed to do!” We don’t have a mechanism to say, “Hell no! That’s not what you’re supposed to be doing!”
When I was police chief, we had three goals: prevent crime, prevent fear of crime, increase the quality of life in the community. That exemplified my belief in policing. It had nothing to do with the military. The chief I took over from told me: “You’re going to have all these people going out 24/7, and they’re going to be carrying guns. And you’re going to be worried all the time that something’s going to be going wrong.” The fact that we don’t have more of them is really a testament to the fact that policing is really not going in a bad direction. We do national surveys on a federal level; they ask people what happened — “Did you feel that it was fair?” — and it’s getting better all the time. The overwhelming majority of people think that police do their job well and fairly.

And, unfortunately, it’s the kind of job where a police officer makes a mistake; it’s serious. Cops are the most visible form of American government. When they do make mistakes, it’s something that needs to be corrected because they’re the part of the government that uses force.

John DeCarlo, retired police chief turned academic. (courtesy John DeCarlo) John DeCarlo, retired police chief turned academic. (courtesy John DeCarlo)

There’s no cogent connection between the research that’s being done and the people on the ground. I studied four cities – we found out what works best, how to enter into community engagement. It’s going to be one of those books we’re going to use as textbooks, but police chiefs won’t have access. I wrote an article in a journal, Police Quarterly, and like eight other academics are going to read it. It’s important; it’s about eyewitness identification. Cops don’t read that journal. They don’t even have access to it.

How do we give departments with 10 to 100 officers that information? We don’t have the money! We spend $123 for every man, woman and child on policing. That’s a lot of money. You know what it all goes for? It goes for running the police department, reacting to crime. Very little goes to accreditation, and training and research partnerships.

* Corrected to accurately reflect number of standards maintained by CALEA, and the date of the creation of the Peelian Principles. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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