Police Officer: ‘Policing Mostly Became a Response to the 911 Call Machine’

Steve Early

As chief of police in Richmond, California, Chris Magnus wants to employ officers who 'don't feel that it diminishes their authority to show kindness.' (Richmond Police Department)

For three years in the ear­ly 1970s, jour­nal­ist Studs Terkel gath­ered sto­ries from a vari­ety of Amer­i­can work­ers. He then com­piled them into Work­ing, an oral-his­to­ry col­lec­tion that went on to become a clas­sic. Four decades after its pub­li­ca­tion, Work­ing is more rel­e­vant than ever. Terkel, who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democ­ra­cy, for civ­il rights, for the rights of work­ers has a future, for these val­ues will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In hon­or of that sen­ti­ment and of Working’s 40th anniver­sary, ITT writ­ers have invit­ed a broad range of Amer­i­can work­ers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Work­ing at 40” sto­ries can be found here.

In Work­ing, Terkel inter­viewed two Chica­go police offi­cers, Vin­cent Maher and Renault Robin­son, both of whom were dis­sat­is­fied with their jobs. Maher, a white cop, com­plained, We have lost com­plete con­tact with the peo­ple. They get the assump­tion that we’re gonna be called to the scene for one pur­pose — to become vio­lent to make an arrest.” Mean­while, Robin­son, a black cop, was sharply crit­i­cal of the Chica­go Police Department’s empha­sis on arrest­ing its way out of crime. Robin­son orga­nized the Afro-Amer­i­can Patrolmen’s League to improve rela­tion­ships between the black com­mu­ni­ty and the police” because as police­man, we were the only orga­nized group that could do some­thing about it.”

Forty years lat­er, Chris Mag­nus, a mod­ern-day vet­er­an of police work, talked to In These Times about how his pro­fes­sion has changed in cities that val­ue com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing” — which tries to improve pub­lic safe­ty through bet­ter work­ing rela­tion­ships between law enforce­ment per­son­nel and the peo­ple they serve — over the meth­ods ques­tioned by Maher and Robin­son. As chief of police in Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia for the last eight years, Mag­nus has won wide­spread approval for reduc­ing the city’s homi­cide rate and restor­ing local con­fi­dence in its police depart­ment. Mag­nus began by para­phras­ing Lon­don police reformer Robert Peel, whose fol­low­ers argued, two cen­turies ago, that the police are the pub­lic and the pub­lic are the police.” 

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the idea of a rela­tion­ship based more on togeth­er­ness and com­mon­al­i­ty — rather than sep­a­ra­tion and occu­pa­tion — was a big part of polic­ing. But then, with the advent of tech­nol­o­gy, polic­ing most­ly became a response to the 911 call machine. And many cities suf­fered a great deal as a result. 

We saw police tran­si­tion into this role of call-tak­ers, report-writ­ers, and cri­sis-inter­ven­ers. Some of those changes moved us away from the idea that offi­cers could actu­al­ly be peo­ple who built rela­tion­ships in the com­mu­ni­ty, who devel­oped trust, and who were seen as prob­lem solvers.

If you’re real­ly com­mit­ted to com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing, you have to make struc­tur­al changes with­in your orga­ni­za­tion. Are you going to have com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing offi­cers who are just this small cadre with­in a depart­ment — essen­tial­ly its pub­lic rela­tions wing — or are you going to inte­grate the larg­er expec­ta­tions of com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing into the role of every offi­cer? The lat­ter is what we’ve tried to do here — to say no mat­ter what your assign­ment, we expect you to, first and fore­most, build qual­i­ty relationships.

In our depart­ment, we assign peo­ple for longer peri­ods of time to spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic areas with the expec­ta­tion that they get to know and become known by res­i­dents. They are in and out of busi­ness­es, non­prof­its, church­es and a wide vari­ety of oth­er com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions; they come to be seen as a part­ner in crime reduc­tion. It’s impor­tant that offi­cers be in a role where they can inter­act with the major­i­ty of the com­mu­ni­ty, that is not hos­tile toward them, that sees them as a val­ued part­ner; they want a qual­i­ty rela­tion­ship, and are not engaged in crim­i­nal activity. 

This real­ly does work, and it can change the whole dynam­ic between com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents and police, includ­ing in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or or oth­ers that have his­tor­i­cal­ly felt mar­gin­al­ized by police and dis­trust­ful of them.

It not only leads to bet­ter out­comes in terms of pub­lic safe­ty; it also makes for police offi­cers who are a lot more sat­is­fied and pro­duc­tive over the course of their careers, because they’re not just arrest­ing the same peo­ple over and over again. They’re actu­al­ly engaged with res­i­dents. They’re see­ing their work have an impact and make a dif­fer­ence. I think that makes the job a lot more sat­is­fy­ing even when there’s an enforce­ment com­po­nent to it, which, of course, there still has to be.

What we’ve tried to do is pro­mote peo­ple who under­stand the impor­tance of that kind of rela­tion­ship-build­ing. In our ongo­ing eval­u­a­tions of offi­cers, we include mea­sure­ments of that work, not just of enforce­ment-relat­ed out­comes. We have got­ten away entire­ly from the idea of just putting offi­cers out in street teams to go into high-crime neigh­bor­hoods and roust any­body who’s out walk­ing around doing what­ev­er, with the idea that they might have a war­rant out­stand­ing or might be hold­ing drugs or some­thing. That only serves to alien­ate the whole pop­u­la­tion that lives in those neigh­bor­hoods. And 95 per­cent of them are good peo­ple not engaged in crime. 

Tech­nol­o­gy and data do play an impor­tant part in con­tem­po­rary polic­ing. The data that we use allows us to be more sophis­ti­cat­ed about who we go after. It’s about focus­ing on the right peo­ple at the right times and right places, which can help offi­cers approach enforce­ment in a thought­ful, tac­ti­cal and strate­gic way — as opposed to a blan­ket approach that nets every­body up. It’s very frus­trat­ing to res­i­dents when polic­ing is done like that.

But our data is not used as a weapon to smack peo­ple around. It’s not about quo­tas. It’s not about num­ber of arrests. We use sta­tis­tics to inform dis­cus­sions, to give peo­ple infor­ma­tion they can use, and to dis­cuss prob­lems and to brain­storm solu­tions. It’s not a blame and shame” type approach. It’s more about encour­ag­ing inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty, and real­ly cel­e­brat­ing suc­cess­es as much as point­ing out chal­lenges or unmet needs.

One of my over­ar­ch­ing goals — and it’s also a chal­lenge — is to have our depart­ment rep­re­sent as best we can the diver­si­ty of the com­mu­ni­ty. When you have a depart­ment that doesn’t look any­thing like the com­mu­ni­ty it serves, you’re ask­ing for trou­ble no mat­ter how ded­i­cat­ed and pro­fes­sion­al your employ­ees are. I don’t even just mean from a racial, eth­nic, or gen­der stand­point. I mean in terms of life expe­ri­ences, being con­nect­ed to neigh­bor­hoods, grow­ing up either in Rich­mond or cities like it — I think those are impor­tant fac­tors to con­sid­er as well. 

Rich­mond is still a com­mu­ni­ty that has a lot of very dan­ger­ous calls for ser­vice. We take a gun or two a day off the streets. You need police offi­cers who are very pro­fes­sion­al and dis­ci­plined, and who know how to use the var­i­ous tools, includ­ing weapon­ry, that they are issued.

But at the same time, we also want peo­ple who can shift gears — who can flip a switch and inter­act, in a very dif­fer­ent way, with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. We want offi­cers who can show empa­thy with vic­tims of crime, who are not afraid to smile or to get out of the police car and inter­act in a pos­i­tive way with peo­ple, who can demon­strate emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, who are good lis­ten­ers, who have patience, and who don’t feel that it dimin­ish­es their author­i­ty to demon­strate kindness.

Hap­pi­ly, there are peo­ple who actu­al­ly have the blend of those skills and abil­i­ties. Find­ing them is not always easy. Many of them do not even nec­es­sar­i­ly con­sid­er police work as some­thing that they would nat­u­ral­ly be drawn to. So you have to be a lit­tle cre­ative in where you look for those people.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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