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Police Chiefs Most Open to Reform Are the Ones Leaving

The cities that have been the most aggressive about demanding reform and altering policing practices are making it difficult for chiefs to carry out the desired policy changes — or even stay on the job.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best stepped down hours after the city council voted to cut her department’s budget by $100 million. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)
Police chiefs are always carrying out a balancing act, caught between the demands for accountability from elected officials and the public on the one hand and resistance in the ranks on the other.

“You’ve got two main constituencies — you’ve got the community and you’ve got the cops,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and consulting group. “You’re not allowed to lose either of them and keep your job.”

Given the intense pressure policing is now under, a number of chiefs have lost their jobs. Last Monday, Seattle Chief Carmen Best stepped down hours after the city council voted to cut her department’s budget by $100 million (including a slight salary cut for Best herself).

In recent weeks, chiefs in Atlanta, Louisville, Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., have resigned, been fired or demoted. In some cases, their departures were prompted by deaths or other high-profile incidents. But chiefs everywhere understand they’re under far greater scrutiny following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 and the wave of anti-racism and policing protests that followed.

“There is a movement in this nation and in this country to remove the teeth of the police,” wrote Tim Altomare, who stepped down as police chief of Anne Arundel County, Md., last month. “It is wrong and it will have grave and lasting effects that you will see and feel.”

It’s not only chiefs who are feeling unloved. Some 2,000 New York City cops have retired or put in their paperwork this year, an increase of about a third compared to last year. Police supporters argue that hostility toward law enforcement — and certainly budget cuts — are contributing to an increase in homicides in major cities.

That’s an argument that no longer cuts it in cities where attitudes toward police have shifted rapidly and dramatically this year. On Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved cutting the police department’s budget by $150 million, or 35 percent.

Ironically, it’s the places most intent on changing police practices that are putting the greatest pressure on their chiefs. That makes it almost certain that more chiefs will call it quits.

“It’s hard to know what success will look like for today’s police chief,” Wexler says.

In the end, police chiefs themselves will be the ones who implement any new policies that activists or the general public want. Demanding greater accountability is at the root of police reform, but chiefs will also require political support if they’re expected to have any success changing the culture and practices of their departments.

“The protesters are right in thinking the system can be greatly improved by change,” says Brandon del Pozo, former chief of the Burlington, Vt., police. “Progressive cities are alluring to progressive chiefs because they provide a canvas for reform, but what we’re seeing right now before our eyes is progressive cities are relentlessly unforgiving to progressive chiefs.”

Seattle Thought It Was Getting Reform

Over the past five years, the budget of the Seattle police department has increased by $100 million, or 36 percent. Among other changes, the force emphasized de-escalation, better approaches to dealing with people experiencing mental health crises and more community involvement and oversight. Officers also got healthy pay increases.

In May, the city filed a motion to terminate its federal consent decree, claiming it had enacted comprehensive reforms. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan appointed Best as chief in 2018 largely because she enjoyed support from community groups.

“Of all the major cities in America, Seattle had the chief that not only understands the lived experience of Black America because it is her experience, but has the deep experience in policing needed to change it,” Durkan said. “It’s why it’s been so mystifying to watch the City Council plow ahead without ever consulting her.”

The idea of reforming or modernizing police practices is not something brand new. Ideas such as de-escalation training and limits on use of force remained controversial after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. At this point, they aren’t.

On Thursday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report outlining principles for improving policing that included de-escalation training, limits on the use of force and increased accountability and transparency. “Our police, which exist to prevent crime, cannot do so without public trust,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who chairs the conference’s working group on police reform and racial justice, said during a telephone news conference.

The mayors explicitly rejected the idea of “defunding” the police. They also recognized that, in order to make change happen, chiefs need to be able to run their departments, including overseeing disciplinary actions that are often farmed out to arbitrators.

“If we want chiefs to be responsible for the actions of their departments, we need to give them authority,” Lightfoot said.

The Buck Stops With Them

The average big-city police chief is lucky to last five years. Baltimore is on its fifth police commissioner since Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. Oakland, Calif., has gone through a dozen chiefs over the past two decades.

All chiefs understand that, as the leader and public face of their departments, they’re ultimately going to be held accountable when officers kill individuals or otherwise abuse their authority. “Chiefs will sometimes lament, your greatest risk is what somebody’s going to do at 3 a.m., when you’re in bed asleep,” says Joseph Schafer, a criminologist at St. Louis University.

Despite the number of high-profile police killings in recent years, most chiefs could make the calculation that they wouldn’t have to confront that type of problem themselves. But at this point, much of the public believes that a tragedy like George Floyd’s death could happen anywhere. “Every police chief today knows they’re one bad car stop away from losing their job,” says Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum.

An incident can end a mayor’s career, too. The question for political leaders, therefore, is how much patience they’re willing to display when there’s a troubling incident. “It disrupts the good work innovative chiefs are doing if we have zero tolerance for anything bad happening on a chief’s watch,” Schafer says.

In Tucson, Ariz., Police Chief Chris Magnus offered his resignation in June, after bodycam footage showed Carlos Ingram-Lopez, who died in police custody, had been kept handcuffed and face down on a garage floor for some 12 minutes. The three officers involved resigned, with Magnus saying they would have been fired otherwise.

City manager Mike Ortega refused Magnus’ resignation.

“I appreciate the direct accountability and responsibility he took for his team, but his resignation will not help us continue to transform our police department,” Ortega said in a statement. “Under Chief Magnus’ leadership, our police department has developed into one of the most progressive in the country.”

Things played out differently in Atlanta. Erika Shields was known as a reform-minded chief, who had mandated that body cameras always be on, implemented de-escalation training and handed out lengthy suspensions following use-of-force incidents. She resigned on June 12, hours after an officer named Garrett Rolfe shot and killed a suspect named Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot. (Rolfe was charged with murder several days later.)

"Sadly, it's the unforgiving environment we're in," wrote Atlanta-based journalist Maria Saporta. "Atlanta is losing a calming police chief who has been implementing the very reforms protesters are rightfully demanding of police departments throughout America."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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