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New Police Chiefs Face Impossible Task Of Pleasing Officers, Community And Elected Officials

Published: Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 1:54pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Tension between law enforcement and communities of color has grown since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some actions by officers have left communities to search for new leaders for their police forces. And the current climate has some cities reassessing how to work with current leaders and determine whether they're the right people at the right time. In the Valley, for example, Tempe's police chief Sylvia Moir announced her resignation, which will be effective [October]. With me to talk about what's going on right now as cities and communities look for new police chiefs and other law enforcement heads is Brian Higgins. He's an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and he worked in law enforcement in Bergen County, New Jersey. Brian, what are some of the unique challenges that come with being a police chief and working with fellow officers, elected officials and the public?

BRIAN HIGGINS: So you have the officers quite often, the chief may or may not, but the chief has either come up through the ranks in that agency or another agency, so he or she has built a reputation already. That, that reputation will follow him or her into the position of chief. And those chiefs have to either build up that reputation or continue that reputation of being, you know, we hear these terms — a "cop's cop," somebody who knows law enforcement, who has walked the walk before. And at the same time, there are those who run the municipality or state or county and, and then there's the public. So you have these three different big large community groups that, that have, all have interests: the police, the elected officials and the public.

GOLDSTEIN: And so the chief is going to be getting — probably — criticism from at least one of those corners at all times.

HIGGINS: Oh, absolutely. There's no way you can please all of them all the time.

GOLDSTEIN: This is not the first time we've seen what some people might say, "Well, it needs to be culture shift. There needs to be evolution," whatever it is. But it seems to be one that more people are talking about all across the country. What does it boil down to in terms of what someone who's in the position currently, someone who's in a chief position, can you imagine that pretty much everyone in that position right now is feeling an extra amount of pressure to see if that person is willing to to change or shift with the culture based on what the politicians might be saying, what the community might be saying?

HIGGINS: Here's what is more difficult than ever before, because there are times when we shift in governing, generally speaking, and more specifically in policing. But like never before, we don't really have a consensus on either side of this right now, particularly those who are calling for defunding the police and changing law enforcement — all those terms we hear — they really can't agree. You know, to some, defunding the police means abolishing the police agencies. To others, it means redirecting funds to other entities. And to some, it just means reducing police funds in general. So how do you know how you're going to please those who you need to please — community, elected officials — if they don't even know what they want?

GOLDSTEIN: I just want to give you one specific example here. Phoenix suburb of Tempe, the Tempe city manager said the city was looking for a chief who could, quote, "embrace the change and really evolve alongside and implement it." Whose responsibility, who ends up having to define that change?

HIGGINS: What I see is, you know, the terms like "embrace the change" — you hit it on the head. It's not really very well defined. What change are we looking for? And to make very quick rash changes in the middle of deciding what that change would look like means we might have to see more and more changes as we go down the road. You know, many of the cities that I've evaluated, looked at, new administrations have brought in these chiefs. So mayor comes in, appoints a new police chief, and we see the change happening now. We see this unrest, and now they want the chief that they brought in out. Well, if that person is the one that you appointed and they're following through on your vision, how is it that only the chief bears responsibility and needs to be pushed out and not the elected officials?

GOLDSTEIN: Brian, when there's this level of concern — I know it's a universal, but it's getting certainly a lot of attention with [Black Lives Matter] (BLM) and the protests and the rallies. Is there a tendency to maybe swing the pendulum far in one direction? The public might not have gradual change, so let's try something completely different from the previous chief we had.

HIGGINS: It is very dangerous to swing any way so quickly. We don't really know what people want right now. We know they want change, but what does that mean? And what, what does this change look like? So we're going to just throw these very critical entities in, in government — law enforcement agencies — into this tailspin, if you will, figuring out where they're going to go. In the meantime, changing leadership — it's not a good formula.

GOLDSTEIN: Why would someone want to be a police chief now then?

HIGGINS: Personally speaking, it would be a very difficult task to take on right now. But there are those who really care about law enforcement. They care about the public. And I'm sure they believe that they can make a difference. But you know, it's not like ever before. A big part of being a chief right now will be to be very willing to change and pivot quickly and to deal with this reducing amount of support, or at least vocally. ... I think we're seeing a little bit of the pendulum starting to level out. I don't know if it's coming back yet, but it's slowing down. More and more people seem to be saying, "Hey, wait a minute. I'm for the police," and they almost feel like — the ones I spoke to almost like, "Look, I get it. I get these, these policies. It sounds good," right?

GOLDSTEIN: When you hear calls for police reform, whether t's from BLM or, let's say more, more middle of the road parties on this, what reforms do you think are legitimate and actually would improve police forces?

HIGGINS: Police community relations have to be rebuilt. And that's not a, that's not me making a statement about who created that. We just, it's pretty obvious that we have to rebuild those relationships. I think there are areas of use of force we can address. I think we can look more on a national standard. You know, we mentioned before about social media. What social media is doing more than ever is bringing our country together collectively as a nation as opposed to being these regions where we do things differently, right? What the police do in the South or the West is different than what we do in the Northeast. Maybe there are some general use of force standards nationally — training standards nationally — that could bring us all together.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Brian Higgins. He's an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Also many, many years of experience at the top of police forces. Brian, thanks so much for the time today.

HIGGINS: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it.

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