Thursday, June 18, 2020

Excessive Use of Force by the Police

Police Reform Is Not an Intractable Problem

Edward Renner and Thom Moore

The killing of George Floyd filled the streets with protesters. Unfortunately, the nation has been here many times since the 1960s. Perhaps an example from then can provide an illustration of how to do better now.

A member of the Black Coalition challenged us “An ambush is being planned, and if it happens, more Black people than police officers will end up getting killed. What are you going to do about it?”

Thom and I were professors at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. At the time, there was outrage in the Black community. A small child was left alone in the house when Mrs. B, a Black mother, was arrested on her front porch for assaulting a police officer who had asked to talk with her son.

As we learned later, whenever the police use force, they will often charge the person they had harmed with assaulting a police officer or resisting arrest. The Prosecution would then drop those charges in exchange for a guilty plea of disorderly contact, and any complaint against the officer was officially resolved with no recourse. That was the case with Mrs. B, and was the reason prompting the visit from the member of the Black Coalition.

Clearly, there were racial issues with policing in our city. Then, no less than now, the challenge of “What are you going to do about it,” required at least a personal commitment and an honest answer.

The ambush – if it was ever considered -- never happened. In response to the challenge, Thom and I examined the previous four years of court records to identify every instance of assaulting or resisting a police officer and the name of the charging officer. If assaulting or resisting was an action initiated by the citizen, then every police officer should have had an equal chance of being the one dispatched to the scene. We went to the police department to obtain the data on patrol assignments that was necessary to calculate the probability statistics. It took over one year and required going through open hearings at meetings of the City Council.

When we crunched the numbers we found that the officer on Mrs. Bs porch was involved in so many of the cases where the arrested person “assaulted” a police officer or “resisted arrest” that the odds were one in a million that it could have happened that way by chance. Two other officers had one chance in 10,000 of encountering so many citizens who assaulted or resisted. (The results of this methodology were later published in The Journal of Police Science and Administration in 1975.)

We presented our finding privately to the Command of the Police Department. The Lieutenant in charge of records said “They have identified the three people we know are our problem officers, and we have not done anything about it. I think we should cooperate with the research.” The Chief agreed: “What records do you want?”

We replied, “If you give us access to the records, and we give you the results, you will be in exactly the same position you are now in with the three officers in question. You will know there is an issue, but if you attempt to deal with it, it will put you in an adversarial position with the front-line officers and the union, and you will be unlikely to do anything with the new information.” We suggested an alternative:

“Let us describe the results of our study to all the officers at the change of shift briefings. We will give each officer a confidential code number where they can see where they stand on the use of force in the probability distribution.”

Clearly, if the If the ambush had occurred, each officer could have been the one dispatched. They carry each other’s grief. That was no empty possibility. On one occasion the police had responded to a call in the north end and were fired upon. A photo of the patrol car, with the bullet holes, was on display in the police briefing room as a daily reminder

It is in each individual officer's best interests to find a solution to the problem. They collectively own the issue and must come to assume responsibility for it themselves. We agreed to work with the officers to help resolve community relations issues, provided the Command would create an internal culture to make that ownership possible.

The officers formed a community relations group to meet and work with us and our students. One of the projects was to have each officer interviewed by a student at the end of their shift to record any incident where the citizen did not behave in the way the officer anticipated. The collection of “critical incidents” provided a data base for categorization, analysis and public discussions about actual sources of potential conflict. One of the incidents would be handed out at each shift change for the officers to discuss with each other. One day, I was walking across the street while an officer was engaged with a citizen. He looked up and hollered: “Hey Renner, I have one for us here,” meaning an incident for the file.

The Command never knew the name of any individual officer on any data collection, but every individual officer personally knew where they stood. With this internal climate, the officers were assuming responsibility for their collective ownership of their relationships with the community. 

It seems strange – and perhaps unforgivable – for the need to be revisiting this story from fifty years ago. What we described was a project that involved the police, the university, and the community in a transparent, data driven exercise of discovery and change.

We submit that this is one example of what collaborative relationships can look like. These relationships are not only possible, especially with today’s data collection and communication capacities, but essential for both police agencies and their communities.

The simple conclusion of our project, published jointly with the Command in The Police Chief in 1976, was: Police Community Relations Is a Continuous Ongoing Process, Not a Product.

Edward Renner is a retired professor living in Hendersonville, NC., and Thom Moore is a retired professor living in Urbana, IL.