September 25, 2021

We had a lot of straight talk at our Town Hall Meeting


Dear PERF members,

I want to thank all of the participants at PERF’s Town Hall Meeting on Wednesday for their insights about the issues facing police departments today.  We had panels of chiefs, command staff members, and officers from Los Angeles, Louisville, and Baltimore.

The discussions were startling at times. I’m grateful for everyone’s straight talk and candor.

I realize that many people can’t take two hours during their workday to watch a Town Hall Meeting, but if you missed it, I hope you’ll find time to watch the video of our meeting by clicking here.  (And where I quote people below, you can click separate links to take you directly to those points in the discussions.)

Some of the most forceful comments were made during our first segment, when our panelists talked about what’s driving violent crime in their cities.

Speaking of which, this week PERF released our newest survey of police departments, which showed a 12% increase in homicides in January-July 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, a 16% increase in shootings, and a 16% increase in carjackings.  At the Town Hall Meeting, chiefs explained why violence is occurring in their cities, and what they’re doing about it.

Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields: Judges are apathetic, and unaccountable, about violent crime

On Wednesday morning, just hours before our meeting began, three students in Louisville were shot, one fatally, while waiting for their school bus.  I asked Chief Erika Shields to begin with a discussion of that shooting. Here’s what she told us:

“One of the things that’s unique to Louisville is that they still do busing of children to schools in different parts of the county. Kids get bused all over.

“This has created a very strange environment for the police department. We may get our arms around a particular gang in a neighborhood, but the students may get bused to a completely different part of the city/county and have to join an opposing gang to navigate the school system. And then these students have to come back to their home terrain and their home gang.

“So today we have two 14-year-olds with gunshot wounds, and a 16-year-old who’s deceased.

“It’s sickening. I wish I could say it’s unusual, but I can’t. We’re had 144 homicides this year, and 21 of them have involved juvenile victims.

 “In Kentucky, there is such a proliferation of illegal guns. In a state with lax gun laws, what happens is that legal gun owners get their guns stolen. They leave them in their car and don’t secure them. So all these guns are on the street. The kids break into cars, get the guns, and then it becomes our problem.

“The other factor in Louisville that contributes to gun crime is that there is no metro juvenile facility.  It’s astounding to me that the state is not operating a juvenile detention center in the state’s largest county. So we literally have had juveniles who have been charged with murder being put back into the public school system.

“It defies common sense. You hear people say they care about kids, and they don’t want them locked up. But you see that they’re willing to thrust children who are either going to be homicide victims or are going to commit homicides right back into the environment where that’s going to occur. So it’s hard to take their commentary at face value.

“Another issue is that staffing in our department is down 250-300 officers.

“But I would say the greatest obstacle to gaining inroads here is judicial apathy. There is no transparency by the judges. Their willingness to take individuals who are shooting people, killing people, and give them low bond, no bond, or home incarceration is mind-boggling.

“They say this is about the courts being closed because of COVID, but this problem has been going on for 20 years.

 “I think that until we hold the court system and judges accountable, and require them to be transparent in what they’re doing, and more specifically what they’re not doing, it’s going to be very difficult to change the trajectory of violent crime.”

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore: The justice system has been neutered by COVID

“We see the disruption that the pandemic has had on every aspect of society, including the criminal justice system, which essentially has been neutered and disabled, where the consequences of violent offenses are met with little action by the courts.

“There’s a sense of recklessness, frustration, and anger in our communities, with too many guns in too many people’s hands. And social media fuels minor disputes and disagreements.

“Homelessness has increased significantly. We have more than 40,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles every night, and 16,000 who live in vehicles. The homeless population has become a center for violence and for people coming out of prison, who are not finding housing and supportive services available to them. So they’re going back to their old tradecrafts, like narcotics dealing, the sex trade, intimidation, and violence.

“Ghost guns [guns that can be assembled by unlicensed buyers from legally purchased kits] are also a major concern. Out of 5,038 guns recovered year-to-date, 1,064 were ghost guns.

“And we have a much smaller workforce. We have 650 fewer officers today than two years ago, and 250 fewer in our professional staff. These staffing levels take us back more than 15 years.

“Our efforts to combat this start with knowing what strategies have worked for us in the past. LA has done model gang intervention and prevention work.

“We recognize we’re not going to arrest our way out of this. Our community engagement has to be strengthened.

“Lastly, we have to be data-informed, because crime isn’t uniform across the city. Our most impoverished communities are seeing the highest increases in violence. And there are areas that have seen reductions in violent crime. So we can’t apply the same strategies across 465 square miles. That’s the value of our Compstat process.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison: Gun violence here is often about petty “beefs”

In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, along with his Mayor, Brandon Scott, and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, announced a new violence reduction strategy this week.  Here’s what Mike told us at the Town Hall Meeting:

“We’re at 244 homicides this year, up slightly from last year, and we’re down slightly in nonfatal shootings. We’re fighting a false narrative that most of our homicides are drug-related. That is not the case. It’s true that many of our victims and perpetrators are somehow tied to a drug organization, but many if not most of our homicides and shootings are not necessarily drug-related. They are conflicts being resolved with violence. They’re ‘petty beefs,’ and then there are retaliatory crimes that are about previous crimes.

“We’re also seeing domestic violence crimes increase because of COVID and other circumstances that were not occurring 18 months ago. And we have a manpower shortage of more than 250 sworn officers down from our budgeted strength, and more than 350 down from where our staffing plan suggests we should be.

“And like Louisville and Los Angeles, over the last year, our criminal justice system, except for the Police Department, was almost shut down. We were continuing to do our work, but there were no grand juries, no indictments, no trials going on. So we’re starting to recover from that, we’re just starting to catch up. And just like we heard in Louisville, there is no transparency within the judicial system.”

We also asked our chiefs from Baltimore, Louisville and Los Angeles, and their commanders and officers, to discuss three other issues. Clicking on the links below will take you to those parts of the video.

Alternative response models

I was especially interested in our conversation about co-responder programs that are being implemented in some cities. And while these programs seem promising, I pushed back and asked our panelists to talk about how this will actually work. There was agreement – among the chiefs and rank-and-file personnel – that it is unlikely social service workers would be available to respond to a call on their own at 3 in the morning. There will always be a role for the police, and the officers who participated in our Town Hall said they want to be part of the response to help ensure the safety of everyone.

In fact, forget about 3 a.m. calls; Chief Moore noted that it’s hard to find social service agencies that  respond to calls outside of normal business hours. Here’s what he said:

“We need to call out for reforms that are needed in social services. The United States still accepts the idea that social services are a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday engagement. We would never accept that from police and fire departments, but we accept that in mental health, we accept that in social programs. We have to change that, and we can’t just make a passing remark about it. Chiefs have to be persistent, we have to be annoying in talking about this if we’re ever going to change it, because it’s not comfortable to the professionals in that field.”

I don’t think there will ever be a model that takes the police out of most of these calls, so let’s make sure we hire the best and train them in ways that will make a difference.

The January 6 Capitol attack

Next, we heard from two chiefs about the January 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol: 

Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee:

“I certainly learned a lot that day. Our cops are resilient, let me say that first and foremost. I am so proud of the work of the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department and what they did on that day. In addition to that, looking at how our partner agencies responded, the troops really came together at the time they were needed most. I think that paid huge dividends at the end of the day. And oddly, as traumatic as this event was, it really brought a lot of our members within the agency closer together. They will be able to look back and be proud of the work they did on January 6.

“I had just been sworn in as Acting Chief at MPD four days earlier, on January 2. Steve Sund, the Capitol Chief of Police at the time, was a former member of the MPD, and he had reached out to me a couple days before the attack. He said, ‘If I need the MPD, will you be here to assist?’

“So MPD strategically placed resources near the Capitol building, anticipating that things could get rough, and that allowed us to get hundreds of officers to the scene quickly. But by the time MPD officers were requested and inserted into the fray, the breach of the Capitol property had already occurred.”

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger:

“Having worked in the DC area, I knew that the Capitol Police were good at what they did. And when I took this job [on July 23, 2021], I had the advantage of several investigative reports that looked at what happened on January 6, and they had a lot of recommendations. And the leaders of this department had not been sitting around waiting for a  new chief; they had already implemented many of the recommendations, and the others were in process. I was very pleased with the progress that the department had made.

“There’s a lot of talent in this agency. And because of January 6, members of Congress have asked us, ‘What do you need, so that January 6 never happens again?’ Whatever we’ve asked for, there’s been an attempt to get us those resources.  Very few police departments have that kind of good fortune.

“It was important for me to make sure the officers know how proud the American people are of their effort. Folks were injured on January 6, folks were killed, and there was damage done to the Capitol building, but not one member of Congress was harmed, and Congress was able to complete its mission that day [of certifying the election]. These men and women who fought so valiantly did in fact prevail on January 6.”


Finally, our Town Hall Meeting ended with the awarding of PERF’s 2021 Gary P. Hayes Award and Leadership Award.

The Gary Hayes Award went to Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel of the New Orleans Police Department. Paul is a rising star, whose many accomplishments including helping implement New Orleans’ Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) program.  And the Leadership Award went to Barney Melekian, whose career has included many leadership posts in California, as well as four years as head of the COPS Office.  One of Barney’s biggest achievements was creating the Collaborative Reform Model, in which cities ask the COPS Office for help with reforms, rather than face a possible consent decree that might drag on for years.

I’m thankful to everyone who participated in our Town Hall Meeting. And I look forward to our next Town Hall being in person!




P.S. about officer deaths:   I may sound like a broken record, but I want to ask you to redouble your efforts to get your employees vaccinated, including issuing mandates if that is possible.  PERF has continued tracking news stories about COVID deaths, and in the week that ended yesterday, we found 12 COVID-related deaths among members of police and sheriffs’ departments.  There may be more, because not every fatality gets news media coverage. These 12 new deaths came from 9 different states.

Many young people think they’re safe without a vaccine, but they’re not. Among the 12 deaths this week, 8 of the news stories mentioned the age of the officers who died.  Here are the ages:  26, 30, 37, 45, 48, 49, 50, 60.

There were also two non-COVID on-duty deaths during that week. One officer was killed in a shooting, and one deputy died after being struck by a car.

Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, and vaccinations are far and away the best tool currently available for preventing additional COVID-related deaths.