August 8, 2020


We’re in a Hypercharged Political Environment 

Dear PERF members, 

Most police chiefs have plenty of experience, knowledge, and guidance about how to run a department, develop strategies for reducing crime, and fulfill other key elements of their job. 

But there’s one issue that can be troublesome for chiefs, and there’s no playbook for it – the politics of policing.

Each summer, at PERF’s Senior Management Institute for Police program (SMIP), we examine how police chiefs should navigate political issues and their relationship with mayors. The SMIP students get to hear from leaders like Chuck Ramsey, who gives specific examples of political issues he dealt with in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia.  And Bill Bratton talks about his own cautionary tales and lessons learned from leading police departments in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles.

In policing, perhaps the most basic political axiom is that chiefs generally need to be loyal to their mayors. The mayors are the ones who were elected by the public and are accountable to the community.  But at the same time, in most chiefs’ careers, there will be times when they need to know how to diplomatically say “no” to their mayor.

Handling the politics of policing has always been tricky. But today we’re seeing something different in many cities:  politics on steroids.

The stresses of the COVID pandemic, the economic recession it caused, the killing of George Floyd, the demonstrations for police reform, and rioting and violence in some cities have created political havoc in many places. 

And it’s not just about police chiefs working with their mayors.  Everyone is getting involved. City councils, state legislatures, governors, and advocacy groups are demanding immediate changes in police strategies and tactics. 

And in some cases, they are enacting major changes almost overnight, with limited analysis and forethought, which can produce unintended consequences.

What are police chiefs to do when local officials make changes that are counterproductive, changes that will put officers and the public at risk? Changes that will hurt the cause of police reform? 

Let’s see how this is playing out:

Defunding:  Police chiefs know that reforms cost money.  It costs money to train a police force on new policies and tactics.  It costs money to hire new officers with attitudes and skills that are in line with 21st century policing. It costs money to equip them with the technology that can make officers more effective.

Unfortunately, PERF’s recent survey of members found that because of the recession, 48% of respondents already have experienced budget cuts or anticipate cuts in the coming fiscal year. And we’re hearing calls for “defunding the police” in many places.

The problem with budget cuts in policing is that they disproportionately hurt training,  hiring, and technology – three areas that are key to reforming departments.

In places like Los Angeles and New York, deep budget cuts will make it difficult or impossible to hire new officers.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, Chief Todd Axtell was asked to make $9.2 million in cuts, and he had to point out that “the cold, hard truth is that cuts mean [cutting] positions, both sworn and civilian, at all ranks.” He announced that he had “shared with the Mayor my disappointment and urged him to reconsider.”

In the past, police chiefs tried to avoid public breaks with their mayors, but in the current environment, that’s not always possible.

Use-of-force tactics:  We’ve also seen counterproductive responses to demonstrations and rioting.  In Seattle, the City Council abruptly passed legislation barring the police from using chemical munitions to disperse crowds or move rioters back.  Chief Carmen Best warned that this would limit the Police Department’s ability to maintain order and increase the chances that officers would need to go hands-on, resulting in more injuries to everyone. “I’m not going to put our officers unnecessarily in harm’s way,” she told PERF.  “We had a deployment of 40 additional officers against a crowd of 300 armed with pickaxes and baseball bats.”

Chief Best warned the City Council of the consequences of its actions, and she sent a letter to business owners saying that the ordinance “gives officers NO ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd.”

This is no way to run a city, with a police chief being forced to rally business leaders to help reverse a snap decision by the city council that would endanger police officers, while putting the city at greater risk. (Fortunately, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the Seattle legislation and allow the police to continue using the crowd control tools.)

Political feuding:  In New York City, the city council enacted a law that may have been a well-intentioned effort to prevent use of dangerous chokehold tactics. However, the law was written too broadly, barring officers from using any hands-on tactic that involves “kneeling … on the back in a manner that compresses the diaphragm….”

This put Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in an awkward position, because he recognized that the new law could make it a crime for an officer to exert even a brief, accidental pressure on a person’s back – the kind of thing that often happens when an officer is trying to put handcuffs on a person who is resisting.  So Commissioner Shea  opposed the bill. But Mayor Bill de Blasio signed it into law.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has missed no opportunity to criticize the NYPD, saying it failed to protect against looters, did not do enough to enforce rules on safety rules for bars and restaurants, and other complaints.  The New York Times, noting that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have long been at odds, editorialized that “this political Punch and Judy show has grown tiresome.”

It appears that the NYPD may be getting caught in political crossfire between the Governor and the Mayor.

Portland, Oregon caught between local officials and the federal government: No one has been placed in a tougher political balancing act than Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell. Chief Lovell, who was sworn in less than two months ago, has been working to protect public safety and his officers’ safety during more than 65 days of daily protests. He told PERF that he’s been caught in the middle between local politicians and federal law enforcement agencies. The federal response has provoked enormous local resistance, but Chief Lovell has to keep a larger perspective, because local police must constantly work with federal law enforcement agencies on a wide range of issues.

In all of these situations, police chiefs are trying to work with their mayors as usual. But it’s much more difficult when elected officials and community members who lack expertise in the intricacies of police tactics decide that they know best. And as a result, police suddenly find themselves operating under new rules that were rushed into place with little or no time for consideration of the consequences.

This is where experienced police chiefs need to step up and play a leadership role. Chiefs need to educate political leaders about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned but counterproductive reforms involving tactics or budgets. And there has never been a better time for chiefs to speak out on reform measures that they believe will have the greatest positive impact. 

One thing successful police reformers have learned is that there are two key stakeholders when it comes to making substantive, meaningful changes:  the community and the cops. And those two groups can have very different perspectives on the change that is needed.  This can be a tough balancing act, but losing either the community or the officers will result in failure.

This is a time when wisdom, courage and leadership are most needed. And across the country, police chiefs and sheriffs are displaying these qualities under extremely challenging circumstances.



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