Conversations with Your Police Chief Are Crucial for Building Trust

Developing a strong relationship can help build trust and confidence in local government. [PM Magazine, August 2020]

By Mike Masterson and Mary Ann Wycoff | Aug 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

Recently, an assistant city manager was addressing a group of police leaders when he delivered a stern admonition that their bosses would be unpleasantly surprised to learn of an unjustified use of lethal force resulting in the death of a community member. Surprised?! The speaker unwittingly made a salient point: Many mayors and city managers couldbe surprised because they are not aware of current policies and procedures of their police departments. Sadly, there are far too many news reports from across the nation in which police have used force unreasonably, employed overly aggressive enforcement strategies, or have engaged in tactics disproportionately impacting certain groups. Did local government managers know, in advance of these events, how their police departments would respond to them? Frequently not.

Surprise can be costly. No mayor or city manager ever wants to say—and a police chief never wants to hear—the words, “Up until now, you had my complete trust.” As grave as this loss of trust is, it is less serious than a tragedy in the community and the loss of public trust and confidence in the police organization.

A Common Paradigm

Unfortunately, many police departments operate in a vacuum, and surprise is a real possibility. This is not a new issue for those of us in policing who have been around for a while, who have worked in different jurisdictions and talked with colleagues about this situation. There is an oversight responsibility on the part of local government which, we suspect, is being exercised regularly in only a small percentage of communities nationwide. “The traditional aversion to becoming involved in the determination of law enforcement policies is apparently attributable to two factors: (1) the assumption that police receive all the guidance they require from the law of the jurisdiction and from the courts, prosecutor, and the city attorney; and (2) a prevalent assumption that any involvement on the part of the municipality’s chief executive in law enforcement policies will be viewed as interfering with the impartiality required for police duties.”3

Significant historical developments have contributed to a hands-off attitude on the part of city administrators. The Reform Era of Policing (roughly the 1930s through the 1970s), coupled with the Professional Movement (in the 1940s and 1950s), worked to remove politics from policing, a change that certainly needed to occur.4 But the elimination of politics resulted, in many cases, in the elimination of oversight of the policing function, leaving many police chiefs unaccountable to their bosses. This unintended consequence was an inappropriate and dangerous development. Keeping people safe was the primary reason cities evolved, and public safety remains a primary concern of most residents today. It should be the primary concern of the mayor and local government manager as well.

In addition to this history of political independence, there is the operational complexity of policing. In most communities, the police department is the largest department for which the city administrator is responsible; it is the one with the broadest mandate which, given changing social conditions, may require regular adaptation.

Current technology is seldom current; it is complicated and often in need of upgrading. The same is true of recruitment and training needs, as well as policies, which may be subject to national scrutiny and revised recommendations. Policing is a managerial octopus. It is understandable that an administrator who has many other departments to manage would hope to hire a chief who could shoulder the responsibility for all policies and procedures.

Not surprisingly, chiefs have not complained about their independence. We have come to our jobs without questioning it. We simply accept the responsibility for making decisions that should, at the very least, be shared with our bosses, including elected officials. We attend police chief conferences where major policy issues are debated. We read policing literature about policy issues without discussing those issues with anyone else in city government. We make decisions about policy and announce them to our bosses, our officers, and the public. As far as most of us can remember, this is how police management has always been run.

The Need for Regular Conversations

This is not a healthy relationship. It is one that is prone to increasing a community’s liability, potentially thrusting it into a crisis and thereby sacrificing resident trust in policing and local government. This is a paradigm that needs to be changed. How do we go about doing that? The first idea that occurs to us is conversation—regular conversations between police chiefs and their bosses. While this suggestion might seem so obvious as to be absurd, in fact, the great majority of chiefs we have queried report that they do not have regular conversations with their mayor or city manager except at budget time.

There are at least four rationales for regular, structured conversations:

1. To ensure fair and equitable treatment for all residents.

2. To safeguard the rights and justice for victims of crime and discrimination and of those who are most vulnerable.

3. To maintain that ever-fragile trust and confidence in policing placed in us by those we serve. One can argue that confidence in police shapes confidence in local government in general. The police are the most visible symbols of government.

4. Most importantly, to the extent that our policies reflect critical value judgments, they should receive input from and approval by the chief administrator of the city and, in some cases, the city’s legislative body. This is a democracy. The police chief, who is not an elected official, should not be making what can be life-and-death policies for a community without democratic guidance.

When we think about regular conversations between chiefs and their bosses, we do not envision superficial chats but, rather, dialogues that lend insight into how and why policies and procedures exist with the goal of ensuring your office provides the highest level of guidance and direction. Undoubtedly, one reality that needs to be addressed up-front is awkwardness. Local government managers may feel uncomfortable about engaging in these conversations for fear of appearing ignorant about what the police really do or not being able to carry their side of the conversation. Don’t be. Chiefs will be just as nervous about the questions you’ll ask, and both parties will gain comfort over time.

Envision a Classroom Format

When you introduce your intention to hold the regular conversations, state your need as the local government manager to be as fully informed as you can be about every part of police operations. The chief is the only one who can tell you what you need to know about the police department. The chief is the expert and your instructor. You may be the boss, but the only way to be a good one is to, every day, be a willing student.

It probably would be useful to explain from the outset that you are interested in regular updates about the department, but that you also will try to have one or two specific topics each time that will constitute your “class” for the day. Say that these will not be topics about which you are administering an exam; they will be topics about which you need an education. Use the term “we” to promote ownership of the issues.

Set an expectation about the length of time for the conversation and, perhaps, the number of topics to be covered. You might give the chief the topics in advance so that he or she can feel well prepared without fear of being caught off guard. And, since this is to be a conversation, encourage the chief to suggest topics, either about policing or about city government or your expectations or style of operation—anything for which you would be the police chief’s best source of information.

While there is no reason to expect elected officials to have an in-depth understanding of policing, professional managers may feel more awkward asking questions about a department they may have studied in school or dealt with in another community. But policing is a function that can change quickly and can be different from one community to another. City managers have just as much need to be currently informed about local, current policies and practices as mayors do.

Before you address specific topics in the conversation, you might begin with general inquiries about the state of the police department:

• Have there been any significant developments or issues since our previous conversation?

• How does the chief feel about current conditions in the department?

• Are there any internal issues (e.g., personnel, equipment) for which he or she needs your support?

• How about the current state of the relationship between the department and the community?

• Are there any initiatives for which the police might need support from other city departments or from the mayor?

• Are there any questions or concerns the chief has that he or she would like to discuss?

Possible Discussion Topics

Your discussion could focus on specific organizational policies and procedures or perhaps range more broadly to cover policing outcomes and ways of measuring them. We are going to suggest a few topics, but obviously, there are dozens of things you could ask about and you are likely to have on your list some subjects more pressing than the ones we propose. These are just examples, ideas to start your conversational ball rolling. Once you initiate regular conversations, you and your chief will think of many more.

• Given the times, an obvious first question could be: What are the policies and procedures for handling public protests?5

• Have you had an external review conducted of your policies and practices in areas such as foot pursuits, vehicle pursuits, and use of deadly force? A good answer would be that the entire policy section is reviewed annually by an internal policy team. As chief, I request the policy team leader to present findings on what we call the top six critical policies, which include deadly force; car pursuits; foot pursuits; emergency vehicle operation, including pit maneuvers; domestic violence; and sexual assault protocols. Our policies reflect the model policies of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and include community input as appropriate.

• Do you use a risk assessment matrix in determining what units are best equipped and trained to safely handle high-risk search warrants? Are specialized units allowed to make their own decisions on apprehending dangerous suspects or wanted persons, or serving a high-risk search warrant or do you require special weapons and tactics (SWAT) or its equivalent to handle it? Do you require a safety plan for each situation? Answer: The best practice is to have a policy requiring those decisionmakers to utilize a threat assessment matrix in determining the appropriate department response, with a safety plan mandatory for each case. Every high-risk fugitive or search warrant situation must be evaluated by the special teams commander i.e., SWAT or special operations unit (SOU) for an officer and citizen safety risk assessment. We must use our most highly trained personnel who are knowledgeable of the best tactics to handle these most dangerous situations.

• What type of training does the department provide for officer decision making about the use of force, lethal and other? Answer: The department uses the ICAT (Integrating Communication, Assessment and Tactics) model promoted by the Police Executive Research Forum.6 This de-escalation training is designed to slow down the response to dealing with people in crisis, gain additional resources, and assess the situation to reduce the likelihood of using force.

• What is the current training for dealing with people in a mental health crisis? Do all officers receive crisis intervention training? I’ve read about behavioral health teams in which a clinician is paired with a police officer to handle these matters both reactively and proactively. What do you think of the idea?

More Questions to Consider

• How are we auditing investigative cases to make sure they are not being arbitrarily closed when they should remain open and active? Who has authority to close a sensitive crime (e.g., rape, sexual assault, hate crime)?

• How often do we audit our narcotics unit for seized narcotics and financial accounts? How much money have we received in each of the last three years and how has it been spent?

• How often do we review and update the policy manual? What do you do to ensure these are best practices? In addition to department officers and civilians, who else is included in reviewing and recommending policy for your department?

• Do we have resources to keep up with best/most promising policing practices? Are there areas in which we are falling short of best practice?

• Are we following the best practice for eyewitness identification, using a “double blind” administrator for lineups, and in cases of photo arrays, performing a “folder shuffle”? Are we recording the level of confidence of the witness and recording the session for evidentiary use?7

• Tell me about our department’s top five collaborative relationships with community or criminal justice stakeholders.

• I’ve heard a lot about “unconscious bias in policing.” What steps have we taken to address it in our department?

• Talk about ways our department is working with the underserved or vulnerable communities within our community.

• Are there opportunities to partner with other regional law enforcement agencies for training, purchasing, vehicle pursuit policies, and use of facilities?8

• What are the three cases currently that are generating the highest public interest or fear? How are we responding to the latter?

All of these suggested topics deal with policies and procedures and avoid the kinds of operational issues that led to the charges of political interference in the pre-Reform Era.

Regular conversation between local government managers and police chiefs can help avoid the crisis in confidence that can take years to restore. Policing can become more accountable to those we serve as the result of a stronger relationship between the local government manager and the chief. Be proactive. Be the boss. Ask the right questions at the right time before you find your police department and community embroiled in a tragic situation or public controversy that can lead to the loss of trust and confidence in not only your institutions, but in you personally as well.

According to “Effective Policing and Crime Prevention. A Problem-Oriented Guide for Mayors, City Managers and County Executives”:

As a local government executive, you are held accountable for public safety, and the perception thereof, in your community. In turn, you very likely delegate to your local police agency the primary responsibility for public safety. At least the part of it that pertains to crime, nuisances, disorder, and traffic safety. The voters or other elected officials (council) may hold you personally accountable for public safety and its perceptions regardless of your actual authority over the local function. While you certainly should rely on your police executives to understand public safety and crime prevention in-depth, you need to know enough to ensure that police and other local government functions are being carried out effectively, efficiently, and fairly.9

You can become a stronger leader in your community by taking time to have these talks with your police chief and ensuring your department is using the best or most promising practices in serving your residents. Now is the time.

 MIKE MASTERSON is the retired police chief of Boise, Idaho. He served as chief from 2005 to 2015, and returned as interim chief from November 2019 to April 2020. (ou76mike@gmail.com)

 

 MARY ANN WYCOFF is retired from the Police Executive Research Forum (maryawycoff@gmail.com).
 

 

 

This article is dedicated to our friend, mentor, and colleague of over 40 years, Herman Goldstein. The inspiration and encouragement for writing this paper originated from Herman just before his death. He shared some of his research with us from the 1960s when he presented “Relationships Between the City Manager and His Police Department” to the ICMA Annual Conference in 1969.1 He also authored related articles, including “Who’s In Charge Here?”2 and, most notably, “Governmental Setting for Police Work,” in Municipal Police Administration,Seventh Edition (1971). He died in January 2020, before we could hear his last thoughts about a promising practice for police accountability. The pertinent questions he raised over 50 years ago are still relevant today and, to a large degree, go unanswered.

 

Endnotes and Resources

1 Goldstein, Herman, “Relationships Between the City Manager and His Police Department,” Presentation to the Annual Conference of the International City Management Association, New York City, N.Y., October 13, 1969.

2 Goldstein, Herman, “Who’s in Charge Here?,” Public Management, December 1968.

3 Ibid, p. 306.

4 http://www.communitypolicing.com/history-of-policing

5 https://hfg.org/policingprotests.htm

6 https://www.policeforum.org/about-icat

7 https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/12-2014/eyewitness_ID_best_practices.asp

8 https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/additional-articles/police-practice-in-pursuit-of-cooperation-idaho-police-agencies-join-together

9 Plant, Joel B. and Michael S. Scott, “Effective Policing and Crime Prevention. A Problem-Oriented Guide for Mayors, City Managers and County Executives,” United States Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Washington, D.C., August 2009, p.9.

 

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