July 11, 2020


The Good Cop

Dear PERF members,

Nearly 40 years ago, Boston was knee deep in racial conflict over integrating the city’s public schools. Most cops on patrol wore riot gear. But Officer Paul Carr, a few of his colleagues, and I, a civilian with a new graduate degree, were assigned to a special unit out of the commissioner’s office to identify victims of racial violence.

It was on a cold winter night when Paul did something that defined for me the policing profession’s honorific: “The Good Cop.”

Paul was at the scene of an arson attack at a predominately white public housing complex in East Boston. He found a black family had been burned out of their home. Paul took it upon himself to check the family into a nearby hotel and used his personal credit card to cover the bill.

That story, and many others like it, feel lost to history right now. Across the country, the killing of George Floyd and others has left many officers feeling paralyzed, unable to talk about their work in ways that do not come across as defensive, self-congratulatory or insensitive to race. There seems no oxygen left for stories about the cops who do so much good in their communities.

Through all my years at PERF and prior to that in Boston, I have had the benefit of knowing many of you. And what you have shared with me is this: when I ask you about someone in your department, the highest compliment you can give them is to say “they are a good cop.”

I instantly know what that means. This essay tries to capture those stories you have told me over the years about the good cop. 

The good cop uses discretion. They sympathize with the driver afraid to step out of her car because she has seen these types of encounters turn violent in the past. The good cop warns someone for a minor infraction or issues a citation rather than always making an arrest, especially during a global health pandemic. The good cop talks a wife into retrieving a wayward spouse who’s had too much to drink and is wandering the streets.

The good cop still does their job, but they do it humanely.

When the good cop puts on the uniform, they want to be seen as a helper, a friend. The good cop doesn’t want the badge and insignia to be a barrier that marks them as a member of a subculture, walled off from the rest of the community. The good cop knows that in some neighborhoods their mere presence can trigger raw emotions or painful memories of either aggression or inaction. But that just makes the good cop work even harder to be a beacon of hope in those communities – that calming voice that manages to restore order and safety.

The good cop takes a seat on the park bench to talk, unguarded, to a group of teens. People who are chronically homeless know who the good cops are, because they are the ones who ask: “How are you doing? Do you need anything??”

When the country is suffering one of the worst drug epidemics and someone is overdosing, the good cop dispenses Naloxone, and then works with social service agencies to try to get the person into treatment.  

The good cop intervenes with their partner and pulls them back when they are losing their cool. The good cop respects the sanctity of every life.

The public is often surprised to learn that, outside of the firing range, most officers never fire their weapons during their careers. As we all know, most cops have very few complaints in their personnel folders, but have numerous citizen appreciation letters and awards. The good cop has been well trained in de-escalation and practices it every day.

The good cop is willing to risk their life to save others. On 9/11, the good cop ran into burning buildings to guide people rushing down the stairs to safety. In an active shooter situation, the good cop recognizes that they need to rush in to save others, because that is part of their job.

Most of all, the good cop is always good – even when so many others don’t see it that way.

In every community, in every part of America, there are cops lying awake at night, devastated because they know what good policing is and they practice it every day. I know this because over the years I have travelled to many parts of the country and I have heard their stories.

A good cop told me told me how he stood atop the Brooklyn Bridge, in the wind, patiently talking to a distraught person, helping him to see a way to save himself, and not jump.

A good cop told me how he left his partners – and his service weapon – behind and sat with a man who had a gun pressed against his temple. They talked, the man put the gun down and the two hugged.

A good cop bought an urn so a mother with no money could cremate her murdered son. A good cop took surveillance videos home to study them for hours on her day off to solve a homicide. A good cop helped a kid with homework; bought lunch for his prisoner; answered a mother’s call to his cellphone about kids smoking marijuana in her apartment hallway. A good cop got injured while rescuing an emotionally disturbed child who had fallen down the garbage chute in a high-rise building and was trapped.

Good cops don’t crave credit or seek accolades. Their actions are seldom captured in police reports or on the news. What happens is often between them and the people they serve. And that’s it.

Some people do thank the good cop. But the good cop almost always answers, “I was just doing my job.”

The good cop is proud to be held to a higher standard because they know the public has placed its trust in them. The good cop lives by the credo, “I am the community, and you are me.”

I’ve always felt that the best way to summarize the work that police officers do is this: When you are in a crisis and need help, there is nothing better than a good cop.




Weekend Clips

Science News: There’s little evidence showing which police reforms work

Criminologist Robin Engel scoured the literature for so-called de-escalation programs with a history of success at defusing violence. Her review of that body of work, appearing in January 2020 in Criminology & Public Policy, found 64 de-escalation programs in the United States and elsewhere — but mostly administered to nurses and psychologists. She found no programs that had been tested among police officers. Just three studies showed cause and effect and included randomized control groups, and those showed that such programs led to minimal individual and organizational improvements.

In a February 2020 review in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Engel and colleagues discuss de-escalation trainings and four other reforms that tend to capture the public’s attention following fatal police-civilian encounters: body-worn cameras, implicit bias training (meant to reduce decisions and actions that arise from unconscious stereotypes) (SN: 10/26/15), early intervention systems that identify problematic officers before a crisis and civilian oversight of the police.

Engel was unable to identify a single police reform with convincing evidence of resulting behavior change among officers. Even studies on body-worn cameras, which are numerous, had mixed results. Engel cites a March 2019 review of 70 studies in Criminology & Public Policy by a team of researchers led by Cynthia Lum of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., that gauged the link between camera use and a reduction in force. Just 16 of those studies looked directly at whether or not cameras reduced officers’ use of force; of that subset, some show that the cameras work as a deterrent to use of force whereas others reach the opposite conclusion.

The dearth of evidence stems from several factors, Engel says, but chief among them is the pressure for police departments to act fast when an instance of police violence captures national attention. 


Christian Science Monitor: A police chief’s message to community: Help us ‘do a better job’

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was watching the television news in her bedroom in late May when she first saw video footage of George Floyd being suffocated under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

“Honestly, I was mortified,” Chief Best recalls. “It’s almost like you are watching it, but you can’t believe what you are seeing,” she says. Then “you realize you just witnessed a man’s last few minutes on earth. It was incredibly devastating.”

A 28-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and its first Black leader, appointed in 2018, Chief Best knew instantly that protests would erupt following the “blatant, grave disregard for human life.”

But Chief Best doubts she or anyone could have anticipated the intensity of the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality that followed – or their dramatic, far-reaching impact on her own police department and personal views about how policing in America must change.

Within two weeks, Chief Best was managing a crisis that she described to fellow officers as “one of the toughest times ever in the history of the Seattle Police Department.”


CBS 4 Denver: ‘We have to move forward together’: Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen talks lessons learned after protests

In the wake of demonstrations that filled the streets of downtown Denver neighbors, police officers are left trying to patch historically deep wounds and wondering how to move forward. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen tells CBS4’s morning anchor Britt Moreno he is now leading the department’s 1,600 officers by lending an ear.

“We have to listen and figure out how we can improve. I believe the status quo is not good enough.”


Providence Journal: Op-ed by Dean M. Esserman, former police chief in Providence, RI and New Haven, CT: Time to rethink what we ask of police

American police departments trace their history back to the founding of the London Metropolitan Police. In 1829, all members of the Metropolitan Police received a manual authored by Sir Robert Peel in which he identified the nine principles of policing. The principles opened with the following two: 1) To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and by severity of legal punishment. 2) To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

American policing was founded on Peel’s guiding principles. Policing in our country was never a national effort; rather it took root in every town and county, established by local ordinance.

We are at risk of losing the consent of the people and, in particular, people of color in our country.

The badge and the blue uniform no longer automatically confer trust and legitimacy to many Americans.

As Peel warned in 1829, “to recognize always that the power of the police ... is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior ... and to maintain public respect.” We would do well to remember his words.

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