After the murder of George Floyd, three police departments confronted aggressive cop culture, overcoming daunting obstacles to champion justice and equity in policing.
As the searing Department of Justice report on the Minneapolis Police Department and the George Floyd murder sparks renewed outrage, we find ourselves once again on the brink of another tension-filled summer — and a national political campaign in which the urgent question of police reform will likely take center stage.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with Neil Gross, an esteemed sociologist, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and a former cop.
Drawing on his experience and scholarship, Gross shares insights from his new book, Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture.
Gross takes us into the police departments of three different cities — Stockton, CA; Longmont, CO; and LaGrange, GA — where officials made the bold pledge to dismantle an entrenched culture of aggression and replace it with a model of policing that prioritizes equity, social responsibility, racial reconciliation, and the preservation of life.
Gross talks about the myriad challenges involved in such an ambitious overhaul, but also underscores the potential of these departments to ignite wider systemic change.
Gross says that he hopes his work will help launch a critical dialogue on the state of American policing, an open-minded conversation that not only deals with current reality but also presents a roadmap to a more just future.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. The recent scathing report by the Department of Justice on the Minneapolis Police Department once again brings the issue of police reform to the forefront. As we enter a long hot summer, some of these fundamental issues will surely come to the surface, and crime and law enforcement will certainly be a part of the endless 2024 presidential campaign. And yet few areas of public policy are more prone to contradiction than law enforcement. We want public safety, yet we’re suspicious of the police who are on the front lines.
The police want to do their job but are sometimes overzealous, are criticized, and are often angered by the very people they are there to protect and to serve. We need more people willing to take on the job of policing, yet the self-selecting population of those that are willing to do it are often not the best fit. Our media culture is saturated by stories about police and law enforcement, yet it seems to have very little impact on the daily reality of the interaction of law enforcement and the community. How do we bridge any of these divides, and how do we find the right cultural, social, and economic framework for real police reform, not just a band-aid but real reform?
My guest Neil Gross has devoted his work to trying to figure this out. Once referred to as one of the most interesting sociologists of his generation, he is a former cop and a distinguished academic known for his research on higher education, politics, and academic life. He is currently the Charles A. Dana professor of sociology at Colby College in Maine, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, he holds degrees in legal studies and sociology, and has taught at Harvard, USC, and Princeton. His recent book is Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture. It is my pleasure to welcome Neil Gross here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Neil, thanks so much for joining us.
Neil Gross: Jeff, thanks for having me.
Jeff: It is a delight to have you here. Police work is one of those professions, more than most, where the culture of the profession, the culture of those that engage in it, seems to be such a large part of it. Talk about that first.
Neil: Well, I think that’s absolutely right. By the culture of the profession, we mean the norms, the values, the everyday ways of doing things that cops employ. And one reason that culture looms so large in policing is because the police have an awful lot of discretion. If you think about it, cops abide by rules and laws and are supposed to enforce those laws, but by necessity, they have to exercise a lot of judgment in terms of that enforcement.
Someone is speeding. Should they get a ticket if they’re going one mile over the speed limit? Two miles over the speed limit? There’s this constant question of what and how much law should you enforce, and add to that the fact that most police officers work either alone or with a partner. Usually, there’s not a supervisor present on the scene. So it’s often the case that the norms and values and worldview that they learn, that they pick up as part of their occupational socialization, is very influential in shaping how they act on the street and their reaction to various attempts at reform.
Jeff: The other thing that is a key factor is the community in which they work and what the culture and values of that community happen to be.
Neil: And that’s right. One of the ideas behind highly decentralized law enforcement apparatus of the kind we have in the US is that in principle, the culture and mores of a particular community are supposed to influence the way that officers enforce the law, the kinds of things that they care about, that they don’t care about, and so on. And that works well in some circumstances and less well in others. In a community where there’s a great deal of racial animus, for example, we don’t want officers, obviously, to pick up those elements from the community. So, yes, there is often a lot of crossover.
On the other hand, it’s also the case that police officers don’t always live in the communities where they work, and the research suggests that the more the barriers exist between police and community, the more the police don’t come from the neighborhoods they police, don’t have a lot of interactions outside their official duties with people in communities, the worse the policing that they deliver. Yes, that community piece is pretty important.
Jeff: What impact do you think popular culture has on policing? The way it’s portrayed in the media, in television, in movies?
Neil: Well, I’m sure that there are some number of police officers who went into the profession because they liked what they saw on T.V. shows and thought that policing was going to be very much like that, and of course, it’s not. Not hard to imagine that there are huge gaps between what’s shown on T.V. and what the reality of the job is. In reality, police work has a great deal of monotony interspersed with moments of panic. That’s how it’s often described.
There’s a lot of paperwork involved. It’s a dirty and difficult business in the sense that you’re out in dirty conditions, sometimes mud and all that stuff. It doesn’t have necessarily the glamour as what I’m saying that’s shown on T.V. I do think that sometimes people enter the profession and expect it to be one thing and find that it’s something really quite different.
Jeff: Talk about what you found in terms of people that do enter the profession: the people that decide to be police officers. It is a very obviously self-selecting population. Can we paint with a broad brush in terms of those that decide to pursue that profession?
Neil: Well, it’s changed over the years in terms of its demographic composition. Policing has historically been a working-class occupation, and it has often been a source and site of social mobility, particularly when civil service rules were enacted earlier in the beginning of the 20th century. And so, as you’ve seen new groups of members of the working class cycle through the American system, some number of them have gone into law enforcement and then they’ve often used that as a stepping stone: a good government job into the middle class for themselves and for their families.
You saw generations of Irish cops, for example, in the northeast, and now you’re seeing a real diversification in terms of race and ethnicity. Working class, the educational qualifications of the police have been growing over time as the country has become more educated. Now something like 40% of American police officers have bachelor’s degrees — that varies by location, of course.
And in terms of gender, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed very much. There was an increase in the number of female police officers. That’s leveled off. Now we’re looking at around 12%, nationally. There’s a real push now to get that up much higher to 30% by 2030. Those are some of the demographic features.
Now, on other factors, law enforcement has historically been a very conservative occupation, not exclusively so. But to a large extent, there are cross-cutting pressures there. When people enter the profession from minority communities, for example, who might have more progressive views on race that can cross-cut the natural tendency for a good deal of conservatism in law enforcement. So those are, I would say, some of its most salient features.
Jeff: And what role does education play, do we find, in shaping the culture of these departments?
Neil: Now, that’s a great question. Certainly, many of the calls for reform over the years have been to have the police and the OSB be better educated. Going back all the way to the early years of the 20th century, one of the leading figures of police reform back then, chief in Berkeley, California, a guy named August Vollmer, pushed, when almost nobody was going to college, for officers to have some kind of college education. He thought that would be beneficial, particularly for detectives. And as we’ve seen waves of upset and unrest, I should say, about police abuses, there have been persistent calls to increase the educational qualifications of the police in the US.
I would say that the data on this is a little bit ambiguous. There is some evidence to suggest that police with more education use force less and are less likely to make arrests for minor offenses. The other hand, there’s some other evidence to suggest that cops with more education tend to be more effective at whatever job they are assigned, and so if they’re in departments where the goal that the assigned task is stop and frisk everybody and make as many arrests as you can, then the evidence suggests that educated police tend to do that more effectively than their less educated counterparts.
On the whole, the evidence is a little bit ambiguous. But I would say that there’s a real interest now in trying to get police with more college education. The difficulty, of course, is that there’s a tremendous recruitment crisis in policing right now, and it’s hard to get anyone to enter law enforcement, much less people with college degrees who might well have lots of other better-paying job opportunities.
Jeff: One of the other things that impact these departments, as you talk about profoundly in Walk the Walk, is the leadership of the department. Talk about that as it relates to these three police departments that you look at in the book.
Neil: Policing has been historically and remains to a large extent a paramilitary organization. And we could talk about the arguments about whether the police have become overly militarized. But to some extent, it is an organization with a very strong rank and command structure and one of the downsides to that, of course. One of the upsides is that police officers really do look to those at the top of their organizations for leadership. They want direction, they want someone to tell them, in general, what source of orders they should be following. And they look for leaders who they find to be credible and strong cops, and leaders who will have their back or virtuous and those kinds of things.
Now, I found in doing research for this book that departments are able to really alter their cultures in a meaningful way. Not to necessarily change everything about them but to emphasize more of the positive qualities of police culture and deemphasize the negative qualities.
One thing that they all share was really visionary leadership. Folks who had ascended to a role of police chief and had unusual qualities that made them see the world differently, be more open to input from different sectors of their community and gave them the real organizational know-how to be able to not just come up with good ideas for how their department should change but really make sure that they got thorough implementation on the ground. In policing in general, leadership is very important and changing the culture of police department leadership is doubly important.
Jeff: What about in those situations, and I want to talk about the three positive ones, the three that you look at in the book, but what about those situations where there is a constant tension between the police, the police unions, and the leadership of these police departments? And we’ve seen that in various places in the country.
Neil: It’s a huge challenge. One of the difficulties with changing the police in this country has to do with how we’ve structured the police chief role. In many cities, police chiefs are appointed by mayors or by the city council, and these are often at-will appointments. So the idea is you’re going to come in, you’re going to serve until they don’t want you to serve anymore.
The average tenure for big city police chiefs is three to five years. And typically, what will happen in a city that’s been experiencing real tensions between the police and the community is that the mayor or city manager or city council will bring in a police chief with the explicit promise of reforming the department. They’re brought in. That sets up intense tensions between the cops, the union, and the chief.
Oftentimes, these are appointments from outside the department, so the chief doesn’t necessarily have the benefit of that insight or knowledge and that insight of credibility. And the results of those tensions is that whatever efforts of police reform are made are essentially rebuffed by the union or by cops on the ground. So that’s a problem. If we want to really make headway with police reform, we probably need to change the way that police chiefs are appointed and also our expectations for how quickly they’re going to be able to make change.
One thing I found in the three cities that I looked at closely was that the chiefs really took a long time — 10 years in the case of one of my examples, which is Stockton, California, which is a city that had a certainly troubled relationship between the police and various communities there.
In other places, it took even longer than that. Policing is a big ship. I often say it’s slow to turn. And if we are constantly cycling new chiefs in and out, it makes it very, very hard to gain real traction with reform.
Jeff: Why is it so difficult to change? Why is it like that proverbial big ship that you’re talking about?
Neil: Many institutions are difficult to change. I work in higher education and we certainly don’t do it either. And you’ll think about how long it takes to change. How long it took to bring about changes in the Catholic church, for example. So I don’t think policing is unique in being slow to change. I do think that one of the things about it that makes it slow to change is that officers get extremely wedded to their routines, to their ways of doing things. And, of course, this is true in many occupations. But that may be so even more for policing.
And I think one reason for that is because policing is a very — it’s a job that has a lot of uncertainty associated with it, a lot of anxiety associated with it, and stress. And one thing that habits do very well and routines is they alleviate anxiety and stress because they provide a clear path for people to follow when confusing or difficult situations arise. Officers are very eager to cling to their routines, and I do think that that poses a particular challenge for change.
It’s not as though they don’t change. If you look back at history of policing, there have been many, many really dramatic changes over time and many measurable improvements. But it is often a hard task to convince officers to change. And the joke that chiefs will often tell is that the only thing that cops hate more than change is the way things are now. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, if you’re a police leader, and you want to produce change. So I do think that organizational routines are probably more a persistent feature of law enforcement than at least some other occupations.
Jeff: How much does that have to do with the inherent risk in police work? That because of that risk, routines somehow add to the perception of safety.
Neil: I think that’s an important part of it, for sure. And part of the challenge here is that humans are not necessarily very good at calculating risks, and we think about this all the time. If you think about people who are afraid of flying, right, a plane crash is a very high impact risk, and so people get very worried about it. But of course, it’s vanishingly rare. Thank goodness.
In law enforcement, it is a risky profession. Something like one out of every 12 officers is assaulted every year. Thankfully, officer deaths aren’t hugely common. Something like 50 or 60 on average per year from assaults. There are more from traffic accidents and the like. Certainly, there are many more from COVID.
Officers have sometimes a not clear sense for how risky the job is, and their risk perceptions will also change over the course of their career. So when you first start out, and you have very little experience, and you’re told in the police academy that officer safety has to come first — that has to be job number one in every situation and that in every citizen encounter is potentially incredibly a risky and a lethal threat to you, then officers feel this tremendous sense of anxiety.
Typically, as they gain more experience and a little bit more maturity, they become better at discerning what are situations that involve real risk and what are situations that involve — where it might seem like there’s a risk, but there actually isn’t a risk.
Yes, I do think that that partially pushes officers into more of a routinized response. And, of course, the challenge there is that those routines and habits can be really effective when they’re applied to the right kind of situation. Oftentimes, officers will end up making a tragic mistake when they apply a set of routines to a situation that doesn’t fit.
The classic example of this would be thinking that somebody has a weapon and maybe even deploying lethal force because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in a situation in which you expect someone to have a weapon, and then it turns out that there is no weapon.
I do think that the question of how to fit the routines to the actual reality of situations officers deal with is a real challenge. And then the other part of that is that social circumstances change. People’s behaviors evolve over time, communities evolve and change over time. And if officers aren’t a little bit more flexible in their routines and habits, then they can’t be flexible and appropriate in responding to the changing needs of the community.
So part of that is a question of efficacy, and part of that is just a question of democratic accountability where all the officers can behave in a way that is appropriate and responsive to where the community is at right now.
Jeff: What about the binary nature of the work, the perception that there’s good guys and bad guys. It seems to be less shades of gray in police work.
Neil: I think that some of that, again, has to do with the nature of the job. Officers are forced to make really quick assessments of people and to act on those perceptions. I think that as officers get a little bit more experience, they do recognize those shades of gray. They recognize that someone can be having a bad day, isn’t necessarily a bad person.
At the same time, officers, they see extremes. I’m definitely not the first person to say this, but especially if you don’t live in the community, and you’re an officer, most of what you’re seeing are people who are having really bad days or who’ve done something really bad. If all you’re doing is responding to 911 calls, you may be dealing constantly with traffic accidents, domestic disputes, people experiencing mental health crises, or criminal activity. And you may have little interaction with the members of the community who are not having those bad days right then.
And so it can sometimes create this skewed perception that there’s people for whom everything’s great, and then there’s people who there’s something going on with them. So I think that that contributes to the binary nature of the occupation. But again, the best police officers don’t fall prey to those kinds of traps.
Jeff: Talk about these three towns that you focus on: Stockton, California, and Longmont, Colorado, and LaGrange, Georgia, and what the similarities were in terms of what those police chiefs did to try and bring reform to those departments.
Neil: And so I chose these communities for a couple of reasons. One, they are really different. So Stockton is a medium-sized city, about 320,000 in the Central Valley. Longmont Colorado, about a hundred thousand. It’s becoming more of a suburb. It’s a high plains town near Boulder. And then LaGrange, Georgia, is a community of about 30,000, an hour outside of Atlanta near the Alabama state line. So they’re different in size.
They’re different politically. Stockton’s more moderate. I think Boulder has historically been more conservative. It’s trending more liberal, more progressive with the state of Colorado. And then LaGrange is split. It’s roughly half white and half Black and so has both a Democratic and a Republican constituency in the town. So very different kinds of communities. And I wanted to profile agencies that were doing different things.
But secondly, the chiefs all pursued very different agendas for reform. They all were interested in policy change. They all did important things like restricting use of force in ways that hadn’t been there before, in trying to improve training, those sorts of things. Those are standard police reform models. But either they had the sense when they started their tenures as chief, or they developed the sense over time that it wasn’t enough to change policy, that you couldn’t make real progress with reform unless you also really tried to shift the culture of the department. And so that became a concerted goal for many of them.
Now, lots of chiefs around the country have tried to alter the culture of their departments. Many have been unsuccessful. But these three chiefs actually achieved a degree of success, probably more so in Longmont and LaGrange, although there was a real change in Stockton as well. And I wanted to profile that and figure out how did they do it. What’s the model that we might follow if we really want to improve the culture of police departments and thereby improve policing?
Jeff: And was there a specific model? Were there things that each of them did that either in terms of example or even by accident, things that they did that work that were effective?
Neil: You mentioned leadership earlier, and that was really important for all three chiefs. They all had a degree of credibility or developed a degree of credibility with their officers. And that was important. If you’re trying to change the culture of a police department, it’s crucial that officers have some trust in their chief. Now that’s not to say in all three agencies that all the cops love their chiefs. There was often a lot of pushback. And in the case of a couple of the agencies, some real derision directed toward the chiefs for some of the reforms that they were trying to enact. But the chiefs had a degree of credibility and respect with the officers, and that was extremely helpful.
Beyond that, one thing I found was that the chiefs were very creative and open to new ideas about what policing might look like. And at least in the case of Stockton and LaGrange, the chiefs really didn’t go into their jobs thinking that they were going to be changing the culture of the department, necessarily. In Stockton, the chief there, Eric Jones, took the helm in 2012, and his goal was to bring down Stockton’s murder rate, which had spiked in the wake of the financial crisis.
And in LaGrange when chief Lou Dekmar took over in the mid-’90s, his goal was to really professionalize the department to bring it up to national standards in terms of policies and procedures.
So there’s an element of culture change there, but neither of them had an interest in altering the traditional culture of policing at first. But then both evolved toward recognizing the importance of that. In Stockton, Jones found that it was really hard for him to implement his major crime prevention strategy, if there wasn’t more trust between the police and the community. And he recognized that that required that the cops changed the way that they interacted with community residents.
And in LaGrange, Lou Dekmar eventually became quite open to calls that he heard in the community for some meaningful effort at reconciliation between the police department, which is largely white, and LaGrange’s large majority Black community. And he’s a early conservative guy. And initially those ideas of reconciliation sounded a little bit like racial sensitivity training. So he was a little bit resistant at first, but he became open to that and to paying attention to the importance of the police owning what they’d done in the past and really trying to make amends for them.
So, in these places, it was a combination of leadership, real vision, and openness to ideas that were emerging from the community about how policing might be better in a way that uniquely fit that city.
Jeff: Did there also need to be a desire to change on the part of the communities or on the part of the police departments themselves — the rank-and-file officers? Was there a desire for change that was at the core of any of this?
Neil: Certainly, there was a desire for change in all three of my communities from certain quarters of the community. So in Stockton, there was real upset at the level of police violence there. And also I should not hesitate to add real upset at the inability of the police to effectively bring down the rate of violence in Stockton. So there was a desire for change there.
In Longmont, where Chief Mike Butler took over after serving a long time as second in command for Boulder P.D., he found that there was also a considerable demand for change that was being produced. And this took the form of real anger in Longmont’s Latino community toward a history of racism in that department. And in LaGrange too. People had memories and had very recent experiences of racism and poor behavior from LaGrange cops. So from the communities, yes. From the police departments, no. The demand for change came from the community.
Jeff: Finally. Talk about the way in which these departments, the rank and file in the departments, were brought around. Was it just leadership? Was it pressure from the community? Was it a combination of things?
Neil: I think it was a combination. That’s always the case. Certainly, the leadership was important. The chiefs didn’t just come up with one idea. They had a lot of ideas. They were persistent in their efforts, and over time, as they evolved their department, they let the officers come up with ideas, new ideas, and often listened to their suggestions. So it started with the chiefs. Eventually, officers became important makers of change themselves. But I do think that in none of the three communities would change have been possible without not only the demand for change from the cities but also a real engagement with the police department.
And I think one thing that we sometimes do in this country is get very angry with the police when incidents of abuse appear, and we demand that they change, and we might vote in place politicians who we think are going to make that change. And then we just go about our business and wash our hands of the whole affair. And that’s not an effective way to get change in local government.
As anyone who deals with school boards or engagements with schools superintendents knows, you have to be in there. Citizens have to be in there trying to influence things, trying to have meaningful dialogue, trying to actually push the agency in a better direction. And in many of these communities, there were citizens who stepped forth and were really willing to do that once the chiefs proved willing to engage.
In LaGrange, for example, I mentioned this effort at racial reconciliation. Well, that came about because a group of civic leaders decided that it was really time to build more trust between LaGrange’s white and Black communities. This was a town that had had de facto segregated swimming pools, but only barely de facto, into the early ’90s. So, and a tremendous history of racism in Troup county, which is part of what’s the fifth largest slave-holding county in the state of Georgia.
And so, these civic leaders engaged a nonprofit out of Richmond, Virginia, to come in and have these facilitated dialogue sessions, not to talk about policing but just talk about the experience of race and how both Black and white LaGrange residents what it was like to live their lives. And they allowed them to talk freely and talk openly about it. And that was a very important trust-building experience. And that’s what Chief Lou Dekmar got pulled into. And that ultimately led him to do this remarkable gesture, which was to be the first Southern police chief to publicly apologize for his department’s role in a lynching that had taken place back in 1940.
So, the community has to be in there, not yelling at the cops but engaging in meaningful dialogue with them, sitting down, pressing their demands for justice, listening to what the cops have to say. And when that happens, when there’s the community, and chiefs, and police leadership working together to produce change, that can sometimes yield good results.
Jeff: Neil Gross. His book is Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture. Neil, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Neil: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy, podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.