A Challenging Time to be a Police Executive

Police professionals taking over the reigns as the chief officer in a law enforcement agency today will face a number of unique challenges, many of contemporary origin.  Chiefs must function in an unprecedented dynamic and evolving environment which is reflective of rapid changes in society and technology.  The widespread and unfettered access to information fostered by cable news, local news patches, mobile phone applications, the Internet and social media can be both a burden and an opportunity.  New police executives will also be confronted with limited resources, tight budgets and often a lack of personnel to deal with threats such as terrorism, targeted attacks on law enforcement and active shooter incidents.  The nation and the world are becoming increasingly interconnected.  The actions of officers in virtually any police department in America, or even overseas, can have consequences for executives in all departments.  Misconduct or perceived misconduct can impact law enforcement far beyond the department within which an event occurred. 

The pace at which changes to American culture are progressing seems to be increasing in synch with technological advances.  Gordon Moore postulated a theory regarding the steady doubling of the capability of an integrated circuit called Moore’s Law.   Moore’s Law is often cited as a driving force behind the growth in technology, social change and productivity.  The rapid adoption and expansion of technologies such as smart phones, social media, unmanned aerial systems and autonomously driven vehicles are all examples of tools that are driving and will continue to drive substantive changes to the way Americans live their lives.  
Twenty-first century marvels, such as social media and smart phones, allow individual citizens to have an unprecedented ability to widely propagate content or views.  Videos of purported police misconduct can rapidly go viral creating social unrest in a given community and even across the nation.  Never before has one individual had such ready access to the masses.  Never before has the public had such ever present availability of cameras and video equipment to record and even live broadcast events as they occur.  Social media has no doubt helped to fuel recent anti-law enforcement sentiment in many American communities that began around the time of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and which continue today.  Protesters bemoaned the conduct of police after several high profile incidents in major cities across the United States.  This led to protests and violence in many localities. 

Rising rates for certain categories of violent crime, including homicide, in some areas of the country that have occurred after the onset of this anti-police movement has been attributed by some to a phenomenon called the Ferguson Effect.   This theory has been proffered by numerous individuals, including James Comey, the Director of the FBI.   Those that advocate the validity of the Ferguson Effect believe that it may be due to law enforcement officers who are now reluctant to perform their duties with the same zeal as before out of a fear of being accused of wrong doing.   Others believe that the so called Ferguson Effect may be a result of lowered police legitimacy in minority communities post Ferguson.   When communities view law enforcement with suspicion and distrust police legitimacy falters.  This can often result in an unwillingness to recognize police authority and an attendant increase in crime as civilians seek justice by taking the law into their own hands or by refusing to cooperate with police investigations.   Police legitimacy is derived from a perception of procedural justice, which is the feeling that the police are treating the public fairly, allowing all citizens to express their side of an event and are making decisions in an honest and unbiased manner.   Everyone desires to be treated fairly, honestly and with respect in all aspects of their lives, including during encounters with police.

Another concomitant reaction to the events in Ferguson is the notion that police departments have become over-militarized.  Those that subscribe to this belief cite the use of surplus military equipment and other similar items by civilian law enforcement authorities.   Main stream media advanced this view while showing police personnel deploying in armored vehicles and wearing camo colored uniforms. Some media outlets who spoke of this over-militarization appeared quite fickle when they expressed contradictory assessments while providing commentary during unfolding events in San Bernardino, California.   Officers there bravely risked their lives to apprehend the suspects who perpetrated the mass shooting that occurred in their community while supported by equipment that some would deem militaristic.  Clearly the specialized equipment that was deployed during this apprehension significantly reduced the risks to law enforcement and civilians alike as they faced self-identified terrorists armed with assault weapons and improvised explosive devices.  The reaction may be more about the application of the equipment than the items themselves.  Many police executives feel stymied as adversaries increasingly utilize military type equipment and tactics against police.  Attacks using assault rifles, explosive devices and military tactics seem to be on a steady increase.  How can these actions be effectively countered in a manner that can protect officers and civilians alike without adversely affecting public opinion?

Police departments should not be seen as an occupying force, but rather as part of the community as a whole, working cooperatively to improve the public’s way of life.  When members of the department recognize that their citizenry fully supports and appreciates their efforts any reluctance to act when necessary should be reduced.  When the public is directly engaged with their local law enforcement and believe that all citizens are being treated fairly, feelings of police legitimacy should increase.  When the police and the justice system are viewed as legitimate, people are willing to comply and cooperate with police and to obey the law.  The public will see the merits of working within the system to resolve issues and crime reduction will become a joint effort. 

In an effort to foster transparency the police should endeavor to enlighten community members on the issues that the department faces and why they desire to employ certain pieces of equipment.  The deployment of specialized equipment should be closely scrutinized and it should be limited solely to the purpose for which it was obtained.  Departments that opt to obtain military surplus equipment should do so with deliberation and forethought, applying for equipment because it will meet identified gaps in capability and not accepting items solely because they are available at no cost.  The need should precede the acquisition and not the converse.  Consideration should also be given to how the community may react if a given piece of equipment is obtained, as well as exactly how and when it will be deployed. 

Former military equipment should be adapted so that it is clear that it has been repurposed for civilian law enforcement usage.  This may include, for example, the removal of gun turrets; weaponry brackets; and repainting and marking of surplus vehicles so that they are unmistakably law enforcement units.  If the department is transparent and takes the time to explain why the equipment was obtained, while limiting its usage to fulfilling that role, it is likely that opposition may be reduced or even eliminated.  The public may actually appreciate the fact that their law enforcement agency is attempting to increase its capability to respond in a cost effective manner.  If specialized equipment was obtained to fill an identified need, which is still valid, necessary and accepted by the local community, media criticism based upon the actions of others should not result in an overreaction or a reluctance to utilize items that will allow a department to better serve its community or keep its officers safe.  

The proliferation of twenty-four hour news shows, both local and national, creates a constant need for content.  Savvy police executives can leverage this need to enhance community relations and the image of their departments.  Media relations should be proactive, whenever possible and not reactionary.  Every effort should be made to highlight the good work performed by members of the department on a daily basis.  Transparency should be a key consideration; after all if the department is part of the community, keeping the public informed of the work being performed is critical.  Media outlets that focus on hyper-local news create opportunities to highlight stories that didn’t exist in the past.  Many people are interested in events that occur in their communities and neighborhoods that wouldn’t have otherwise been newsworthy.  Social media can enable law enforcement agencies to keep the public informed in an unparalleled fashion.   It can be a direct pipeline of information, bypassing traditional media outlets, so that law enforcement can speak directly to the public that is serves.  Effectively employing social media can humanize police officers and demystify law enforcement work, affording the public with the ability to relate to the police in an unprecedented manner.   
While each new technology can have a benefit to society, it can also become a new means to commit crime.  Unfortunately the criminal element is often able to exploit new technology to commit crime before police executives may even know about the technology.  Police executives must keep abreast of developing technology and the potential impact that it may have upon public safety.  As traditional crimes continue to be committed, emerging technology can both impact the methods used to commit them and also create new opportunities for illegal conduct, such a phishing, ransomware, and identity theft.  Gone are the days of stealing late model vehicles through mechanical breaching of ignition locks.  Car thieves are resorting to computer hacking to steal some newer vehicles.   Rapidly identifying these trends and getting out in front of them is crucial.  Mobile applications can spread like wildfire, creating new behaviors among the public.  Enhanced reality games that involve people interacting with the real world while playing a game can cause usual and at times potentially dangerous behavior.  

As law enforcement budgets retract technology can help to offset reduced staffing levels.  It can be used to improve efficiency and allow officers on patrol to be more effective in reducing crime.  As the adage goes, knowledge is power.  Providing patrol officers with ready access to real time data can allow them to focus their efforts to achieve maximum results.  It is well known that a small minority of individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.  Arming front line officers with tools to identify these individuals can have a very dramatic effect on crime.  Providing mapping capability can allow officers to visualize where and when crime is occurring so that they are able to hone their efforts to maximize their results.  Allowing the public to perform tasks on a department’s web site or mobile application can reduce the need for officers to interact with them for routine and basic tasks thereby freeing up time for more important responsibilities.

New technology that has applications for law enforcement is continually being developed.  Police executives must decide whether they wish to adopt new technology and, if so, when.  Is it wiser to be one of the first to implement a new technology or is it better to wait until other agencies have had time to work out any bugs and to develop sound procedures to govern the usage?  Many technologies can require additional expenditures and personnel above and beyond initial estimates.  For example, body camera video can require large amounts of storage media and additional staff members of archive and retrieve the video.   Other technology may be so cutting edge that procedures and judicial acceptance have not caught up with it.  For example, non-contact fingerprint technology is emerging that allows prints to be captured without the fingertips having to contact a surface.  While intriguing and promising, how long will it take for the courts to accept this new method of capture?  Departments who spearheaded the implementation of unmanned aerial systems struggled as the FAA developed rules governing their usage.   
Leading a police department in the twenty-first century can be a daunting task; however it is also a unique and potentially rewarding opportunity.  Technology will no doubt substantially impact upon policing in an ever increasing way, certainly in both a positive and negative manner.  Social media allows unique communications opportunities while creating increased exposure to risk caused by the actions of others.  The future prospect of self-driving automobiles may result in incomparable roadway safety, yet it also may create a new threat caused by the hacking of this technology.  What won’t change is the need for effective and innovative law enforcement leaders who can adapt, improvise and overcome whatever hurtles that they may face to provide the best possible police service to the citizens that they are sworn to serve, in an inclusive, fair, honest and impartial manner.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Stuart Cameron is a 32-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department.  He was promoted to Chief of Department in November of 2015. 

Chief Cameron is a graduate of the 208th session of the FBI National Academy and he has a Master’s Degree from SUNY Albany.  Chief Cameron spent over a decade overseeing the operations of the department’s Special Operations Commands.