July 15, 2023

Remembering a chief who showed how research can improve policing


PERF members,

Former Minneapolis police chief Tony Bouza passed away recently at age 94. Bouza began his career with the NYPD, leaving as an assistant chief in 1976 to become the deputy chief of the New York City Transit Police. In 1980, he was named Minneapolis police chief, a position he held for nine years.

There’s a lot I could say about Bouza, who was a character. The Minneapolis Star Tribune described him as “colorful and controversial,” and Minneapolis Public Radio said he was “outspoken” and “contrarian.” As the New York Times wrote, “In a paramilitary hierarchy where conflict is muffled, Mr. Bouza stood out by speaking his mind as a self-confessed maverick and ‘chronic malcontent.’” Bouza enjoyed a good debate and always questioned conventional thinking.

He was part of a remarkable group of NYPD leaders, including Neil Behan, who became the police chief in Baltimore County; Joe McNamara, who became the chief in Kansas City and San Jose; and Pat Fitzsimmons, who became the chief in Seattle. All four were inspired by NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy, and they implemented reforms in agencies across the country.

But I want to focus on his embrace of research. Then, as now, domestic violence cases presented police with a thorny problem and significant risk. (I’m often reminded of the tragic 2016 case in Prince William County, Virginia, where an officer was killed while responding to a domestic violence call on her first day on the job.) In the 1980s, when Bouza was chief in Minneapolis, police would often merely separate the parties and hope they resolved their differences, but repeat cases of domestic violence were common. Police needed guidance on better response options, and Bouza welcomed researchers into his department to study the issue.

Early in his tenure in Minneapolis, he invited the Police Foundation (now the National Policing Institute) to study his department’s response to domestic violence under a grant from the National Institute of Justice. As Patrick V. Murphy, president of the Police Foundation, wrote at the time, “[In domestic assault situations,] the common police tradition has been to do little. . . . Hunch, supposition, tradition had been their guides and they seemed insufficient. So the Police Foundation, through scientific inquiry, sought to supplant tradition with fact in resolving the question: How can the police deter future domestic violence?”

Researchers Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk randomly assigned one of three actions to officers responding to misdemeanor cases of domestic assault: arrest the suspect, remove the suspect from the scene for eight hours, or offer some form of counseling.

This was a risk. Bouza was allowing researchers to randomize responses that would affect people’s lives. And if one case went badly and the public found out the officers’ response had been randomly decided as part of a study, Bouza could’ve been out of a job. But he thought this sort of research was necessary to find out which police actions were most effective, as he explained in a letter accompanying the study’s final report:

“Police handling of chronic, thorny problems such as domestic violence cases usually has been characterized by seat-of-the-pants adoption of remedies thought to work. But little lay behind such cures except an untested belief in their efficacy.”

In his own accompanying letter, then-NIJ Director James “Chips” Stewart explained the unusual nature of this research:

“For the first time in the history of police research, a police department permitted experimentation with officers’ responses to a situation involving a specific offense. . . . The Minneapolis Police Department deserves immense credit for being the laboratory in which we could gain, in the most effective way possible, important new information about a common, serious police problem.”

Sherman and Berk found arrest to be most effective at deterring future domestic violence. As a result of this research, many individual agencies and entire states implemented mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases. In Connecticut, the U.S. District Court case Thurman v. City of Torrington led the state to pass a mandatory arrest law.

The Minneapolis study was just the starting point for research into this issue. Sherman and other researchers continued studying the topic, as Sherman described in a 2018 Criminology & Public Policy article. These studies confirmed the Minneapolis results in cases where the suspect had a job: arresting the suspect reduced their recidivism in the short term. But importantly, studies found that arrests increased recidivism among unemployed suspects. And one longer-term study found that victims of domestic assault had much higher mortality rates in the following 23 years if their abuser was arrested rather than warned.

Most states and individual agencies that implemented mandatory arrest policies because of the Minneapolis study have not developed more nuanced policies as a result of subsequent research. Jurisdictions should reevaluate these policies and continue studying the issue to determine when arrests are and are not appropriate.

The Minneapolis study didn’t tell us everything we needed to know about domestic violence policy, but it advanced our knowledge of the subject. Bouza deserves credit for welcoming researchers into his agency to develop evidence-based strategies that were used nationwide. I encourage you all to do what you can in your agencies to advance our collective knowledge. Because the alternative, as Bouza put it, is to be stuck with “seat-of-the-pants adoption of remedies thought to work.”