Dear PERF members, 

It’s safe to say that 2020 was unlike any year that any of us has even been through – either individually or collectively as a profession. We learned important lessons along the way, especially about how resilient, creative and courageous police officers and leaders can be when confronted with the type of unprecedented, simultaneous challenges we faced last year – a global pandemic, an economic downturn that devastated state and municipal budgets, nationwide protests over policing, and a surge in violent crime.

We’re all ready to put 2020 behind us, but there are  issues from last year that will continue to test police leaders in 2021. Here are some of the major challenges I think we will face.

Shifting to the “old normal

What’s the old normal? You know, when we actually say hello to people, shake their hands, gather in groups, and enjoy each other’s company. Right now, even those simple gestures can seem so foreign. Today, you see someone in the grocery store, and you don’t want to go near them, like they’re armed and dangerous or something. Masked people are the good guys. 

At some point in 2021, I think we will get back to the old normal when being together feels natural again -- and when PERF is able to host in-person meetings, debate issues, and come up with solutions.

I think the coronavirus vaccines are going to be game changers. And because law enforcement personnel will be among the first groups to get vaccinated, agencies will be able to bring remote personnel back to the office, hold indoor roll calls, host retirement and holiday parties, and do all the things that help build cohesion and camaraderie. And as more and more community members are vaccinated, the police will be able to re-engage with the public in ways that weren’t possible during most of 2020.

The challenge for police agencies will be to reengage the community when that becomes possible again – to begin re-establishing those connections and partnerships that have taken a back seat for months and months. This will be a unique opportunity that police leaders shouldn’t squander.  

Getting control over violent crime

As PERF documented in a recent report, violent crime surged in many parts of the country during 2020. The 223 agencies we surveyed reported a combined 28% increase in homicides during the first nine months of 2020, with 84% of major cities experiencing a rise in homicides. In some cities, including Chicago, Louisville and Minneapolis, homicides spiked by 50% or more. And even some smaller and medium-sized jurisdictions saw dramatic increases in violent crime.

The question, of course, is “Where will violent crime go from here?”

I honestly think that after more than 20 years of sustained reductions in crime, the 2020 increases will turn out to be an aberration caused by an unprecedented set of circumstances, not the beginning of an ominous trend. The challenge for police leaders in 2021 will be to do everything they can to prove me right, especially in disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of the surge in violence and are calling out for help.  

I think that once officers have been vaccinated and feel safer engaging with the public and rebuilding community trust, local police will be able to resume the type of proactive police work that had to be curtailed during the pandemic. We have decades of experience with evidence-based strategies for preventing crime and pinpointing the locations and the individuals who are responsible for much of the violence. We need to reinvigorate those approaches in 2021. 

This won’t happen overnight, especially as long as COVID-19 continues to ravage so many communities. But I don’t see us going back to the bad old days of the 1990s.

Rewriting the book on managing mass demonstrations  

Across the country, in communities of all sizes, we saw something in 2020 that we haven’t seen since the 1960s. Otherwise peaceful demonstrations suddenly turned violent, with much of that violence directed at police officers. Of course, a major difference compared to the 1960s is that today, nearly every encounter is captured on cell phone video and shared instantly with the world over social media.

For the most part, police agencies were caught off guard – in part because they were experiencing large, violent demonstrations about an incident that happened in Minneapolis, not in their cities and towns. Some chiefs told us, “We’ve worked for years to build trust, and we thought we had a good relationship with the people in our community.  And yet here we were, getting bottles thrown at us in the street!”

So they were underprepared and overwhelmed by the destruction that occurred in many places and the large crowds that challenged police authority. In many instances, the police were outnumbered, lacked effective strategies, and in some cases their responses were viewed as excessive.

The challenge of managing demonstrations won’t go away in 2021. A number of cities – Minneapolis, Louisville, Rochester, and Atlanta – are scheduled to have high-profile trials of officers accused of serious crimes. The verdicts in those trials may spark demonstrations, especially if the officers are found not guilty or guilty of lesser charges. And again, protests won’t necessarily be limited to the cities where the trials take place.  

Are local police agencies prepared for the unrest that could result? Remember, following the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, the most sustained and destructive activity didn’t happen in 1991 following his videotaped beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers. It took place a year later when four officers were acquitted of assaulting King.

How should agencies prepare for similar contingencies this year? How do agencies reengineer the way they manage crowds, especially when a violent minority use the peaceful demonstrators as cover? This will be a major challenge for police agencies everywhere in 2021.

Rethinking less-lethal options 

Again in 2020, the less-lethal tools available to police proved to be unpredictable and often ineffective. In some cases, they cause more harm than good by escalating certain types of encounters.

Last February, PERF published a report in which we found that electronic control weapons remain the less-lethal tool of choice, but they are effective less than two-thirds of the time. And the number of other less-lethal options that are both effective and appropriate seems to be dwindling.

One of the options that received greater scrutiny in 2020 was the use of patrol canines. Canines can be highly effective in locating suspects, in search-and-rescue missions, and in other complex operations. But last year, several news media investigations revealed a troubling pattern of some agencies using unnecessary force in their deployment of canines, and canines attacking citizens for little or no reason.

In researching our 2020 report on patrol canines, PERF found that policies vary considerably from agency to agency, and there is little consensus on best practices for selecting, training, and deploying patrol canines. That needs to change. In 2021, PERF will be researching and developing standards for the effective and ethical operation of patrol canine units. With strong and consistent standards, transparency and oversight, and careful identification of those areas where canines should be used – and, importantly, where they should not be used – police agencies will have valuable guidance that does not exist today. 

Use of force will remain a defining issue for the police in 2021 and beyond. The challenge for agencies will be to develop strategies that rely less on technology and focus more on effective communications, tactics, and critical decision-making.

Rebuilding trust with the community is priority #1.

 All of the challenges police agencies will face in 2021 will hinge on one overriding issue: rebuilding trust with communities that became more distant, more fearful, and more skeptical of the police during 2020. This will be the biggest challenge of all in 2021.

It’s not just me saying this; it’s what you told us.  In a November survey, PERF asked our members, “What are the top 3 issues in policing that you consider most important for 2021 and beyond?”  We provided many options to choose from – reducing crime, managing budget cuts, managing COVID, etc. And we had an “other” category so you could list any priorities we might have overlooked.

But by far, you told us that your #1 priority for 2021 is “increasing public trust in the police.” And your #2 priority is a related issue: “addressing the call for police reform.”

So it seems that you see something broken in the relationship between police departments and communities, and you know that repairing that relationship is a necessary precursor to everything else your agencies do.  Doing something about homicides means first doing something about community trust.  And that begins with a return to solid, proactive, community-based policing at the neighborhood level.

There is no magic formula for rebuilding community trust. It will come about through the everyday actions of hundreds of thousands of police officers and sheriffs’ deputies, and the determined leadership of the chiefs and sheriffs who guide them.

That can-do spirit is epitomized by the six Metropolitan Nashville police officers who rushed into danger on Christmas morning and got dozens of residents to safety before the explosion rocked their neighborhood.

Throughout 2020, PERF focused on capturing your responses to these unprecedented times and sharing your stories with others so that we can all learn and improve. For 2021, we will continue to produce our Daily Reports, designed to help you manage the new challenges that lie ahead. And we will focus on some of these bigger issues and challenges, especially use of force and strengthening the bond that police need with the communities they serve.

Thank you for your guidance and support throughout 2020. And Happy New Year!