February 5, 2022

National narrative changing, research, and bosses


Dear PERF member,

This week in Trending, instead of focusing on one particular issue in policing, I’d like to mention several items that came to my attention this week that I hope you’ll find interesting:


President Biden notes the shift in concern about crime rates and policing

Every so often you can feel the ground shifting, and that is what seems to be happening around the country and here in Washington.  With violent crime continuing to hammer many cities and the death of officers last week, you could feel the pendulum moving.

And so it was noteworthy that President Biden went to New York City and One Police Plaza, to listen and to contribute to the discussion. It is very rare for a President to visit a police headquarters, so the symbolism of that visit was important. With all that is going on in the world, taking a day to focus on crime said to me that the Administration is pivoting.

“Enough is enough,” the President told police officers. “The answer is not to abandon our streets; the answer is to come together. The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners and protectors. The communities need you.”

And back here in Washington, that has translated into a renewed focus in the White House on issues that many of you have been concerned about.


What does research say about what works in crime reduction?

Following up from the past two weeks of Trending, I thought I would highlight a study that you will find interesting.  One of the questions I posed to the National Institute of Justice was to look at what works in crime reduction. And this study done by Criminologist Aaron Chalfin at the University of Pennsylvania is not necessarily the kind of study you would expect.

Professor Chalfin found that “gang takedowns” help reduce shootings and homicides.  

First, he defined what he means by “gang takedown,” because the term has different meanings in different departments. In New York City, where he conducted his study, a gang takedown involves heavily armed police officers going into a public housing complex and “arresting dozens of feuding gang members, all at once.”  

Chalfin made clear that in these takedowns, officers don’t just show up at an apartment building and randomly arrest minor drug dealers. It’s about “charging key players with major crimes and building conspiracy cases,” he said, after police have collected evidence methodically through investigative techniques such as wiretaps, monitoring of suspects’ social media activity, use of covert cameras, undercover drug buys, etc.

Chalfin acknowledged that for the residents of the housing complex, being awakened by shouts and banging doors would not feel like a “surgical” approach to crime, but he noted that gang takedowns “cast a much smaller net than the notorious ‘stop, question, and frisk’ approach” of approximately 2002-2011.

The gang takedown approach works, Chalfin said.

In the aftermath of a takedown, Chalfin and his colleagues found that shootings and homicides declined by approximately one-third, and that “the impacts are felt for at least 18 months after the takedown occurred before petering out.”

He also noted that gang takedowns do not result in thousands of young men being sent to prison, saying:

“The takedowns were not followed by an increase in police enforcement. If anything, there is evidence that arrests for low-level crimes like drug possession decline in the aftermath of a takedown. This is a point worth dwelling on: The NYPD was able to meaningfully reduce gun violence in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas without exposing an ever-increasing number of people to the criminal justice system through more arrests.”

So this looks like an important research finding for police chiefs in large cities that have neighborhoods plagued by high levels of gang-related shootings and homicides.


How can police chiefs run their departments when they have so many bosses?

One of the challenges that police chiefs face is, “Who is their boss?” Of course, their boss is usually the mayor or city manager, but the city council may also have an oversight role. In some cities, there is also a consent decree monitor or judge or DOJ. In other cities, there’s a police commission. And making one constituency happy often makes another one unhappy. A zero-sum game.

The City of Burlington, Vermont is one of the worst examples of confusion about who’s in charge of the police.   Jon Murad is currently the Acting Chief.  He was born in Burlington, and spent most of his policing career in the NYPD. But in 2018, he wanted to return to his roots – where he grew up. So he joined the Burlington Police Department. In 2020, he became Acting Chief, and more recently, the mayor nominated him for permanent Chief.  But this week, the City Council voted 6-6 on the nomination, and under the rules, a tie vote meant it was rejected.

It’s telling that back in November, the Mayor had to suspend a national search for police chief candidates, because the search was producing few candidates. Many candidates followed the events in Burlington and saw the Council had defunded the Police Department by 30%. And that cut in funding had a direct impact on staffing.

Even when a person gets the job of chief, it doesn’t mean that the interference ends. Decisions get second-guessed or thwarted. It makes you wonder, “How can police chiefs be held accountable for achieving results if they aren’t allowed to make the tough decisions?”

In Oakland, California, Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong this week had an excellent conversation with the Los Angeles Times.  Chief Armstrong, who has led the department for about a year, discussed a wide range of issues, but listen to what he said when he was asked, “What is the hardest part of your job?”

Chief Armstrong:  “I have so many people that I have to report to, and that’s challenging. Every large city has a city council or some type of body that covers the city. But in Oakland, everybody has an opinion about policing. We are under federal oversight, to have a compliance director who is essentially the boss. I have the police commission that’s essentially the boss. I have a city administrator who is the CFO of the city….

“It’s always hard to run an organization when we have to run decisions through so many people. So when it finally reaches the approval, it looks much different than what you may have wanted it to look like. And so oftentimes you go, ‘You know what? That’s OK. No new ideas, no innovative ideas. I’m just going to push through.’”

What a remarkable statement. But I’m certain that many chiefs know exactly what Chief Armstrong means.

The Times will be publishing similar conversations with recently retired Sacramento Chief Daniel Hahn, and Fresno Chief Paco Balderrama, in the coming weeks.


Interview with NewsNation about increasing violence against police officers

On Tuesday night, I was interviewed alongside Houston Police Officers’ Union President Doug Griffith on the NewsNation program Banfield. We discussed violence against police officers, rising violent crime, and recruiting challenges.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund’s preliminary 2021 officer fatality report, 61 officers were killed feloniously by firearms in 2021, a 36% increase over 2020. 19 of those officers were killed in ambush-style attacks with firearms, a 217% increase over the 6 who were killed in ambush-style attacks with firearms in 2020.

There were also 58 traffic-related fatalities in 2021, a 38% increase over 2020. The overall total of 458 line-of-duty deaths was 55% higher than the 2020 total. That increase was driven mostly by the 301 COVID-related deaths, which increased 65% over 2020.

Lots of terrible news there. Let’s hope that all of it turns around in 2022.

That’s all for this week.  I hope you have a good weekend.