July 18, 2020


When It Comes to Addressing Problems such as Homelessness, This Is What Police Reform Should Look Like

Dear PERF members, 

I’ve been down in Miami Beach for past several days helping my wife, Jan, with her mother. Tillie is a truly amazing woman. She turns 99 tomorrow and recently broke her arm, so Jan, my son Michael, and I are here to celebrate her birthday and help her recuperate.

Early each morning, Jan and I walk down to the beach. Sadly, Miami Beach is a shell of what it usually is. The Miami-Dade area is the epicenter of Florida’s staggering COVID-19 surge. And among those hardest hit by the physical, economic and social implications of the pandemic are people who are experiencing homelessness.

As we walk, we see numerous people living and sleeping on the sidewalks and the beach as well. The restaurants and public rest rooms are closed, which has made the already difficult lives of people experiencing homelessness that much harder.

One morning this week, we came across four members of the Miami Beach Police Department: three uniformed officers and a civilian employee. I decide to stop, say hello, identify myself and ask them to give my regards to their chief, Rick Clements. Jan and I exchanged pleasantries with the officers and resumed our walk.

On our way back, we bumped into the same group again. This time, the civilian employee introduced himself. His name is Bo Hall, and he says that years ago he, too, was homeless. Bo had turned his life around, and the Miami Beach Police Department hired him as a Homeless Outreach Specialist. Now, at 6 a.m., Bo is part of a team of police personnel who are checking on the well-being of people without shelter in Miami Beach.

Bo and the three officers know everyone, and most of the people seem to know them too. It is something very special to watch, as this team checks on the condition of the people they encounter, gives them information and advice on shelters and treatment options, and otherwise just lends a caring, humane hand to people who are in need.

This is what good cops (and good civilian outreach specialists) do all the time. It is the heart of what community policing is all about.

Later that day, I called Rick Clements and recounted my story. He says that Bo’s is an amazing story, and he is an outstanding employee. Think about it: Bo was homeless in 2001, and now he is an integral part of MBPD’s approach to addressing homelessness. Rick considers this to be a core function of his department.

He recognizes that homelessness is a complicated issue, often involving the intersection of mental illness, addiction, and crime and victimization. As we learned in our 2018 research project, people experiencing homelessness are often victims of property and violent crimes, and some of them commit crimes as well. Investigating these crimes, and trying to prevent future offenses, is an important part of the police response to homelessness.

But the MBPD embraces all of these responsibilities. Rick says Bo and so many other members of his department have become experts at connecting with and finding help for people experiencing homelessness. Taking this function away from the police entirely, as some have proposed, would be counterproductive, potentially unsafe, and a huge loss for the community and for the department.

Ensuring the safety of those who are most vulnerable, and working to connect people with the services they need, isn’t a waste of police officers’ time. It is what good policing is all about.

And it is happening all over the country, especially now, as communities face the dual challenges of homelessness and the coronavirus pandemic. Here are just a few examples:

  • While on patrol in Birmingham, AL, Officer Jeanette Prince discovered the local church was not able to hold its usual breakfast for people experiencing homelessness. So Officer Prince drove to the local McDonald’s, bought food and drinks, and handed them out to the people who had gathered outside the church.
  • In Hartford, CT, Officer Jim Barrett says he knows by name about 850 of the people experiencing homelessness in his city, and he offers donated shoes, clothing and food from his department van – his “mobile workplace” as he calls it. With shelters closed because of COVID-19, Officer Barrett recently helped a man who had just been released from incarceration find temporary shelter in a motel.
  • And in Santa Cruz, CA, two police department rangers recently noticed that the clothes of a man experiencing homelessness were literally falling off his body. So they visited a nearby store to buy the man a pair of pants and a sweatshirt – and they gave him information about available resources.

In the name of reform, some people are now calling for “defunding the police” by removing police personnel from these and other types of encounters. Like the officer who knows where opioid addicts tend to congregate and who carries Naloxone to save someone’s life if they are overdosing – and then works to get that person into treatment. Or the officer, like Landon Brooks in Marietta, GA, who reaches out to a homeless veteran with PTSD who needs help and connects him with various physical and mental health support services.

Every day across the country and around the world, police officers are interacting with the most vulnerable people in society, and they are providing services that are truly life-altering.

Is removing the police entirely from these situations truly “reform?” Does it make sense to take away these functions, which some believe other agencies could do better, to free up cops for other responsibilities? Many elected officials, community leaders and even some police chiefs have embraced the idea of letting go of those functions so that other agencies can step in.

I think that would be a grave mistake.

I recognize that the police alone cannot solve such intractable problems as homelessness, addiction and mental illness, nor should they be asked to do so. There need to be collaborative approaches that bring together different agencies with different perspectives and a range of resources.

It is not “reform” to cut the police out of that equation altogether, to take away one of the most important aspects of what good policing is all about – engaging with the community, preventing crime and solving problems for people in need. If there were ever a time for the police to be stepping up and building stronger relationships with the community they serve, it is now.  Asking the police to retrench to a predominantly “law enforcement” role is not progress.

I was always struck by Egon Bittner’s observation in his 1967 article “The Police on Skid Row: A Study of Peace Keeping.” Bittner noted that while others may be concerned about people living on the street, it was the working cop who actually did something, regularly checking on their welfare. That always reinforced for me the importance of a good cop. Do we really want to take that away from what the police do?

So, to those who call for defunding the police, I say give the police more to do, not less. Some will disagree, and that is good. Let the debate begin!




Weekend Clips

Politico: Americans agree on police reforms that have divided Washington, new poll shows

Congress couldn’t agree on a bipartisan set of police reforms, but Americans across the political spectrum can.

New polling from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy shows a majority of voters support 10 key policies proposed by competing House and Senate bills that Congress failed to advance last month. With the 2020 election bearing down, lawmakers are not expected to revisit the issue this fall, but a strong national consensus could create a blueprint for congressional action in the years ahead.

The in-depth national survey of more than 3,000 registered voters included a “policymaking simulation,” in which participants were briefed on the policy options before being asked to evaluate arguments for and against the proposals and make a final recommendation.

The most popular proposals among those surveyed included requirements for all police officers to wear body cameras and activate them when responding to a call or interacting with a suspect. Respondents also expressed broad support for a requirement for officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, as well as the creation of a national database of police misconduct that all law enforcement agencies would submit information to.


PERF and the RAND Corporation: Autonomous Road Vehicles and Law Enforcement

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise many benefits, but questions remain about how law enforcement (LE) officers will interact with them. Officers likely will encounter new challenges related to technology, procedures, and constitutional authorities. To better understand the potential challenges of LE interaction with AVs, the RAND Corporation and the Police Executive Research Forum, on behalf of the National Institute of Justice, convened a workshop of practitioners and researchers to identify the highest-priority problems and associated needs related to AVs within the next five years. The purpose of the workshop was to explore specific scenarios involving AVs that have occurred or will occur and generate needs and potential technical options for addressing such situations. Workshop participants identified 33 needs that revolved around three broad themes: (1) designing a means of communicating with AVs that also maintains cybersecurity; (2) improving stakeholder communication and collaboration; and (3) developing standard procedures, guidelines, and training needs for LE interacting with AVs. The consensus was that many of the short-term needs identified in this report require a response and that LE should begin proactive preparations to address longer-term challenges before being forced into reactive changes.


KTVB Boise (ID): A candid conversation with new Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee

Just two weeks into his new job at Boise chief of police, Ryan Lee already has his hands full.

The law enforcement veteran came to Boise from Portland, Oregon, where he worked for the Portland Police Bureau for nearly two decades.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean named Lee as the city's new police chief on June 1, and he was sworn in a month later.

On Wednesday, Lee gave his first one-on-one interviews, including one with KTVB reporter Joe Parris.

He answered questions about 'defund the police' rallies, enforcing mask mandates, and how his previous experience will help in Boise.


New Orleans Advocate: Op-ed by New Orleans Deputy Chief John Thomas: What loyalty means to me and fellow officers

I’ve been a police officer in New Orleans for 28 years. I was here before Katrina, stayed here through the storm, and have served here since. I have lived in New Orleans my whole life, with the exception of the four years I served in the Air Force. I went to school here. I got married here. I go to church here. My wife and I raise our son here. My brother (a police officer) died here. I know New Orleans, and I know the New Orleans Police Department.

No one who has lived in New Orleans as long as I, or who has worn an NOPD uniform as long as I, questions the ongoing national (and local) demands for police reform. For several years now, my colleagues and I have worked hard to right our past wrongs. With new policies, training, structures, and personnel, we unquestionably are heading in the right direction. We still have significant work to do — and I recognize we still make mistakes — but most would agree the NOPD has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina.

One of the innovations that has served us well has been our Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) peer intervention program. EPIC teaches officers how to intervene when they see potential problems so they don’t become real problems. And in the process, EPIC redefines loyalty from “I’ll protect you by covering for you” to “I’ll protect you by keeping you from causing harm in the first place.”


Dallas Morning News: Op-ed by Corinth, TX Chief Jerry Garner: Police officers must focus on being guardians, not warriors

Since the death of George Floyd, most of us who lead North Texas law enforcement agencies have done a lot of soul-searching about what happens next. We know that many of the things that protesters and politicians are demanding are already in place in our agencies. But the question remains: Where do we go from here?

Experience has taught us that if we do not actively engage in the discussion, we risk being saddled with well-intentioned but sometimes ill-advised measures generated by the justified calls to “Do something!” We concur that it is clearly time to do something, but that something should be crafted to preserve and protect the sanctity of human life and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms without hamstringing ethical law enforcement officers to the point that they can no longer shield our citizens from the very real predators of society.

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