Police chiefs across the country are hoping President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration will help them address a crisis of legitimacy and focus on reform measures after a string of high-profile shootings by police officers and subsequent protests roiled the nation this summer.
A survey of almost 400 police chiefs, administered by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), asked law enforcement leaders across the country to identify priorities for the incoming administration. The top two results: Increasing public trust and addressing the call for reform.
Biden identified police reform as a priority of his racial equity agenda following a summer of unrest in cities across the country. The protests were prompted by the death of George Floyd in May, who died after a now-fired member of the Minneapolis Police Department knelt on his neck during an arrest.
It’s not clear what Biden will be able to accomplish, and the makeup of the US Senate is contingent on special election results in Georgia. Biden’s transition team met with the Fraternal Order of Police in November, and has met with other groups representing law enforcement since.
The chiefs, surveyed at the end of November, were asked to identify three policing issues in greatest need of addressing.
A clear majority said they hope the Biden administration will help increase trust in police, with 76% calling it a priority, and 57% wanting to address calls for police reform.
Fewer than half of respondents – 43% – said crime reduction was among their top three priorities for next year.
‘We have to rebuild trust’
A separate question on the survey asked chiefs how they’d counsel the president given the chance at a private meeting on his first day and many of their answers spoke to the idea of “rebuilding trust.”
“We can’t do our jobs unless the public trusts us,” Mike Chitwood, sheriff of Volusia County, Florida, told CNN.
“The overwhelming majority of leaders and officers say, show us where we can do better, and we’re all for that. You have the old guard who will dig their heels in, like everything else. But if we’re not trusted in our communities when we interact with people, it’s not gonna work. It’s hard enough when things are going good, let alone when things are going bad. To effectively address crime, we have to rebuild trust.”
Chitwood’s department employs about 500 deputies in the county that is home to Daytona Beach. He’s advocated for an expanded role for law enforcement because his agency is the only arm of government residents see most days.
His deputies have recently completed 60 hours of crisis intervention training, he said. And when he was chief of police in Daytona Beach, officers helped facilitate after-school and summer programs for children, along with life-skills classes and sports leagues.
Those duties don’t pertain specifically to enforcing the law. But, Chitwood said, as long as officers are asked to respond to 911 calls for all manner of problems, they have to have a relationship with the community that exists outside the scope of law enforcement.
“I have to look at from my perspective – when doing educational things, sports things, mentoring things,” he said. “That’s the future of law enforcement for us.”
Many surveyed want Biden to publicly support law enforcement
An “overwhelming” amount of respondents said they want Biden to publicly support law enforcement and highlight recent steps taken toward reform, according to the survey summary released by PERF.
Chiefs surveyed felt that the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats grew along with the divide between police and communities they’d serve.
“The public wants good policing. The cops want to do their job. There’s just an opportunity here to set the tone,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, told CNN.
“The President could start and people will follow. We’ve had a very difficult nine months with Covid-19, with the economy affecting cities and now with the spiraling homicide rate. The survey indicates need for rebuilding public trust and setting tone for the country.”
Chiefs noted in their responses that the new administration comes in lacking support of many in law enforcement, “particularly rank and file officers,” according to the survey summary.
The lack of trust among officers, some of whom fear a “defund the police” agenda, was listed as a potential impediment to reform.
“Defund the police” refers to the solution posed by a growing group of dissenters who suggest that the solution to police brutality and racial inequalities in policing is defunding police.
They argue that instead of funding a police department, a sizable chunk of a city’s budget should be invested in communities, especially marginalized ones.
Some officers say there’s a ‘lack of resources’ to fund basic needs of police
Other officers noted “a lack of resources to adequately fund the basic needs of police agencies and implement needed reforms,” with some agencies facing cuts now and others facing potential future cuts driven by both calls to defund police and municipal budgets devastated by Covid-19.
Training and technology both cost money, and either become more difficult for police agencies to manage with declining budgets.
Chitwood said he’s equipped detectives and the SWAT team in his county with body cameras.
His agency also releases body-camera footage of use-of-force incidents and is part of a pilot program where the unholstering of either a gun or Taser would turn on body cameras within 75 feet of the officer.
Chitwood said he was pondering his own department’s body-worn camera policy in the wake of national turmoil following the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police, who forcibly entered her n Louisville, Kentucky, apartment to serve a search warrant in a narcotics investigation.
“Now as sheriff, I’m sitting here, especially after Breonna Taylor. It didn’t dawn on me – we do more warrants on internet crimes against children than anything,” Chitwood said.
“We do 50 high-risk on narcotics, but detectives serve warrants on these guys for porn or exploitation, we did 72 this year, no body cameras. They’re knocking on the door of someone wanted for potentially a life felony. So they are all now getting body cams.”
Police chiefs surveyed by PERF said they want reforms to be “evidence-based, meaningful, realistic, (and) fair,” and even some suggested modeling a task force after one convened by former President Barack Obama.
That task force convened in 2014, after police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot to death 18-year-old Michael Brown. Its members included police chiefs and directors of groups advocating law enforcement reform.
The Department of Justice concluded in its report that the evidence in the Brown shooting didn’t support criminal charges against the officer who killed him, but the shooting prompted calls for reform and sparked social movements.
Obama’s task force put forth recommended changes that would improve policing and his administration provided grants to some departments implementing those changes.
“As we move forward, we need to reengage,” Wexler, of PERF, said. “We need that trust factor. That’s the price a lot of cities have paid. There’s a lack of trust and it has to be rebuilt.”