Police usually are not resistant to politics – Nationwide evaluate
New York police officers in Times Square in 2013. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)
Partisan loyalty is a major barrier to much-needed law enforcement reforms.
Dallas – Here in the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country, the three largest boroughs – Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington with a total population of around 3 million – have something in common: They are all looking for new police chiefs at the same time.
Dallas, the largest city in north Texas, shares the same pathologies as any other major American city and is even worse managed than the average American city: the quality of its city services is at Bridgeport, Conn. And Akron way down, Ohio, in the rankings – way below San Francisco and Washington, neither of which are exactly examples of community excellence.
Outgoing Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall, a former Detroit police officer who “collects handguns, vintage clothes and Louis Vuitton bags,” encountered a number of common controversies in her first few months at work. As a black woman, she suggested that it was difficult because of racism and sexism and that she was exposed to unrealistic expectations. She was the bum of many jokes when she ran to the hospital after one of the Dallas crack SWAT officers accidentally shot himself in the leg, and she still showed up with little plastic boots from the pedicurist appointment that interrupted the situation.
More seriously, the murder rate in Dallas has risen and there have been complaints about the department's handling of recent protests that the city council has gutted the police department's overtime budget. Dallas is visibly more disordered than it was a year ago and feels like a city going in the wrong direction.
For American police chiefs, this is not an age of glory. The Bridgeport Police Chief has just been arrested for teaming up with Human Resources to manipulate his own attitudes. Police chiefs in three cities in Marin Counties, California (San Rafael, Tiburon and Fairfax) are leaving their posts for a variety of reasons: one was racial profiling allegation; in another, the boss simply stated with refreshing honesty that he had exhausted his pension entitlement and was leaving for purely financial reasons. The boss in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has had enough after a little over two years on the job and is leaving to spend more time with his family. The Salt Lake City police chief comes under heavy criticism after an officer shot and killed a 13-year-old autistic boy and his department was less than open on the matter. The boss and most of the top brass players in Rochester, New York, are shown the door after Daniel Prude's death in custody.
Police incompetence is a constant issue in American city life. This also applies to police corruption: the Ramparts police gang in Los Angeles (bank robbery, murder), the spectacular crime that was Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force (robbery, drug trafficking, evidence manipulation), for which the NYPD detectives worked as killers the Lucchese and Gambino crime syndicates and so on. That's what was made for the cinema, but there is also the more common corruption like false overtime claims by Philadelphia police officers. And not everything that is seedy is actually illegal: Detectives in Philadelphia sometimes work overtime to make more than $ 300,000 a year. An auditor's review of millions of dollars in overtime by the Philadelphia police force found that in many cases "there was no evidence of supervisor approval or added-on".
If you spend a lot of time following city government at almost every level, you'll find that police departments look very much like school districts. Police chiefs are hired in a similar way to school principals. Police and schools typically make up the majority of municipal budgets and most of the payroll. The unions and professional associations they represent become princely powers in themselves. Policies are designed to maximize compensation and minimize accountability.
Politically speaking, the police and teachers are very similar in that their agencies are enveloped and cushioned by the sentimentality of their professions. Just as Democrats are reflexively defensive towards teachers, Republicans are overly heroic of the police. In both cases, political tribalism leads partisans to excuse or minimize behavior that ranges from incompetent to criminal. In both cases the story is almost always the same: "a few bad apples".
And maybe it's some bad apples. But the rest of the saying is left out: "A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel." And whole barrel spoilage is what we see in police stations across the country.
We shouldn't be surprised. Police departments and schools face exactly the same problems that we expect from other government agencies: agent key issues, institutional capture, misaligned incentives, nepotism, ownership, closing ranks in the face of criticism. The attitude of police officers or teachers who worship heroes can prevent us from working towards the institutional reforms in law enforcement and education that are obviously needed. Republicans can see there are problems with the schools and Democrats can see there are problems with the police. Overall, Republicans are more open to police reform than Democrats are to school reform, but both issues are dominated by tribal politics.
Dallas is going to put a few hundred thousand dollars on the table and conduct a nationwide search for a new boss who, when precedent is set, heroically over-promises and dramatically under-delivers. It may be necessary to change the name and face at the top of the org chart, and it may even be healthy, but the problems of the institution are bigger and deeper. Across the country, our city guides take a “shopping list” of deep and complex challenges and act as if it is sufficient to hire a new guide who meets criteria x, y and z. A real reform, however, is not a widget that can be bought and installed.
There aren't many truly heroic and transformative local authority leaders in the labor market. Relying on such saviors is a formula for failure, as Dallas and so many other cities have shown.