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Street Smart

Law enforcement reforms

 

March 11, 2021



I’ve spent the last three weeks in Seattle and the difference in the city since my last visit is glaring. Seattle is one of the epicenters for the “defund the police” movement and the scene of tremendous civil unrest in 2020. While the civil unrest seems to have died down a bit, the “defund the police” movement has clearly had a tremendous and negative impact on the city.

I was bored today and drove around Seattle for a while just to look around. I drove near last year’s CHAZ zone in the Capitol Hill District and didn’t see anything too disturbing other than the destructive aftermath of the rioting. The experienced eye would spot the dozens of hoodlums hanging around in the area looking for mischief, but there was nothing blatant going on at the time. What I noticed conspicuously absent though, was the presence of the police. There weren’t any! I drove around for over an hour and didn’t see one single cop. This is in the downtown area of a city with a listed population of approximately 3.5 million people. That’s a problem! The movement should have been called “defund and demoralize the police” because that is clearly what happened. I know there were cops on duty, but I didn’t see any. To use a false, yet widely circulated cliché, they were probably somewhere eating donuts and drinking coffee. I got the distinct impression that the citizens of Seattle are pretty much on their own when it comes to public safety. The cops weren’t going to be responding to help and, as difficult as this is for me to say, who’d blame them? They want to act, but are afraid. Not afraid because of the physical danger of the job. Most officers readily accept the danger as a part of that job. Seattle police officers are afraid because they KNOW that city leaders won’t back their actions. As my buddy used to derisively say, “There aren’t any mistakes on a blank piece of paper!” The message? Don’t do anything and you won’t get in trouble. That’s exactly what’s happening in the big cities.

Beyond the extreme "defund the police" rhetoric, there are many calling for law enforcement reforms. I believe there is a great deal of merit in the reform idea, but it’s nothing new. What people don’t understand is that law enforcement managers are constantly trying to learn, adapt and then improve the way their department’s serve their communities. That’s called reform and it’s a good thing. But, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

I’ve long felt that one of the problems with modern law enforcement is that we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking like a business. What do I mean by that? Law enforcement has adopted the business practice of using numbers as an indicator of effectiveness and I see that as a problem. Statistics have become a false measure of an officer’s effectiveness. For example, I was a supervisor for fourteen years. One of my tasks was to write performance evaluations for subordinates. To do that under the system in place, I was supposed to look at the officer’s productivity numbers to evaluate his/her performance. How many citations did this person write (for the critics reading this…there are no quotas…that’s a myth)? How many field contacts? How many arrests? However, I always saw the numbers game as a false indicator. In my mind, the real measure of an officer’s performance can’t be quantified numerically. Right now I’m thinking about a buddy of mine who had a tremendous rapport with the people in the area he served. He is a very tough, take charge, no nonsense kind of guy, but the citizens would call the station specifically to talk with him about a problem in their neighborhood. Many times, these problems weren’t even law enforcement related, but he responded every time. This was in South Los Angeles, and everyone in the station knew this individual well and respected him. However, on paper, he was (according to the department’s ‘business model’ criteria) a mess! This officer DID NOT write a large number of citations. He didn’t document all of his field contacts. He didn’t make a lot of arrests. Yet…the people he served loved him (along with anyone who had the good fortune to work with and learn from him). What was the numerical impact of his efforts? We’ll never know because that sort of thing can’t be counted. But, I can personally attest to the fact he was enormously effective.

So, you’d ask, what made my friend so effective? To begin with, he had supervisors who allowed him tremendous autonomy and weren’t interested in the numbers game. His immediate bosses allowed him to do his job, without focusing on the statistics (I know for a fact that his department mandated performance evaluations were a work of fiction in terms of the numbers). As a result, my friend’s effectiveness was measured by how the people he served felt about his service. He was their point of contact and they loved him. In fact, there was once a demonstration at the station when a captain proposed moving my friend from one area to another. He was effective because he absolutely did not worry about the numbers, he concerned himself with the results. That too was a problem for administrators and I’ve written about this before. One of the problems for modern law enforcement is the fact that we can’t count what didn’t happen. In other words, there’s no way to quantify what our efforts prevented and that fact makes the ‘bean counters’ crazy! Because of all of this, I’ve come to believe that the only true measure of effectiveness is how the community feels about the job law enforcement is doing. I’m out of room, so more to follow.

Blaine Blackstone is a retired Los Angeles Police Sergeant who enjoys the simpler life in Thompson Falls.

 

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