May 28, 2022

What Police Chiefs Can Do about Gun Violence … and Restoring Public Trust


PERF members,

Events on the ground always overshadow those that are pre-planned. And so it was this week when, on Wednesday, two of PERF’s senior staff members – Meagan Cahill and Tom Wilson –and I were invited to the White House for the announcement of President Biden’s Executive Order on policing. As significant as that event was, everyone was preoccupied with thoughts of the 19 elementary school children and two teachers who were murdered just a day earlier inside their classroom in Uvalde, Texas, and of their families whose lives will never be the same.

This brought back memories of being at the White House almost 10 years earlier, after another gunman had slaughtered 20 children and six adults inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that shooting, then-Vice President Biden invited police leaders to sit with President Obama’s Cabinet and brainstorm what could be done. Much like now, we sat there stunned and outraged at what had just transpired.

I remember raising the following issue with the Vice President. Yes, it is terrible what happened in Newtown, and we need to do everything in our power to try and prevent those types of tragedies from happening again. But at the same time, in Chicago and Philadelphia and other cities across the United States, we see shootings every day that are taking the lives of young people. Beyond focusing on mass shootings in schools, shouldn’t we also be thinking about the broader implications of gun violence in America, and how to address it?  These are the daily casualties that often don’t capture the headlines but still take a tremendous toll on families and communities. Gun violence in America comes in many forms.

Back then, like now, we heard familiar – often predictable – responses to a school shooting. Proponents of gun control put forth their legislative ideas. Opponents argue they won’t have any impact and then deflect to other issues such as mental illness and violent video games. And nothing ever gets done, leaving the majority of Americans feeling even more frustrated and hopeless. 

So, I have been thinking about what could be different this time around. How can we get past the same old arguments and the same old stalemates, and begin to find solutions that work? And what role could police chiefs and sheriffs play in the process?

What the gun violence debate desperately needs right now are credible experts who can use their positions of experience and expertise to help educate the American people about the ravages of gun violence in all its forms and what needs to be done to combat it.

There was a time when police leaders routinely spoke out on gun legislation, and they made a difference. Their presence and their voice were responsible for needed legislation, at the national, state and local levels. But that is not what I am talking about here. We are in a different time today, and chiefs speaking out will not, by itself, break the political and policy logjam.

What I am referring to is something different. It is a commitment on the part of chiefs and sheriffs to take a deep-dive into gun violence in your communities – to find out what is behind the carnage and what actions might make a difference. Ask your staffs to begin picking apart the nature and extent of gun crime. Ask the hard questions: What types of guns are being used, where are they coming from, and how were they obtained? What do we know about the offenders and victims and the relationship between the two? When and where are gun crimes taking place, and what is it about those times and locations? What are the specific, precipitating circumstances behind gun crimes? There are undoubtedly many other questions that need to be addressed.

This type of analysis needs to be done not just for the high-profile cases that make the news. It needs to be conducted for the full gamut of shootings and other gun crimes that threaten our communities.

For example, many people may not be aware that suicide is the leading cause of firearm deaths in the United States. Or that having a gun that is unlocked in the home or a car can contribute to gun violence, especially when those weapons are stolen. These facts are known to most enlightened chiefs but not necessarily to members of their communities.

After gathering the facts, police chiefs and sheriffs need to speak out – forcefully and frequently – about what you are discovering. Meet with as many community groups as you can. Get in front of the news media every chance you get. Appear before editorial boards. Use social media to your advantage. The point is to shine a bright light on the data behind the everyday carnage – to use the bully pulpit to lay bare the brutal facts and the important nuances behind the complex problem of gun violence. Many police executives are already trying to do this, but we need to figure out new and better ways to get people’s attention.

Imagine police executives all across America – in large cities and smaller jurisdictions – standing up and presenting the facts about gun violence. Not rhetoric, but clear, dispassionate data.  We all know there are many policy and legislative suggestions floating around, but we don't always know what actually works. The public needs a clearer picture of what gun violence looks like before we can decide on the most effective solutions.

Of course, this approach will require resources – systems to collect and organize large amounts of data, analysts to make sense of it all, and police leaders who are committed to presenting the facts and exploring possible solutions. And if your agency doesn’t have the capacity to do this type of analysis, reach out to a local college or university for help. Believe me, there are people in our country who are ready and willing to fund these efforts or to help in whatever way they can.

Turning to data and facts and research just may cut through some of the rhetorical clutter and help us find strategies that truly can save lives.

Back at the White House on Wednesday, as I looked around the East Room where the Executive Order signing ceremony was taking place, I was struck by something quite remarkable. Family members of those who died during encounters with the police were in the same room as the leaders of major police unions. Civil rights leaders and community activists were standing alongside police executives and the organizations that represent them.

The purpose of the event was to unveil the President’s Executive Order and how it will impact federal, state and local law enforcement. But at its core, the Executive Order is really about something bigger: repairing police-community relations and restoring the public’s trust in the police after two very difficult and tumultuous years.

Even at a time of national despair over another senseless mass shooting, the White House ceremony was both hopeful and symbolic of what needs to happen in the future. It reinforced the idea that police reform and safer communities won’t come about simply through policy pronouncements or new legislation.

In 2022, progress has to begin with reconciliation, regaining the public’s trust and moving forward … together.