Justice Department report rips Ferguson police: why that's not whole story

A Justice Department report found rampant racial bias in the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department. But some cities have already started to make significant reforms.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
Members of Missouri National Guard stand outside the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Mo., in this 2014 file photo. A Justice Department investigation has found patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department.

A Department of Justice report finding that the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department was rife with racial bias highlights broader problems in American policing. But it also serves as a contrast to a significant but less-sensational development: cops in some cities have begun to walk more softly on their beats.

The Justice Department report on police in Ferguson, where the death of Michael Brown last August led to months of raucous protests, came two days after President Obama released a slew of recommendations from a federal policing task force, including using less confrontational tactics and reining in creeping militarism.

But even as those recommendations sink in, there’s evidence that, at least in some neighborhoods, beat cops are already implementing reforms designed to promote more empathetic dealings with the public. That shift has, in a very short time, contributed to a “watershed moment” for policing in the United States, says Lewis Walker, a Western Michigan University sociologist who studies policing trends.

To be sure, a lot of beat cops shrug at efforts to eliminate ticket quotas and to curb street searches as “liberal mumbo jumbo,” says Peter Moskos, a sociologist at John Jay College in New York who turned his experiences as a Baltimore beat cop into the book “Cop in the Hood.”

Yet police chiefs in cities such as Atlanta and Kalamazoo, Mich., are making profound changes. And for all the station house grumbling about cops being blamed for society’s problems, the emerging reforms do, at their heart, touch a libertarian, anti-statist streak found among many American cops, where focus on arrests for minor drug violations and crimes like “manner of walking in roadway” are seen as counterproductive state meddling, say Mr. Moskos and others.

“Officers on the whole are well-intended, they don’t feel they’re intentionally targeting anybody, just being hypervigilant in those neighborhoods and digging,” says Kalamazoo Police Chief Jeff Hadley. “But there are unintended consequences to that type of policing, which is why police departments have begun to challenge assumptions in terms of style and how implicit bias plays into our decisionmaking.”

Broadly speaking, American policing is at a difficult juncture. Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice has written scathing critiques of police culture in cities like Cleveland and Albuquerque, where high-profile shootings have garnered national attention. Meanwhile, the advent of ubiquitous smartphone cameras have given Americans unvarnished glimpses of policing gone tragically wrong.

The Justice Department's Ferguson findings, which allege that a mostly white police force made racist jokes and gave black suspects far less leeway and discretion than white ones, still define many places. Adding to the tension, US police culture is traditionally monolithic and tough to budge, given the solidarity born of the shared experience of facing both mortal dangers and the sometimes impossible and messy tasks appointed to them by the public.

Yet departments that have challenged that culture by changing reward structures, curbing policies that disproportionately impact minorities, and hiring from nontraditional labor pools have seen dramatic results.

Evidence from cities including Seattle, Kalamazoo, and Atlanta suggests that a seemingly intractable police culture can in some cases be quite malleable.

“Officers say, ‘What’s in it for me to change how I police?’ ” says Mr. Hadley. “That’s why we have to take a hard look at internal reward systems. Traditionally, the guy who would get a pat on the back and promoted to the SWAT team tended to be the guy who’s kicking [the stuffing] out of everybody – the guy who gets a couple of good arrests but racks up 100 complaints in the process. But that kind of old-school mentality isn’t carrying water anymore.”

A study commissioned by Hadley in Kalamazoo found a police department that, he says, behaved much like the one in Ferguson. While white motorists were far more likely to be carrying contraband, officers targeted black drivers for searches at far higher rates, even in white parts of the city. In a year, the city cut the number of searches at traffic stops by 42 percent. But fewer searches and arrests didn’t materialize into more crime, as many officers feared. Instead, the number of seizures of illegal guns increased and the city’s overall crime fell by 7 percent.

In Seattle, a series of controversies involving officers using social media to disparage gays and blacks led to backlash from an unexpected front. Last week, local police union president Ron Smith, whose organization has long defended more-traditional policing, told his members that police work has to “change to adapt to societal expectations.”

In reaction to inflammatory statements by officers, Mr. Smith told union members: “If you don’t like the politics here, then leave and go to a place that serves your worldview. They hired you because they thought you were going to be able to work in a diverse community....  If you can’t, there are still places across the country that aren’t diverse, so go work there. But those won’t last forever.”

And in Atlanta, Police Chief George Turner fired or forced into retirement record numbers of officers who refused to abandon hard-charging policing practices. In addition, he began to promote paragons of a new kind of police officer, including the city’s first openly gay deputy chief. The result, citizen groups say, has been palpable in terms of police-citizen interactions. Targeted approaches to finding violent troublemakers have replaced scattershot approaches to root out general crime, resulting in a lower serious crime rate in the metropolis, Chief Turner said in a recent interview.

A lot of cops dismiss such reforms out of hand. After all, they note, left largely unrecognized in today's policing debate are the positive effects of traditional policing, as well as the long-term professionalization of the field.

“Police officers, police chiefs, sheriffs, and command level people, it’s not uncommon for them to have advanced degrees, law degrees,” says Lance LoRusso, and Atlanta lawyer and former officer who wrote “When Cops Kill.” “Policing has become a much more professionalized and much more detailed profession than it was even 10 years ago. So when you get people second-guessing cops with no basis whatsoever, they bristle.”

On Monday, the Obama's policing task force recommended ending ticket and summons quotas that often fall disproportionately on minorities. It also recommended that police “minimize the appearance of a military operation when dealing with large protests,” including wearing “soft look” uniforms and removing riot gear “as soon as practical.”

It’s not clear to some policing experts, however, whether the Obama task force recommendations go far enough.

“There are a few things people aren’t talking about,” says Moskos. “One is that cops are trained to use force for compliance, not for threats, which creates huge problems. What’s more, the idea that anyone can pick up a phone and get an armed agent of the state to reply to your false fear of danger and then put the results on the police.… You wind up with cops having to enforce the ignorance and racism of society based on these calls.”

For Hadley, deeper policing reforms will come as police officers begin to see benefits to walking more softly on the beat. For the past year, his officers have been taking some time on each shift to canvas neighborhoods, knocking on doors to say hello and get feedback. A common reaction is for residents to call the precinct to ask, “Is this for real, are they real cops?”

“The biggest win isn’t necessarily for the community, it’s for the officers,” says Hadley. “By creating positive human contact between us and the community, it not only changes the community’s thought process but the officers’ thought process. It doesn’t take long.”

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