ASU criminology faculty dives into police reform

Ex-chief sees promise in recommended policies

Posted 6/10/20

A memo penned by faculty with the criminal justice school at Arizona State University is raising some critical points on how to address police reform while supporting officers and the community …

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ASU criminology faculty dives into police reform

Ex-chief sees promise in recommended policies

Protesters confront Phoenix police officers Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Phoenix during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
Protesters confront Phoenix police officers Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Phoenix during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
The Associated Press

A memo penned by faculty with the criminal justice school at Arizona State University is raising some critical points on how to address police reform while supporting officers and the community at-large.

While he didn’t contribute to the letter, Jerry Oliver, a former police chief and current academic director of ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, agrees with some of the viewpoints.

“They did an excellent job of highlighting the elements of change,” said Mr. Oliver, who has over 40 years of law enforcement, heading departments in Detroit; Richmond, Virginia; and Pasadena, California. “We have a lot of people saying, ‘There needs to be change.’ But beyond that, the next question they ask is, ‘What can I do,’ or ‘What should I be doing?’ I think the academics in criminology and criminal justice have sat down and thoughtfully put down the next steps. They not only talked about changes that have to happen with policing but they talked about the prosecutors and the changes that have to happen with prosecution, the changes that have to happen with judges, the changes that have to happen in prisons or in correctional institutions. They really did sort of a broad sweep of what needs to happen and what kind of social services need to be funded to help.”

The letter comes in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, who was pinned down at the neck by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The officer, Derek Chauvin, is being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting as they had stood by as Mr. Chauvin kneed on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. All four were fired.

The faculty who penned the letter listed 10 points to consider when addressing reforms in policing and the criminal justice system. That includes teaching officers and prosecutors about the historical legacy of racial oppression within their fields and why people in some communities become skeptical or mistrusting of those systems.

“Create opportunities for police officers, prosecutors, corrections officers, and judges to develop genuine empathy for the people with whom they will be interacting,” the letter states. “Have them walk in others’ shoes, or at least among them, to better understand their struggles and perspectives.”

Mr. Oliver said the memo presents best practices that should be universal and not just left to the thousands of law enforcement agencies and cities to decide. That also involves promoting public safety and security without overrelying on the criminal justice system. The letter and Mr. Oliver point towards the need to have social skills professionals deal with some of the issues that police respond to but aren’t necessarily trained to address.

“They’re charged with dealing with all kinds of social ills that people spend lifetimes getting degrees and trying to solve those problems,” Mr. Oliver said about officers. “Over time, at 2 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning, when some of these things are at its worse, it is generally a 24-25 year-old police officer because he or she does not have any seniority and they’re working at night at the most critical times. And their supervisors are the most junior of supervisors because they’re without seniority. These are the people that are out there in the middle of the evening or middle of the night solving these issues.

“When they call for help, from social services and other places, they will say, first of all, ‘We’re not funded to be there.’ But second of all, they will say, ‘Make a report and send it to us and we’ll try to address it between 8 and 5.’ So all of the people that really have the expertise are not available to police officers when they really need it. We’ve got to do a better job of assigning the expertise to the problems in our community and not leaving it to police.”

The letter also notes that officers and criminal justice officials need to be accountable not only for their decisions but also for preventing others in their field from causing harm through improper actions. That includes intervening when excessive force is being used, like what has been alleged in the Floyd case.

As instances of police brutality have come under scrutiny among the masses, calls for defunding the police has become an outcry in some communities. However, people differ in its meaning.

“Defunding the police means we are going to fund other kinds of social services and expertise that will benefit police officers and allow police officers to do the really law enforcement types of things,” he said.

Those services include help with drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect, undocumented immigration, untreated mental illness, homelessness, traffic safety and civil disputes — problems faculty say are well beyond the capacity and expertise of police and criminal courts to handle alone.

“And, while some renewed calls to defund or even abolish police departments are not realistic, the underlying truth is that if police were not expected to be the principal response to so many social ills, there would be less need for as many of them,” according to the memo.

For example, Mr. Oliver pointed to situations of domestic violence where officers may respond to the same involved parties on multiple occasions.

“The police job I think is to seize the moment, make some decisions and return he situation to normal,” he said. “But what do you do when normal is the problem? That’s when the experts and the expertise of people in these disciplines can help solve the problem long term and not just for the evening.”

Protests around the country and in Arizona appear to be igniting revisions in policy. The Phoenix Police Department on Tuesday announced officers will no longer use the Carotid Control Technique. The tactic has allowed officers to wrap their arm around a person’s neck with pressure to stop or slow the flow of blood to their brain.

“We can’t function as a department without the trust of our community and there are adjustments we can make to strengthen that trust,” Phoenix police Chief Jeri Williams stated. “We pride ourselves on being an organization willing to learn and evolve, to listen to our community and become better.”

In a statement, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association is unsure how stopping the chokehold technique accomplishes the goal of strengthening trust in the community as the technique has not been viewed negatively within the department. Further, PLEA wants more information on a replacement for the less-lethal option.

PLEA did applaud Ms. Williams for taking steps to be more engaging and build confidence within the Phoenix community. The chief walked with protesters at a demonstration over the weekend. And after the first few nights of protests that turned violent with damages and looting, demonstrations Saturday through Monday have been reported as peaceful, with no arrests due to rioting or Gov. Doug Ducey’s curfew, which has since expired.

Across the nation, Minneapolis and Denver have put a ban on chokeholds. Denver is also requiring officers who intentionally point their gun at someone to notify a supervisor and file a report, similar to what Phoenix instituted last year.

Democrats in Congress have also proposed a massive overhaul of police procedures, including a chokehold ban, according to the Associated Press. The Justice in Policing Act addresses several aspects of policing that have faced pushback, especially as more police violence is captured on cellphone video and circulated around the world.

The Phoenix City Council on Monday approved a sharp increase in funding for a new police oversight office, after first making sure that the extra funds would not cut into a planned 1% pay raise for city workers, Cronkite News reports.

The vote raised funding for the new Office of Accountability and Transparency from the original $400,000 to $3 million in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. At the same time, council members also rejected calls from speakers at a hearing last week to slash police funding.

It goes without saying but not all police officers are the bad apples seen in cases like in Minneapolis, as Mr. Oliver and the ASU memo point out. Faculty stated that support should be given to police and criminal justice officials who are genuinely trying to be fair and effective in their work.

“Whatever bad and unjust actions are occurring in policing and criminal justice, there is also a lot of genuinely helpful and just work going on as well,” the letter states. “Not much positive comes from having honest, caring public officials feel mistrusted and unappreciated for their efforts.”

Mr. Oliver shared similar sentiments.

“If someone ever asks me to write a book about my experiences... I would title that book ‘In the Company of Heroes’ because as I sit here and talk about it and criticize it in some ways — policing and police leadership and what I’ve seen with the George Floyd thing and other kinds — I would say that well beyond the majority of police officers are people who on a daily basis do incredible work and that are there to solve problems.” Mr. Oliver said. “But on the other hand, I would also have to have a chapter there about some of the worst people that I have ever seen in my life in terms of their moral standards or what they were there for. That our selection processes and our retention processes and our assessment processes have to be improved within policing so that we will not have a type of situation that would happen in Minneapolis.”