Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Former New Orleans Police Chief Ron Serpas talks about how law enforcement can get the new administration’s attention on the best ways to fight crime.
Not long after the vote to appoint Jeff Sessions Attorney General of the U.S., President Donald Trump served up three executive orders for him to get started on. Two of them involve Sessions assembling task forces to address violent crime and protect police officers. In Trump’s address earlier this week to the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, he told them:
Those who demonize law enforcement or who use the actions of a few to discredit the service of many are hurting the very people they say that they want to help. When policing is reduced, crime is increased, and our poorest citizens suffer the most. And I see it all the time. When the number of police goes down, crime goes up. To build needed trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, it is not enough for us to merely talk to each other. We must listen to each other.
One group that’s been trying to grab the president’s ear on this issue is the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a national coalition of roughly 175 police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors. During its short existence (it was launched in October 2015), this organization has consistently been sending the message that there’s a smart way to reduce violent crime without heavy-handed policing and incarceration-focused punishment.
This idea had plenty of buy-in from the Obama administration, but the Sessions appointment to the Justice Department suggests Trump’s administration may not be as welcoming. As the LELRCI notes in a new report issued today, Sessions did not support the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 when he served in the U.S. Senate. Had it passed, the bill would have, among other things, reduced mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and granted judges more sentencing discretion for low-level offenders.
In the report, former New Orleans Police Department Chief Ronal Serpas expresses a different take on public safety, one that challenges Trump’s “police down-crime up” theory:
We need not use arrest, conviction, and prison as the default response for every broken law. For many nonviolent and first-time offenders, prison is not only unnecessary from a public safety standpoint, it also endangers our communities. Once inmates are released, they struggle to find employment, housing, and other necessities that would re-integrate them into society. Facing few legitimate opportunities, many ex-offenders return to crime. The higher the incarceration rate for such offenders, the less safe the citizenry.
CityLab talked to Serpas, who co-chairs the LELRCI alongside former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, about the new report, “Blue Lives Matter” laws, and who from the law enforcement community actually has the ear of the president.
How worried are you about Sessions’ lack of support for bipartisan efforts on criminal justice reform?
What we want to do is continue to advocate for those of us in our organization who’ve had a front-row seat on crime-fighting and violence reduction, in hopes that we can continue to have our our voices heard. The bipartisan idea of criminal justice and sentencing reform will continue. What we would suggest is
that those of us who’ve been policing and prosecuting for the last many decades believe that there’s still room for the federal government to make meaningful and rational changes. In fact, the federal government is running behind at least 27 states that have moved forward with the combination of criminal justice reform and crime reduction in America. I don’t think that we should give up focus and dedication on reaching either the social imperative of corrections and sentencing reform, and certainly the financial imperative as well.
Have you had a chance to talk with Sessions or Trump about this?
Not at this point. But by releasing this report we’re putting a marker on the landscape saying that we still believe there’s room for collaboration and bipartisanship. The point that can’t be lost is that there are states that have already significantly moved in this direction, and many of those states are under Republican-controlled legislatures and governors. It’s an important thing, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, to ensure that the right people are in jail, and that the people in jail are the ones we should be afraid of. Giving police officers alternatives to arrests so they can spend more time on the dangerous people is just a common-sense approach.
What about new research and expert opinion that says that even violent crime should be dealt with from a non-incarceration approach, especially if the goal is to reduce incarceration?
I am sure that 30 years ago there was a specific set of dogma on how to build a building, in terms of architectural and engineering strategies. But better science and greater understanding of physics and engineering resulted in changes in the way buildings are built. The criminal justice system is exactly the same. We have greater science that tells us the adolescent brain at 17 or 18 years old may have the equivalent horsepower of an adult, but the capacity to make right, reasonable, and rational judgements has not developed yet. Today, we can understand that adolescent crime may be more of a neurochemistry problem then it is a desire to hurt somebody else.
Our position is the criminal justice system is not immune to the evolving understandings of a civilized society, and we’re going to have to change and keep up with that. The Supreme Court has already taken this into consideration in ending juvenile death sentences and life without parole. Our system of punishment is based upon people who are making free-will choices, and they should suffer the consequences of those free-will choices. Well, some people are now beginning to understand that that may not be as crystal-clear as we once thought. That does impact the question of violent people in jail. Perhaps there are other alternatives that are better for the individual, psychologically and emotionally, and better for criminal justice system. That reduces officer injury. That reduces citizen injury. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?
How do you create policy from that evolving science, though, under an administration that seems unconcerned about science and facts?
I would look at it this way: I didn’t know what it was like to be a police chief until I became a police chief. I didn’t know what it was like to have to deal with budget realities to the desires and goals of my administration, until I became a police chief. I suspect that any administration, at every level, will go through a period of time where they’re not having to confront those realities just yet.
But there will certainly be a moment in time when learned people on both sides of this debate will come out and say, “Well, we have $80 billion in corrections costs coming up, and we also have the need for other things.” Once you actually have the mantle of the office and have to reconcile all these decisions, hopefully the arguments put forward by people from different ideological perspectives reach the same conclusion—that we have to find a more efficient and effective way to deal with this.
But what if the Trump administration doesn’t care about costs, just delivering on his campaign promises? It’s not cost effective to build a wall, but here we are.
I think the 27 states that are doing [criminal justice] reforms are making their way through that problem. And I suggest that in end, the bipartisan efforts in the U.S. House and Senate are going to get the attention of everyone in the country, including the administration. There are a lot of smart people who agree and disagree, but at the end of the day we all suggest that there’s got to be a better way to reduce violent crime. And that will have to come through some of these reforms.
Here’s the problem: You and your organization are saying this, but there are maybe a dozen other law enforcement organizations that pledged support for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General—even though he has not offered support for these reforms. How does the public trust that the law enforcement community really wants these reforms, when they’re supporting people who don’t?
Each group has to make a political calculation as opposed to an issue calculation. There’s a difference between the two. Those groups voted to support [Sessions], but I do not think that suggests that they also have abandoned ideological reform in criminal justice. That’s really the only way I can answer that; they’ve made choices on their political calculation.
One way to help illustrate this—the national research data on this is really very new, and it suggests we do three things that might help you understand this: When you ask police officers in representative samples across the country if their chiefs support community policing, about 80 percent say yes. When you ask police officers if they support community policing, about 70 to 80 percent say yes. Same thing with justice and legitimacy policing. The police officers recognize that their chiefs are pushing it in huge majorities. And the police officers in huge majorities recognize the value of that kind of policing.
But here’s where you start to see a differences: 20 percent of police officers say their police chiefs support broken windows policing, but about 80 percent of the police officers support broken windows policing. One thing that tells me is that when it came to communicating the value of justice and legitimacy and community policing, police chiefs and officers were able to make headway. When it comes to broken windows policing, police chiefs have recognized that maybe there needs to be a better way and are still moving to bring cops along with them on that.
I guarantee you that 25 years ago, you didn’t have 80 percent of police officers saying they thought community policing was good. They thought it was horrible and didn’t want to do it. But then they came to see the value of it.
And yet, as your report acknowledges, the Trump administration is considering cutting the community policing budget. Still, the law enforcement organizations supported his pick for Attorney General. Who are we to believe?
I don’t think there’s any question that the COPS office has provided a real value across several different presidential administrations to serve their communities better. To cut community policing resources would be analogous to cutting all research on architecture and engineering for building design. You wouldn’t get any better at building buildings and engineering. The COPS office has been in both Democratic and Republican administrations. And those of us who’ve been police officers and leaders for the last 30 years understands that it’s a value. And we’ll keep arguing that it’s a value.
Looking at Trump’s executive order on addressing violence against police—when African Americans see that it looks like there’s more resources being dedicated to protecting police but less for protect black lives from police, doesn’t that undermine the effort of establishing better trust between police and black communities?
One of the things we’re trying to make clear in our report, is without trust in government people don’t testify in court. Without trust in police, people don’t tell you who the person is who committed the crime. And without confidence in police, you have more use of force and you have more injuries. What we’re suggesting is that community policing advances safety for communities and police. So when I look at the executive order on increasing officer safety the first thing that comes to mind is, if we get this right on the front-end, we’re going to reduce injuries. The last data available says there were 63 million contacts between the civilian and a police officer in this country. We had 63 million chances to get it right. And there are going to be times when we get it wrong, on both sides of the equation. But reducing that part is what creates safety for officers and the community.
So if Sessions and Trump requested a meeting with you tomorrow, what precisely would you say to them about Blue Lives Matter laws?
I would suggest that the tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge represent the most horrific outliers we can have in this nation and we should not lose sight of finding ways to reduce violence before those horrible events happen. I would say that police officers want to do the work they were hired to do to make their communities safe and to guard people. We have to give them the time to do so. Look at the innovations in Tucson, and the innovations in Seattle and Miami-Dade county where they have very large departments, choosing alternatives to arrests for people who need mental health or drug abuse, so they can go find time to get those dangerous offenders.
And, most importantly, please continue to support money and research necessary so that we can have a better understanding of adolescent development, and have a better understanding of trauma-informed responses to young people who inexplicably act in an aggressive way when really there is something that’s altered their life. And finally, American policing has always been under the watchful eye of the community: We expect it, respect it, and desire it.
How important is it that the Justice Department to follow through on its promise to collect data on police shootings and killings?
I think it’s incredibly important that we have a national dataset on police use of force. The 1994 law that empowered the civil rights division to investigate police violence required that that data be collected back then and the federal government didn’t do it. If we don’t have data, we don’t know how to compare. If we don’t know how to compare, we don’t know the difference between coincidence and correlation. But let’s be very clear about this—in the executive order, the president calls for an improved data collection in a manner that will add to our understanding of crime trends and their reduction of crime. In this nation, we do not spend federal money to research gun crime. And that, for police chiefs, is not a partisan issue. It’s not a Second Amendment issue. It’s, “Wait a minute, public reports say the federal government spends $3.4 million to study the aggressive behavior of Himalayan hamsters—how come we don’t spend any money on the dangers of guns?” If you want to reduce violent crimes, you have to study that.