At a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier urged police departments across the nation to stop measuring success by crime statistics alone and to incorporate empathy in policing as a way to foster greater trust.
“We have to stop measuring these things by numbers,” Lanier said at the American University forum, which focused on finding ways to ease tensions following the fatal shooting in August of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and other recent police-involved violent incidents across the country.
“The ability to close crimes in high-crime areas speaks volumes” about the ability to foster cohesive relationships between police and neighborhoods, Lanier said. To an audience of about 50, she spoke of seeing turnarounds in neighborhoods with high crime rates and typically low levels of cooperation with police.
Ronal Serpas, a panel member and former superintendent of police in New Orleans, said he had been hired by police departments to repair public trust in Washington state and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, among other places. He said that police leaders must seek “legitimacy in justice” by teaching officers that negative interactions with residents go beyond just the person interacting with an officer, but also to their friends, family members and neighbors.
“The literature shows us if we explain what we’re doing . . . we’re going to change people’s perception of our legitimacy,” Serpas said. “That will be less fights, less crime and more support in times of crisis.”
Members of the audience submitted written questions that focused primarily on how police departments can improve transparency and build trust. The event was hosted in part by the university’s School of Public Affairs.
Lanier suggested that rather than having a zero-tolerance policy with neighborhoods flooded with officers, police should be on the streets on the same shift over prolonged periods so they can establish contacts.
She also encouraged police leaders to do more than manage crime scenes, suggesting that they walk outside the crime-scene tape to engage residents.
Lanier also urged police departments to add empathy as part of their training regimens. Too often, she said, police are trained to believe that all residents are capable of harming them.
“For some reason, we hire and train cops to be like robots. It’s just not normal for us to show any compassion,” Lanier said. “We tell these kids when they come out of the academy, ‘Everyone is trying to kill you.’ ”
“It’s those little tiny things,” Lanier said, “that could change the way police officers are viewed nationwide, if we could just break that mold.”