January 23, 2021


Heeding the Call for Unity



Dear PERF members, 

If you had a chance to hear President Biden’s Inaugural Address on Wednesday, you no doubt picked up on the overarching theme of his remarks: unity.

The President’s call for unity was directed at political leaders in Washington, but it went much further than that. “I ask every American to join me in this cause,” he said. “Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness. With unity we can do great things.”

Which got me thinking: What is the role of the police and police leaders in carrying out the call for unity? What can police chiefs and sheriffs do right now to help unite our country, as the President has challenged all of us to do?

A National Priority, But a Local Issue

As much as unity is a national priority for the new Administration, the reality is that unity begins at the local level, in our cities and towns and neighborhoods. And at the local level, who better than the police to lead the effort at bringing people together?

Police patrol our neighborhoods every day, 24 hours a day. They know first-hand the people and the issues that communities face. Across the U.S., police officers and sheriffs’ deputies are the public face of our government. And when all else fails and people need help, it’s the police that they call.

Police chiefs and sheriffs already recognize that building trust with the community is a priority. In November, when PERF surveyed our members on the top issues in policing for 2021, “increasing public trust in the police” was at the top of the list, outranking issues such as reducing crime and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Why? Because police leaders recognize that to bring down crime, police need the community behind them.

So the police are ideally positioned to step up and help bring communities together, and police chiefs and sheriffs recognize this is a top priority. But what exactly can police leaders do to make this happen? What concrete steps should they be taking today?

In trying to answer those questions, I think there are important lessons to be learned from what some police leaders have done in the past when faced with crises of public trust.

In Boston, Assigning Your Best Cops to Address Racially Motivated Violence

When I worked in the Boston Police Department in the 1970s, we faced major challenges with the desegregation of the Boston public schools and the racial animosity and violence that followed. The police department found itself at the center of the storm, and the Black community in Boston simply didn’t trust the department’s response to racially motivated crime.

At the time I was working for Bob Wasserman, who is one of the most creative and strategic people in the business.  Bob was a civilian assistant to the Boston Police Commissioner. His idea was to identify some of the best cops in the department and put them in a special Community Disorders Unit (CDU) that would be run out of headquarters and report directly to the Police Commissioner. Their job was to take a second look at incidents that had initially been labeled simply as vandalism or arson or assault, and see if there was more to these crimes. Was there a concerted effort to intimidate and harm Black and other minority residents?

Because of the skill and reputation of the officers, and the support and leadership they received from the department, the CDU uncovered a troubling pattern of hate crimes. Their work resulted not only in numerous arrests, but also changes in policy and training.

The unit’s credibility within minority communities became legendary and a model for what a committed group of police officers can do to make a difference in people’s lives. I remember one incident in which a minority family moved into a housing development, and their home was firebombed. Detective Paul Carr took the family to a hotel and put the room on his own credit card. 

The CDU helped to turn the corner on the police department’s handling of race issues at a time of deep distrust. Was it enough to eradicate racial tensions in Boston? No, but it was an important turning point, and it provided a window into what could be done with the right people in place and a clear mission.

In Chicago, Sitting Down with Your Harshest Critics

In the late 1990s, when Terry Hillard was named Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, he had a major challenge on his hands. In the wake of several high-profile incidents, racial tensions between police and community were extremely high.

Terry asked me to come to Chicago to brainstorm about the situation. I met with him and one of his top deputies, Barbara McDonald – again, a civilian member and one of the smartest, most creative people I know. They wanted me to address department leaders about racial profiling and what to do about it.

To which I said, “I’m a white male from DC coming to talk to Chicago cops about racial profiling? That’s a nonstarter.” They asked what I would suggest, and I asked if they had ever engaged directly with the civil rights leaders and others who were the most vocal and strident critics of the police. They said, “Well, not really.”

So I proposed inviting those community leaders to meet with the entire command staff of the CPD. Terry and Barbara thought I was crazy, so I said I would moderate the session.

And that is what we did. We held our first “Forum,” as Terry liked to call them, and it started off badly. The community leaders peppered the command staff with issue after issue, and the commanders listened politely. But Terry Hillard sat patiently and took detailed notes. At the end of each meeting, Terry would say, “We will meet again in two weeks to report back on what is being done.” And two weeks later, Terry would go over the steps that had been taken, and a new round of discussions would begin.

This process continued for years, even after Terry had the left the department. And over time, those Forums became the place where difficult issues could be brought up, discussed, and acted on. And training, recruiting practices, and key department policies were changed as a result.

Did these Forums “solve” racial tensions in Chicago? Of course not. But they were a bold step toward greater trust and unity.

In Philadelphia, Bringing in Advocates to Help Revamp Sexual Assault Investigations

When John Timoney was Philadelphia Police Commissioner in the early 2000s, he faced a major challenge to the department’s credibility over its handling of sexual assault cases. Victim advocates and many others alleged that Philadelphia police were not properly recording these crimes and were doing a terrible job investigating them.

John recognized that no matter what policy or training changes he might implement, it was unlikely that the community would ever think that the department had truly transformed. So he did something unheard of: He invited the Women’s Law Project, a highly respected public service legal center dedicated to women’s rights, to sit alongside Philadelphia police detectives and go over sexual assault case files together.

Many people in the police department thought this arrangement would be a recipe for disaster, but both groups worked well together and found common ground. As a result of this process, policies and procedures were strengthened, and as importantly, legitimacy and trust with the community were restored.  And 20 years later, the Women’s Law Project continues to review sex assault case files on an annual basis alongside Philadelphia detectives, a practice now known as the “Philadelphia Model” that has been adopted by other police agencies in the United States and Canada.

In Kansas City, Confronting Race Relations within the Police Department

As police chief in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 2000s, Rick Easley wanted to tackle something that is almost the third rail of policing: race relations within a department.

Rick sought my assistance, so we put our heads together and came up with a game plan. We decided on meetings in which members of the department’s command staff could talk openly about the challenges they faced with race.  I told Rick that this was uncharted territory for me, but I would do the best I could to manage the discussion.

Rick was a risk-taker, and he wanted to make things better, so we moved forward with the plan. People were brutally honest and candid about their experiences. Many of the stories were painful but also powerful.

As the moderator of these sessions, I’m not sure I always did a great job processing these very strong feelings. Rick nicknamed me “Rod,” short for Lightning Rod.  I remember one pretty lively session where we were running out of time, and Rick was scheduled to meet with the FBI Director, who was in town. Rick cancelled his meeting with the director, and said we needed to stay and keep our conversation going. Then he ordered pizza for everyone. That was leadership.

Since we had never done anything quite like that before, it was hard to know what the outcome would be. Were the stories themselves enough to make people more sensitive and aware? In opening up and telling their stories, did people feel exposed, and would others view them differently? Did everyone see the opportunity to grow, or did this experience just harden their views?

What this experience taught us was that the issue of race is complicated and personal. It’s good that we all still remember this experience to this day, because I think it means we all learned how to be more understanding of how we see each other.

There are those who say, “We need to have an honest conversation about race,” but have no idea what that actually would mean. I give Rick Easley and the Kansas City Police Department a lot of credit for being bold enough and ahead of their time to have that conversation.

In Camden, Using Policy and Training to Drive Culture Change

One more example – in this case, a police chief who used an overhaul of the department’s use-of-force training and policy to drive changes in both internal culture and external relationships with the community.

Just about five years ago, as PERF was first developing our ICAT training program, Camden County, NJ Police Chief Scott Thomson was heavily involved in our efforts. Camden, a city with a stubbornly high crime rate, became one of seven pilot sites for testing the training. Recognizing the importance of this initiative, Scott picked some of the most respected members of the department to roll out the new training (just as Boston had done with its Community Disorders Unit).

What we didn’t know at the time was that Scott was taking reform to a higher level. To complement the new ICAT training, he knew that Camden’s use-of-force policy had to be completely rewritten. But rather than doing the rewrite behind closed doors, Scott invited the police union, civil liberties groups, and others to take part in the process.

The buy-in from officers to the new policy and training was remarkable. Officers now regularly “Monday Morning quarterback” incidents from other cities and try to figure out how they would do better.

And this change in internal culture is reflected in how officers see the community and how the community sees its officers. Sanctity of life, de-escalation, communications, duty to intervene, and critical thinking are now woven into the DNA of police officers in Camden. It’s how the department polices. And the community has noticed the difference. It has responded with levels of support and trust never before seen in Camden, which has helped to drive down crime as well.

What this taught me is that changing use-of-force policy and having everyone buy into it can go a long way in changing culture.  That is transformative.

The Challenge Ahead: Turning Words into Action

What these efforts illustrate to me is how police leaders can turn challenges into opportunities. These chiefs were not afraid to try something different. They thought strategically, knowing that oftentimes the process can be just as important as the outcome. And the community saw that the chief was sincere in trying to address difficult issues.

These efforts were not one-shot affairs. They continued over and over again, and sometimes evolved into new, even more powerful approaches. It’s what Jim Collins talks about in Good to Great. The flywheel starts moving slowly, then gradually gains momentum that leads to lasting change.

And these efforts were initiated before a major crisis happened. Leaders anticipate problems, recognize opportunities, and begin building alliances. As one prominent community leader in Chicago told me: “Make friends before you need them.”

So this is our challenge: How can police leaders take President Biden’s words of unity and turn them into action? At this moment of both challenge and opportunity, how can chiefs and sheriffs lead and unify?

There is no playbook for this, and because each community is unique, every approach will have to be different as well. But experience shows that to be successful, police leaders need to do certain things.

They need to be bold and creative and innovative. They need to reach out to unexpected partners. And they need to get the flywheel turning.

As President Biden said on Wednesday, “Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And we can do so now.”

How will each of us be one of those “better angels” to carry our communities forward?