February 19, 2022

The Difficult Challenges Faced by Two Chiefs


Dear PERF Members,

Today I’d like to direct your attention to two former police chiefs: Peter Sloly in Ottawa, and Daniel Hahn in Sacramento. Their stories reflect the challenges that police chiefs face, and a common denominator is use of force.

First, Peter Sloly. One week ago, he was police chief of Ottawa. A week later, he has resigned.

Interestingly, it was Chief Sloly’s concern about the risks of using force without sufficient additional resources that became problematic for him. Think about the facts as we know them and Peter’s choices. A decision by the national government about COVID vaccinations resulted in a widespread, coordinated, unprecedented, massive occupation of the city.

From the beginning, this action by 3,000 truckers in response to government decisions got defined as a police problem, but who really owns the resolution to this problem? Chief Sloly didn’t think his agency alone was sufficient to deal with this unprecedented challenge, so he pushed political leaders to step up and engage as well as provide sufficient resources. That brought a demand for more forceful action from the political leaders against what were ostensibly very vocal but otherwise peaceful protesters.

Is the Ottawa situation similar to the Occupy movement in the United States in 2011? It appears that the protesters in Ottawa were being more disruptive, blocking roads for weeks and disturbing the peace in residential neighborhoods. In 2011, I remember that some U.S. cities were forceful in handling Occupy protesters, while others sent cops out to talk with and engage the demonstrators. It’s always a balancing act between protecting demonstrators’ First Amendment rights while also protecting public safety, and police are in the middle. The reality is that a decision either to use force quickly or to hold back and communicate may have terrible repercussions that will be difficult to predict -- even with the best training and policies.

In Ottawa, there were demonstrators in vehicles that had been disabled. Many of the truckers had brought their children along. And there was a tow truck industry that was reluctant to get involved. Was the “immediate force” option a better decision than engaging political leaders to push for a united response on multiple levels? Police chiefs in North America will look at this situation and ask if this a public safety issue or a political standoff that requires everyone to be involved.

And when the force option was envisioned, would the public be supportive of an action that could inevitably result in injuries to protesters and police alike? If that option was taken, wouldn’t the question be, “Why didn’t the police use negotiation and de-escalation tactics?”

Have we come to the conclusion that when something doesn’t go right – because either too much force was used or not enough force – the outcome should be solely owned by the police chief?

As we go to print, it seems as if political leaders and both the national police force and local police force are coming together in Ottawa. Wouldn't that have made sense from the beginning, rather than putting all of this on one police force? Success and failure should be owned by multiple stakeholders, not one police chief.

Retired Sacramento Chief Daniel Hahn opens up to the Los Angeles Times

I also want to call your attention to a great interview of Daniel Hahn, who retired as Sacramento police chief at the end of December. Chief Hahn spoke with the Los Angeles Times this week about his career and some of the challenges he faced while leading the Sacramento Police Department. Here are a couple highlights:

On his agency’s 2018 fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, and the need to go beyond the question of whether a shooting is legal:

“We often just stop at ‘was it legal or not,’ and we spend our time arguing whether it’s legal or not. There’s still people to this day that say that shooting was not legal even though it’s been investigated by local, state and the FBI, and all have come to the same exact thing. So to me, the question isn’t whether it’s legal or not. The question is how tomorrow do we ensure that everybody is alive at the end of the day?

“And we’ve had so many examples with training, with equipment, with our officers where there are people [who are alive] because of the changes that have been made in our department. So to me, it’s about are you better today than you were yesterday? Are people’s lives in the community better today than they were yesterday? And are your officers’ lives better, [because] happy, healthy officers do better work.”

On the challenges of being a Black officer:

“Some people, all they see is the shirt. And you’re not a human being; they blanket a whole group of people. I’ve been told this to my face. I’ve been told on social media, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to grow up as a Black man in Sacramento.’ And, typically, this is told to me by a non-Black person and oftentimes not a man. And there’s been plenty of times I lift my arm up and look at the color of my skin and I’m like, ‘Come again? So now you know more about being a Black person than me, an actual Black person?’ And I grew up in this city, in Oak Park. I know exactly what it’s like.

“And so it just goes to show you how radical people can get when they see a uniform…. You put on a uniform and all of a sudden you’re not a person anymore. Our Black officers get assailed the most on a skirmish line at a protest and belittled and yelled at, called Uncle Tom. The whole group will center on the African-American officer. The same group that says we need more African-American officers are the ones that are telling the African-American officer he’s a sellout and an Uncle Tom. You’re being disowned by your own community.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is there anything more racist than a white person being the gatekeeper on whether a Black person is Black?’”

I recommend you read the entire interview with Chief Hahn.

A couple brief items to be aware of….

Recent Washington Post update on its database on fatal police shootings

Justin Nix, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, wrote a blog post last weekend about the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings. Professor Nix has been keeping a close eye on the Washington Post’s data, which it has been collecting since 2015, and he has found that they’ve been a bit slower to update their information than they used to be.

What’s the takeaway from all this? We need more accurate data from police agencies to better interpret trends in these incidents.

New federal study suggests that Utah’s .05 BAC limit reduced fatalities

At the end of 2018, Utah enacted a law reducing the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for drivers from .08 to .05. This made Utah the first state to impose a limit below .08. In a study published last Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the number of fatal crashes and resulting fatalities declined more in Utah than in neighboring states and the entire country. 22% of Utah drinkers reported that the law had caused them to change their behaviors.

Drunk driving causes about 10,000 deaths in the United States every year, so a measure that might reduce those deaths should receive serious consideration from the other 49 states.

Have a good weekend.