2000 — a year in profile:
Some policing problems just get worse
In any profession, a labor shortage puts a squeeze on qualifications and standards. Although some professions can get away with cutting corners and trying to make due, many feel that when it comes to law enforcement, there’s simply too much at stake. Of course, that didn’t stop a number of jurisdictions from rethinking college requirements out of concern for being able to fill positions. But before departments reduce their standards in this area, they should consider the recent experience of one Northeast jurisdiction that requires just a high school diploma. More than 100 high school graduates could not pass the police test with its 10th-grade reading level.
The shortage of personnel has also put a damper on the issue of residency requirements, at least for now. In an ideal world, the police recruit comes from the community and stays in it. But with departments searching far and wide for candidates, such an ideal applicant may not be possible these days. Casting a wider net for recruits has added a whole new dimension to conducting background checks. Interviewing family, friends and neighbors is a more time-consuming, complicated and costly affair when candidates come from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. (That is, if it’s done correctly — and recent history is replete with examples of jurisdictions willing to cut corners on background checks, and then later paying dearly for their shortsightedness.)
Even the role of municipal civil service was widely called into question, particularly on the issue of who has the final say on a candidate — the department or the municipality, through its civil service commission. Like any employer, police departments want to have the final say on who works for them, since the actions of individual officers are ultimately the responsibility of the agencies they serve. Attendant questions abound: Should police have access to the sealed criminal records of juveniles? Should police applicants be required to waive the confidentiality of such records? Do departments have the means to deal with the specifics of individual cases?
Hand in hand with the knotty issue of recruitment has been an escalation in attrition, a trend that shows every indication of continuing, if not worsening. There are short- and long-term consequences to a dwindling number of experienced supervisors and officers. With authority and responsibility having become more localized at the lower ranks than in the past for many departments, supervisory inexperience may have the reverse effect of moving levels of accountability higher up the chain of command. If time in rank is reduced when filling supervisory positions, will inexperienced officers be able to handle the pressure of an environment that increasingly stresses officer monitoring?
Communities will have to ask themselves how much experience is worth? Are there incentives that could be used to keep experienced officers from leaving? How much would such incentives cost? Are they affordable? What is the price in human terms if such incentives are not applied? In addition to finding ways to keep experienced officers on the job, departments should consider whether they are unwittingly contributing to their own attrition problems. One veteran observer has noted that overtime-based high-intensity operations can lead to a substantial increase in retirements, since many police pensions are based on the final year’s salary. Since high-intensity tactics like New York’s Operation Condor are employed throughout the country, particularly when it comes to purging neighborhoods of quality-of-life crime, departments may find themselves achieving productivity gains in the present by mortgaging their future.
A look at the centerfold of this issue will show just how the issue of racial profiling landed on the doorsteps of law enforcement agencies throughout the country, where it was handled in a variety of ways. Police chiefs in some places signed agreements to voluntarily collect information on motorists they stopped, while others had the task mandated for them. In some localities, such data were analyzed by the departments themselves or with the help of outside researchers, while in other areas the local news media analyzed police stops, sometimes aided by civil liberties groups. Legislators scurried to draft and pass relevant laws, while the courts took on a growing volume of lawsuits spawned by racial profiling. Taken together, such events gave greater dimension and urgency to the issue of race relations in 2000.
Some police chiefs look back to the 1980’s when profiling first hit drug enforcement. Aided and encouraged by federal law enforcement, notably the Drug Enforcement Administration, state and local police used race-based information to improve interdiction efforts, particularly on the interstate highways. When 91,000 pages of information on racial profiling were released this fall in New Jersey, many of the documents were found to call attention to the role of federal law enforcement agencies that used racial profiling as a weapon in the war on drugs. But in any arsenal used to defeat an enemy, there are some arms that are just too lethal to be deployed in most combat situations. It begs the question of whether the perception — or the reality — of civil-liberties infringement is simply too much firepower to use in this war.
A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, presented at a forum on racial profiling in the fall, indicated that over 15 percent of departments are involved in some way with collecting data on race. A number of departments reported having been advised by legal experts not to count. The reason is that counting traffic stops by race gives a number that is without context. Social science researchers contend that without “contextuality,” as they like to call it, results are questionable, if not utterly invalid. For example, since the total number of traffic violators broken down by race is not known, researchers rely on “proxy” data like residential information, census data, access to autos by race, racial breakdowns of traffic accidents, and visual observations of driving patterns in order to measure the number of stops made by police. Yet getting even the best information in these categories can be misleading.
Experts feel that departments collecting traffic-stop data would do well to arrange with a research entity to analyze and interpret the results. And, since counting seemed to have been central to the year 2000 in politics and well as in policing, much depends on who is doing the arithmetic. For a number of jurisdictions, particularly in states with expansive sunshine laws, the counting was done by the press and/or civil liberties groups. Often in these situations, news coverage leaves out information as to what level of analysis and what “proxy” data is being used, thereby giving the public a picture that is as unclear as it is potentially inflammatory.
At the PERF forum, legal advocates who believe police should collect racial data pointed to the necessity of building and maintaining community trust, without which police undermine their essential mission. As evidence, they point to juries and judges declining to give police the benefit of the doubt — thereby eroding what has been a fundamental, if unstated pillar of the criminal justice system. Whether racial profiling is real or merely perceptual, police should tackle the issue head-on. Arrest and incarceration rates may be higher for African Americans and Latinos, but they are not an accurate reflection of overall offending behavior. These groups are arrested more often for consensual crimes where there is no individual victim, when police have not been called, and when police are exercising a high degree of discretion. It therefore proceeds, the analysts say, that arrest rates are about police activity rather than offending behavior. Statistically, blacks are stopped more often than whites although they represent a smaller portion of the population and although their level of drug use is less than that of whites. In addition, the “hit” rate — when contraband is actually found — is the same for both blacks and whites. Therefore, these experts maintain, disproportionate stops demonstrate racial profiling.
Police officials retort that a discussion of racial profiling must address the issue of the substantially disproportionate racial breakdowns in victimization and in those identified as perpetrators. Officers and are sent “where crime is,” police officials maintain — particularly since the advent of community policing, problem solving and the focus on quality of life. Such factors as where the calls for service come from, how vocal the community is about wanting police presence, and where crime analysis determines a criminal pattern exists will determine police activity in any given locality. Looking for a match between demographics and stops is basically flawed. Simply comparing the number of stops to the racial demographics of a locality, as is usually done, does not necessarily mean a department is engaged in racist activity. As one African American police official put it, “Sixty-one percent of my city’s population is black, homicide victims are 92 percent black, and 98 percent of the suspects are black. So what am I supposed to do, look for an Asian?”
For some police executives, any discussion about data collection is really political. Officers in one department came up with a values statement and brought it to the community — a community that was more interested in greater enforcement of quality-of-life crime connected to drug activity. Some months later, after the department had accommodated the community and had received numerous accolades for its efforts, a call came for the collection of data. As the chief of this department put it, “In the same week the department received a letter of praise for its efforts from the community, the NAACP called for the collection of numbers, and I realized that I had just spent the summer generating statistics that would be held against the department.”
Others see the issue of racial profiling as being about weeding out racist cops and requiring greater civility on the part of officers when stops are made. Increasingly, departments require officers to articulate, sometimes in writing, the reason for making a stop. The personal dynamics of the traffic and street stops have become critical to the perception of fairness. There is some information, researchers say, that shows well meaning officers can also act with inadvertent insensitivity. To address this, departments implemented or enhanced training on making a stop — or at least they tried to. The paucity of training available in this area — training that balances caution and command with courtesy — remains a matter of concern for many police administrators.
Data collection has been shown to have more chilling consequences, as one city experienced when traffic accidents increased after data collection began — largely because officers became “gun shy” about making even legitimate traffic stops. In a rush to make good public policy in the sensitive area of racial profiling, legislators may have failed to realized, or willfully ignored, the impact in these very human terms. Will more people be hurt on the nation’s roads? While there is no really trustworthy information on bad driving habits, sorted by race, there are indications that fewer African Americans wear seat belts. Should efforts to crack down on lack of seat-belt use be curtailed? If such efforts are minimized, will more people be injured, or worse? The current state of affairs puts police in the difficult predicament of collecting data by race to “do the right thing,” as it were, a decision that may ultimately lead to an erosion in public safety.
For the last eight years, the Department of Justice has been sensitive to the needs of policing on the local level. Through its various branches, it gave to the field copious resources in terms of personnel, research, information, technology and equipment. Just as importantly, it provided a voice to police. Having an Attorney General with recent practical experience working with local police certainly helps to explain the emphasis that the Justice Department put on the community level. Some see it as a golden age of policing — a time that will influence events in the future. That’s not to say that the field has always been approving of Janet Reno’s actions. As one police chief put it, referring to the issue of federal monitoring, “I don’t know whether I’m dealing with ‘Justice-the-Good’ or ‘Justice-the-Bad.’” For the most part, however, the Justice Department under Reno tried and often succeeded in delivering a coordinated approach to problems. It promised to deliver increased interagency cooperation, and for the most part it did. It was uncommonly active in supporting some measure of gun control. It dealt directly with local law enforcement agencies, particularly in the area of funding. Such local interest did not come without a good deal of local scrutiny, of course. It was also a Justice Department that emphasized police monitoring, some would say to a fault.
At the juncture between two administrations, particularly with a change in the party in power, it is hard to say what the future will bring for law enforcement. In the 2000 presidential campaign, crime was simply not on the agenda. Will the new administration continue the activist role of the federal government in scrutinizing local police departments, or will it back off? Some departments, notably those in New York and Columbus, Ohio, have a significant vested interest in the answer. Will police departments continue to receive federal resources directly, or will they once again engage in a statewide competition through a resurgence in block grants — a situation that had led to interagency competitiveness rather than cooperation? Will the new government maintain the same degree of emphasis on keeping track of the country’s firearms? Will local law enforcement maintain the same level of access to the feds? Will the resources be there?
Given the close and contentious nature of the last election, it is difficult to predict what the future might hold for law enforcement at the federal level. Locally, though, police will still be dealing with the everyday realities of crime, which is bound to begin creeping up again soon, with keeping their ranks filled, and trying to get a grip on the slippery issue of race relations.