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It's Hard To Change Policing, Especially When Officials Refuse To Read Your Report

In 2014, Sue Rahr was plucked from her job running the state’s police training commission to serve on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It allowed her to bring her new approach to police training before a national audience.

She said she felt like a kid getting promoted to the grownups’ table.

“I saw it as a tremendous opportunity,” she said. For the first time in her career, Rahr said, political leaders seemed willing to consider substantive changes to the country's tough-on-crime policies.

Obama created the task force in the wake of police protests starting in Ferguson, Missouri, and spreading to many other cities. The task force held hearings around the country before publishing its findings in May 2015. It included 59 best practices for law enforcement policies, training and technology. Among other findings, the report said crisis intervention training, such as what Rahr’s academy offers, should be mandatory nationwide.

Rahr was proud of the task force’s number one recommendation that “law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset to build trust and legitimacy.” That concept got a mixed reception among police officers. Some said good cops have always been guardians. Others said not being a warrior could get cops hurt or killed.

Looking back, Rahr had some regrets about that language. “What I didn’t do well is explain that being a guardian does not preclude you from being a warrior when that’s necessary,” she said. “And I think I created resistance by the way I presented it, because I think a lot of people interpreted what I was saying as it has to be one or the other.”

And being on the president’s task force turned out to be its own hurdle, even though task force members heard from experts and citizens on all sides.

“I was very surprised by the number of law enforcement leaders and politicians who refused to read the report because they dislike the Obama Administration,” she said.

The “Litmus Test” For Hiring New Police Chiefs

Jerry Ratcliffe is a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. He agreed that associations with Obama may limit the impact of the report.

Ratcliffe said that’s a shame, because the report is a thoughtful look at the future of policing. But it’s not one that police departments have much incentive to adopt.

“Because we have over 17,000 independent police departments with no centralized control or oversight, none of the recommendations in the report are in any way, shape or form enforceable,” Ratcliffe said.

He said police departments also tend to resist changes dictated from outside. But Ratcliffe said the International Association of Chiefs of Police supports the report and is working to get it implemented. That group is pushing cities to use the report as a litmus test when hiring new chiefs of police. That could offer “a change in motivation to really start looking at this report and seeing what it says about police departments and best practice,” Ratcliffe said.

The idea that police departments will – for better or worse – reflect the values of local elected leaders is something Rahr has also emphasized. “The idea that we have police departments that are out of control – they’re out of control with the cooperation or at the behest of political structure that they report to,” she said.

That was apparent once the Justice Department “peeled back the layers” in Ferguson, she said. The DOJ investigation revealed a city government and court that used its police department to squeeze revenue out of the poorest residents rather than to guarantee public safety.

These days Rahr is trying to reach beyond the academy to work more directly with the state’s police departments. She hosts field training officers at the academy so they can see what their new recruits are learning. And she’s working on an initiative called the Blueprint Project, to help police departments build trust inside their agency and with their communities.

“There’s an old saying: ‘So the station, so the street.’ And so we’re trying to build the right kind of culture inside the station, as well as give guidance on how to build that kind of trust in the community,” Rahr said.

They’re piloting the program in the city of Auburn and expect to offer the curriculum for free to any department once they’ve fine-tuned it.

Police Departments Are Trying To Restore “Silence”

Bellevue criminal defense attorney James Bible said minorities will trust police when they feel confident of receiving equal treatment. He doesn’t see police agencies embracing the spirit of the report or its findings.

“I can appreciate that the report was trying to find ways to restore trust," he said. "I think that departments around the state and this nation are trying to restore what I would say is silence.”

Bible said he’s assisting the family of Che Taylor, who was shot by a Seattle police officer in February. Bible notes that SPD has not agreed to bring in outside investigators for Taylor’s death, although the task force report calls that a best practice. “There was a recommendation in relation to independent investigation of police shootings, I think that that’s critical," he said.

Ultimately Bible calls the task force report ambitious, but said, so far, changes in American policing seem more about “messaging” than substance. “Until we’re in a place where officers who break the rules can be fired, a lot of this will be nothing more than window-dressing,” he said. The report recommends creation of a national registry to better track officers who have lost their licenses over misconduct.

Sue Rahr said she’s met lots of police officers committed to implementing the report findings. And in the wake of the task force, she’s been invited to participate in more projects than she has time for, but she can also relate to Bible’s frustration.

“I knew change was hard," she said. " I didn’t think it was going to be this hard. And I wasn’t expecting it to take this long.”

This piece was produced as part of a fellowship from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the 11th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

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