“It’s extremely difficult to get it right when it comes to police reform.” These words, buried in a Governing profile of former Dallas Police Department (DPD) Chief David Brown, sum up a challenge that both the Texas city and the nation at large repeatedly face: with increasing pressure placed on officers, how do they effectively do their jobs and keep a positive public image at the same time?
To be sure, the answer is complex, and perhaps impossible to fully determine. A police force’s image is reflective of the department’s performance, the public’s subjective desires, and the current climate between the two entities. These pressures were in frequent conflict during Brown’s six-year career as chief of the DPD, during which he was simultaneously recognized as a leader in police reform, criticized for what some citizens viewed as racist quota policies, and beleaguered (and eventually called on to step down) by forces within the local and national policing scenes.
Indeed, Brown’s career and the measures he instilled provide an interesting take on what public perception means to police and the personal, professional, and public tolls decision makers within a policing organization can endure. A growing number of departments have shared aspects of Brown’s philosophy when attempting to improve their own reputations—a strategy that can lead to better community ties, though sometimes at the cost of officer morale and job attrition.
For DPD, other departments, transparency is the first step to an improved image
There is little question Brown faced a stiff challenge when he stepped into his role as police chief in 2010, and the dramatic drop in use-of-force and civilian complaint numbers—which received national attention, particularly after the tragic 2016 murder of five Dallas police officers—did not come overnight. Deaths from officer-involved shootings, already abnormally high in Dallas in the years leading up to Brown’s promotion, dropped drastically in 2011, for instance, but peaked in 2012 and again in 2014.
Brown’s approach to enhancing the DPD’s transparency was far from the norm, however. An early proponent of body cameras, the chief spent over $1 million of his budget outfitting rookies, and officers with abnormally violent histories with the cameras. Though the department has drawn criticism for its refusal to release video involved in ongoing investigations, Brown himself also described footage to the press after at least one controversial shooting, explaining the video he watched was “consistent with statements [involved officers] made.”
While Brown may have been a trailblazer on the body camera front, not all aspects of his transparent philosophy for policing have come into vogue. His famous decision to release troves of officer-involved shooting data and other information on the DPD website is still largely unmatched in its scale and scope, for instance. So too are his well-known, if oft-criticized, social media firing alerts, in which he publicly released the names and misconducts of officers, dispatchers, and other employees he fired, sometimes before the officers had a chance to appeal the decision.
It bears repeating that embattled departments taking strides toward more transparency in the name of public goodwill are nothing new. These attempts, however, come in varying degrees of intensity. Some moves, like the Chicago Police Department’s social media images of officers having fun, aim for an approachable image. Others, such as the Baltimore Police Department’s engaging with the public over what information it would like to receive (and how they would like to receive it) represent a significant investment of time, financial resources, and investment in the concept. Considered alongside the explosive increase in departments using body cameras across the country, these changes suggest transparency may be a key factor in gaining or regaining the public’s trust.
Enhanced training and community policing can help repair public image as well
If Brown’s transparency-focused changes were an attempt to repair the DPD’s image by providing relevant data to the community, other initiatives put forth by the now-retired chief aspired to the same goal by creating positive interactions and reducing harm to officers and suspects during negative interactions.
One major—and majorly publicized—step in this process was Brown’s “passionate” belief in community policing, a movement seeing renewed interest since its zenith and subsequent decline in the early 2000s. Enhanced community input into policing matters, prevention-minded services, and geographic-sensitive beat assignments designed to build familiarity between police and public are all core tenets of the practice. The DPD’s take on community policing also introduced Community Engagement Units in neighborhoods around the city: physical locations and phone-in services designed to offer citizens information on police programs and opportunities to volunteer.
Though ostensibly implemented with the purpose of saving lives, Brown’s focus on de-escalation and other alternative training methods, which have since been adopted in several other departments, including image-stricken major metropolitan forces like Chicago, come with the PR benefit of preventing public ill will before it starts. Designed to give officers more time to think during stressful, dangerous situations, the training programs sometimes clash with traditional police training, which stress lethal or less-lethal force as the primary method of stopping attacks. As the Governing piece notes, implementation of this training in Dallas coincided with drastic drops in excessive force complaints, assaults against police, and officer-involved shootings that routinely made national headlines.
Before retirement, Brown was a controversial innovator
With most of his efforts, Brown, who announced his surprising decision to retire at the peak of his fame and influence in 2016, gave innovative, offbeat, and fledgling tactics and technologies a face, not to mention a national spotlight. Whether his efforts directly resulted in the statistical renaissance his department experienced, or there were more complex factors at play, the two have become inextricably linked in the public’s mind. For instance, it would be hard to imagine bodycams gaining the traction they did since Brown’s time as police chief without his early acceptance and adoption of the technology.
Many of these same technologies and techniques have since been adapted for use in other departments. Body cameras, in particular, have been hailed as a cure-all for both public and police misbehavior, with the Department of Justice providing millions in funding for departments willing to implement them under agency standards. The Camden (NJ) County Police Department, which made national headlines of its own in 2012 when the entire city police force was fired and replaced, credits recent de-escalation training with preventing deaths that would have otherwise resulted in justifiable shootings. Whether a given department’s decision to adopt community policing comes as a direct result of Brown’s programs and initiatives, at minimum, his work added a measure of credibility to the initiatives he chose.
That many of these programs are implemented after single events or longer-term image problems show that, while each initiative has its own motivation, increasing rapport, trust, and overall relationship with the public is a driving point behind most changes that are made.
This is not to say that Brown’s tenure as chief did not come with its share of controversy. Several of the moves he made came at the cost of officer job satisfaction and morale, which is a serious concern when the problems ultimately affect people responsible for the success of the changes. Comparatively low salaries, increased hours, scheduling conflicts, and a perceived lack of respect and appreciation — perhaps due in part to public firing notices — led to a “mass exodus” of officers from the DPD, with more than 40 officers leaving the department in May 2016 alone. Brown left a slate of internal problems like these to his interim replacement when he resigned, leading local media to comment on the many internal issues that would need to be resolved following his departure. Demanding scheduling practices and other workplace-impacting moves that he enacted also caused various police unions to call for his resignation.
At a higher level, police and other detractors have criticized body cameras and de-escalation training, citing the former’s expense and dismissing the latter philosophy as soft. Negative public perception and wide-scale attempts to fix it have led other commenters to reference a cultural “war on police,” an attitude experts say can foster an “us versus them” mentality between police and the public. Yet, others are quick to point out that, while some relationship-boosting measures may provide a solid foundation for better community-police relations in the future, none will repair police image problems overnight.
All these facts point back to the Governing quote, “It’s extremely difficult to get it right when it comes to police reform.” Moves made to appease one group are bound to alienate others. As evidenced by the DPD’s struggles, mass attrition and sagging morale could be the end result of some community-focused initiatives. Though police chiefs and other decision makers are likely right to focus on factors such as transparency, accountability, and policing style when facing an image crisis, they must be mindful of the tradeoffs that inevitably occur. Only then can they hope to achieve positive relationships both inside and outside the department.