Are Democratic Police Departments Possible?

Back to Spring 2023: Volume 112, Number 1

A Review of Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture, by Neil Gross. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2023

By Albert W. Dzur

Police reform has been central to American public debate for nearly a decade. Protests following Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 marked the emergence of the now global Black Lives Matter movement that has drawn attention to racialized police violence. Reactionary tendencies also flourished, however, during the Trump administration, fueled by the former president’s rhetoric about dangerous “democrat cities” with underfunded police departments. One side of the divide can point to the fact that Black citizens are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of the police than their white neighbors, while those on the other side can point to the spike in violent crime rates during the pandemic.

Into this polarized terrain steps sociologist and former Berkeley police officer Neil Gross, who spent four years studying three police departments that offer lessons that go beyond the “defund the police” and “back the blue” stalemate. Drawing insights from his own experience and from his interviews with the officers and chiefs in Stockton, California, Longmont, Colorado, and LaGrange, Georgia, Gross charts a possible path forward while also identifying barriers to reform that lock police departments into repeating patterns of unjust and violent behavior. What is needed are not new policies, but a deeper change in police culture—the “values, beliefs, and assumptions, the worldview of those in law enforcement,” which, in each of the cases examined, were catalyzed by effective leadership from the chiefs (p. 6).

Conventional police culture in the US, Gross argues, “prioritizes above all tactical safety, putting bad guys behind bars, loyalty to other cops, and not taking flak from anyone on the street” (p. 8). Any reform that is seen by police as reducing their ability to deal with “dangerous people and situations…will be resisted and undermined at every turn” (p. 8). Gross notes that many officers have an exaggerated sense of risk, leading them “to embrace a warrior mentality more appropriate for soldiers than local law enforcement” and “viewing citizens (especially in tough neighborhoods) as enemy combatants” (p. 185). The fear driving this mentality often begins early, with new recruits hearing horror stories at police academy, and it is reinforced in departments by the memorialization of officers killed in the line of duty. Yet the warrior mentality “may make policing less safe: jumpy, hair-trigger cops cause situations to escalate needlessly” and “alienates community, which puts everybody at a disadvantage” (p. 187). To shift this mindset, the three departments in this study have hired and trained differently, and they have attempted to work more closely with communities.

Another barrier to reform emerges from the often-unacknowledged histories of racial violence and injustice, which continue to foster poor community relations and abrasive officer attitudes. In each of the cities Gross discusses, the police had past patterns of racially charged encounters with citizens that continued to generate distrust. Central to the culture change in each case was recognition of this history, significant improvements in officer training, and ongoing face-to-face community dialogues. In Stockton, for example, the department commissioned a historian to research and document racialized police violence to add local context to a training course that informed officers about the deep roots of community distrust (p. 49). “Officers learned that they were policing against the backdrop of all that history” such as “police overreaction to unrest in the city’s Sierra Vista housing project in 1968” (p. 49).

The chiefs in each department were the primary drivers of culture change. In Stockton, Eric Jones implemented a procedural-justice oriented program being used to increase community trust in Chicago. The training emphasized four principles: “be transparent about what you’re doing and why, give citizens an opportunity to speak and be heard (on the street and in the community), prioritize fairness, and remain an impartial decision maker” or, in short, “trustworthiness, voice, respect, and neutrality” (p. 48). Trainees watch videos of police officers exemplifying how these principles guide actions on the street, then engage in discussions of the micro-level decisions made to live up to them. In addition to the training, made mandatory for every officer, Jones formed a community advisory board, which met monthly to inform the chief “of the good, the bad, the ugly of what was taking place with the citizens, and with his own staff” (p. 50). Also important for culture change, Jones began trust-building workshops in which representatives of the department met around a table with citizens who had been impacted by police violence: “If the citizens could share stories while officers gave their perspective on the job, maybe that could spark a change, with the police becoming more compassionate and the community recognizing that not all cops are bastards” (p. 51).

Longmont’s culture shift was rooted in chief Mike Butler’s collaborations inside and outside the department. [Note: Police innovation in Longmont was detailed in a recent article in this journal. See Albert W. Dzur and John McKnight, “Refunctioning the Police in Longmont,” Winter 2022, 6-16.] Butler formalized a relationship with the Longmont Community Justice Partnership, so juvenile and low-level adult offenders could be diverted to a restorative justice program run by the non-profit.  He developed a harm-reduction approach to substance use offenses that teamed police up with mental health workers and paramedics. In partnership with the head of Longmont’s domestic violence shelter, Butler helped form the Longmont Ending Violence Initiative to raise public awareness of domestic violence and support victims. In these and other ways, Longmont’s chief took on the role of civic catalyst, identifying talents and interests in his officers and in community members, frequently inviting people to contribute something to the public safety mission. In Butler’s regular walks through the neighborhoods, he would talk with residents and ask them to be involved: “Here’s what I’d like to be able to do…I’d like to be able to call on you somewhere down the road and have you participate with helping some people….Public safety can do a lot, our service providers can do a lot, but we really need our community. Are you open to me calling on you later?” (p. 112-113).

In LaGrange, chief Lou Dekmar initiated stringent improvements in professionalism, under the aegis of applying for accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Gross notes that the process offered administrative cover for reform: “‘CALEA says we have to do it this way’ generates less resistance from stubborn cops than ‘I say ‘we have to do it this way’” (pp. 178-9). Officers now needed college degrees for promotion, more field training, and had to adhere to strict norms when interacting with citizens: “professional conduct, equal treatment, and respectful communication, even prohibiting officers from talking to citizens while wearing sunglasses for fear it would send the wrong message” (p. 179). Dekmar fired officers who couldn’t adhere to the new standards.  At the invitation of the mayor, the LaGrange chief participated in facilitated community dialogues organized by the Initiatives of Change NGO. Over 400 people attended these “Hope in the Cities” dialogues, which later transitioned to monthly breakfast discussion groups. Following these experiences, and after learning of the continued reverberations of the department’s history of racialized violence, Dekmar decided to acknowledge and apologize for the 1940 death of Austin Callaway, a Black man it had released from custody into the hands of a lynch mob. “All citizens have a right to expect a police department to be honest, decent, unbiased, and ethical,” he said in a public address in a crowded church. “As the LaGrange police chief, I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching… And for that, I’m profoundly sorry” (p. 200).

These cases have some commonalities. First is the Goldilocks size of the departments: neither too small to not have resources nor too large to have entrenched factions. Second is the “cosmopolitan” nature of the chiefs: two of the three innovators had come from outside the locality and all three had broad experience with policing innovations elsewhere. In each case, too, officer hiring practices matter: choosing “guardians” over “warriors” and targeting applicants with broad and diverse life experiences. Longmont, for example, began selecting for “people with emotional intelligence and some life experience, making college education mandatory, disqualifying anyone with a personal history of violence” (p. 113). Also important in each case are the steps taken to professionalize, a point that reinforces Gross’s argument that good policing may mean well-funded not depleted departments. Above all, in each case, the chief, via role-modeling and the creation of formal and informal community oversight practices, helped the department move closer to historically marginalized community members.

A great strength of the book is the close rendering of individual officers’ experiences. By spending time with them and describing what motivated them to join the force and to continue to improve their skills, Gross humanizes and complicates a profession that is easy to stereotype. He provides an insider’s view of events in which officers used physical force to restrain people before they could harm themselves, family, or friends. The book is filled with well-rounded narratives involving officers who thrive in these new policing cultures, Drake in Stockton; Vijay and Edna in Longmont; Robbie in LaGrange. Familiarity with each officer, as individuals, heightens the reader’s sensitivity to depictions of the real-world dangers they face and the emotional contours of a job that regularly deals with human suffering and conflict. The lesson isn’t lost: good policing needs good people, whose investments of time and emotional energy are rewarded with occupational dignity.

Is “democratic policing” an oxymoron? Gross thinks not, arguing that the rule of law is crucial for democracies, something all Americans were reminded of on January 6th, 2021, when the Capitol police and other law enforcement agencies preserved the legitimate transfer of power. Moreover, by dialing back “warrior” culture, police can develop “healthier, more socially responsible models of what it means to be a good cop” (p. 10). Gross’s three innovative chiefs are following the path laid out by Herman Goldstein, the father of problem-solving policing, who conceived of police as bulwarks of democracy. Good chiefs, in Goldstein’s view, would hire and support officers “with democratic as opposed to authoritarian instincts; those whose first inclination would be to talk things through and to tolerate difference and nonconformity unless they crossed over into behavior that was illegal and actually dangerous,” they would make their departments “more internally democratic,” encourage their officers to “explore alternative ways of dealing with people and their conflicts, including methods outside the criminal justice system, including mediation,” be “more responsive to the diverse needs of the community,” and “more sensitive to humanitarian concerns” (p. 140).

Democratic policing that treats people like citizens rather than threats is a significant improvement over the status quo. Yet there is a fundamental premise of democratic policing that is blurred in Gross’s narrative: police are not the only or even the most important component in public safety. Acknowledging the limits of what a state actor can do to impact social and economic problems that foster conflicts and harmful acts is also part of democratizing the police. This would be to more adequately recognize the vital role played by organized citizens, social workers, mental health counselors, teachers, and others in co-producing public safety and not merely as advisors to police departments. One of the most radical —or is it conservative? —features of the Longmont culture shift is Butler’s idea that for policing to be effective the officers need to do less, and the community needs to do more. Officers’ humility, their general dispositions favoring “community engagement” and social capital formation are all important, but they are insufficient unless they are tightly coupled to sharing responsibility for the problems and conflicts that make up police work. Power-sharing is needed to create meaningful divisions of labor in public safety.

Gross argues that culture change must come from within; if the reforms implemented by the chiefs in Stockton, Longmont, and LaGrange had been advocated by outside social movements and forced on the departments, he thinks the officers would have balked and undermined them. Nevertheless, in each case outside ideas did in fact make it inside: procedural justice in Stockton, restorative justice and harm reduction in Longmont, reconciliation dialogues and public apology in LaGrange. The chiefs in these three departments were open to these powerful ideas and practices that all came from outside law enforcement—indeed some, like harm reduction and restorative justice, stemming from longstanding social movements involving highly marginalized citizens—and took them in as part of a new, more democratic model of policing.

Moreover, while chiefs may play a crucial role in democratizing department cultures, it is evident that in each case there were subtle but powerful citizen influences. In LaGrange, for example, station visitors’ comments about the police role in the 1940 Callaway lynching sparked internal reflections that ultimately led to the chief’s apology. In Longmont, though chief Butler literally walked the walk, his guide through predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods was a long-time community activist. This suggests a more complicated, but also more democratic view of police innovation and culture change: not dependent upon charismatic individuals, but requiring the steady, relentless pressure of organized citizens working, on their own terms, to do public safety, even without being invited in as volunteers and helpers by the guys in charge.

Albert Dzur is Distinguished Research Professor at Bowling Green State University and a National Civic Review Contributing Editor. 

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