Tuesday, May 24, 2016

HANDCUFFED :: Malcolm Sparrow

"If a police organization applies relentless pressure on its officers to maximize revenues (as in Ferguson), or to lower the recorded crime rate (as in the NYPD), but no counterbalancing controls are imposed on methods, the use of force, fairness in targeting, or integrity in reporting, from the public's perspective the resulting organizational behaviors can be ineffective, inappropriate, and potentially disastrous."

Malcolm Sparrow is a former British police detective who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy Business School. His forthcoming book, Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform, is one of the results of a collaboration of leading police chiefs and academics who met twice a year between 2008 and 2014 to debate theory and practice of policing.

More formally known as the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety, the collaboration included members of the National Institute of Justice and the Program on Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sparrow worked on the steering committee, which identified the critical themes to be addressed, managed the portfolio of papers commissioned, and acted as the editorial board for the 23 papers that were published.

Are you feeling anxiously over your head already? Good, as was I. Sparrow's book is heady stuff, really aimed, from my perspective, more towards police executives. It quotes and cites to countless studies and papers, talks in heavy police and executive jargon, and is, in many respects, quite complicated. But we are living in the age of a policing crisis. These complicated issues are important ones, and even I, no police executive or academic, was able to glean pertinent and interesting information from my reading, even if some of it banged around the room a bit before I got it.

In short, many of our police departments are failing to implement and/or follow the foundational working models of community and problem-oriented policing that came about roughly 35 years ago. Instead, many departments, as a result of various pressures, have reduced their measure of success to a very narrow front.

In Ferguson, for example, studies performed following the Michael Brown tragedy showed the department's "practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs." The emphasis on revenue and the constant pressure on police executives to generate revenue through enforcement trickled down through the ranks and was one of the factors that lead to procedural and due process concerns and resulted in unnecessary harm to the community.

[A] powerful and singular focus on maximizing revenue was accompanied by loose controls on means: FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this.
The Department of Justice report following its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department is a recommendation of reform by a refocus on the foundational ideas of community policing. Sparrow takes a look at various ways departments, like Ferguson and the NYPD, get off track and how we can implement change.

Interestingly, even those departments, such as the NYPD, who focus on reduction in crime rates aren't getting it right. When that narrow focus leads to tunnel vision without contemplating of other facets of policing and community needs, things go off the rails fairly easily.

Strange as it may sound, even though the NYPD and the Ferguson Police Departments had settled on quite different central imperatives, the fact that they each had a single central imperative, strongly emphasized and highly quantitative in nature, leads both departments into similarly dangerous waters. A dominant focus on one dimension of performance suppresses other legitimate concerns. A focus on ends, if not matched by effective controls on means, can lead to behaviors that are unwise, risky, or illegal.

In addition, a focus on reducing crime rates isn't even necessarily a proper focus in the first instance, since they are, in general, "very corruptible indicators." One of the most fascinating and telling experiences discussed by Sparrow was a "police simulator" scenario presented at the Executive Session. Given three scenarios, the leaders expressed their opinions on what might be happening.

Two of the three scenarios showed a reduction in the reported crime rate, traditionally thought to be one of the markers of success. But overall, those scenarios suggested various forms of overall failure despite that marker of "success." The third scenario was the only one that suggested an effective policing strategy, and it evidenced an INCREASE in reported crime rates and a DECREASE in conviction rates, generally markers of poor performance.

What the hell happened? The executives felt the third scenario might be early evidence of an energetic and successful campaign against domestic violence, which is exposing the problem more effectively (higher reported crime rates) and using arrests and prosecutions as effective deterrents. This is just one example of how and why focusing on one element of policing as a measure of success is a recipe for disaster, particularly where certain types of crimes (domestic violence, sexual assaults, crimes involving intimidation) are notoriously underreported.

[P]ressure to reduce the numbers is counterproductive when dealing with the whole class of invisible crimes (classically unreported or underreported crimes). Successful campaigns against these types of crime often involve deliberate attempts to expose the problem by first driving reporting rates up, not down.
Handcuffed goes into much more detail on many more levels, but the above provides just an inkling of the issues faced by those trying to straighten out the areas where our law enforcement practices are lacking. Certainly events of the recent past indicate we have much work to do. I hope those that should be reading this book read it and take note. I also hope lay people will read it to increase overall awareness of the hurdles we face. Let's also not forget the many men and women out there who ARE taking part in community-based policing and have standards in place that take into account more than just the bottom line.

STREET SENSE: Sparrow acknowledges that while the audience for this book includes policy professionals, his hope is that interest extends beyond that. He wrote the book for "anyone and everyone who is concerned about the quality of policing in a democracy." I hope that's all of us. While some of this book was beyond my scope, it was definitely a fascinating and worthwhile read.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Not a "favorite" in the sense that's it's beautiful, but more a recognition of the power of the statistics on fatal police shootings. First, a statistic:  Australian police shot dead ninety-four people in a nineteen year period (1992-2011). According to the Guardian's tally, U.S. police shot dead ninety-seven people in just one month, March 2015.

"America is not an outlier...it is the outlier."

COVER NERD SAYS: I'm a sucker for neatness and clean lines and images, so this cover is right in my wheelhouse. I think it could have used a little bit more oomph in the font, but when you're covering what's really a scholarly paper on a serious topic, you don't want to do too much fooling around. This one is a win for me.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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