Eight Years of Consent Decree Policing
After the original five-year term and one three-year extension, there is a very real possibility that we may soon be able to work without the extremely expensive monitoring required by the Consent Decree. The changes we have made over the last eight years are monumental and it is vitally important that we understand what the end of the Consent Decree will mean.
Since the U.S. Department of Justice began suing police departments, about 10 other agencies have entered consent decrees or similar settlement agreements. None of the agencies, however, were as large or as complex as ours. The mandates imposed on us were so far-reaching that the monitoring costs alone exceeded $1.5 million per year. We are measured against a standard known as “substantial compliance.”
Our goal was to effect lasting change, a much higher standard than “substantial compliance.” Where others may have focused on the minimum requirements of the Consent Decree, we made the Consent Decree one, albeit a large one, of many initiatives designed to achieve lasting change. We tipped the balance and today, a majority of all community members have positive feelings about the LAPD and about the future of policing in Los Angeles. In the areas identified for improvement, the numbers suggest that we are doing just that - improving.
Police departments are especially resistant to change because the process of change often comes too close to the agency’s pride, tradition or perceived standards for officer safety. In the mind of many officers, the Consent Decree touched a nerve for all three. The weight of widely reported scandals and a broken discipline system already had officers on the defensive. Your pride, morale and productivity were already under attack, and then came the Consent Decree.
Among the most sweeping changes would be a call for an automated “early warning system,” to alert managers of “at-risk” behavior and tracking of certain information on police stops, such as race and ethnicity. There would be comprehensive changes in the area of use of force reporting. Anti-corruption protocols would focus on the use of confidential informants and oversight of gang units. Officers felt like they were under a microscope and at a significantly increased risk of getting in trouble.
Your ability not only to survive, but to thrive during a time of unprecedented change is a testament to your professionalism and resiliency. I wanted the policing profession on a large scale to benefit from your success, so I called for an independent study.
Making the Grade at Harvard
With grant funding from the Police Foundation and unprecedented access to the LAPD, the distinguished faculty, staff and graduate students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government embarked on what has been described as the most far-reaching study of a police department outside the time of a crisis. In some respects, asking for an independent review is like asking for comments in an open roll call. A chief had better be thick skinned, because the resulting commentary can be good, bad or ugly. When the Harvard Study was complete, there was mostly good; the little bad was showing signs of improvement, and there was virtually no ugly.
Harvard researchers even found an indirect but reliable way to measure quality. It is surprisingly simple, but makes good sense. In essence, anytime a police action results in a “record” or a process which requires a supervisory review, prosecutorial filings, or judicial review, Harvard researchers found a predictable level of quality above the stops not subject to critical review.
Between 2002 and 2008, the number of stops you made went up by 49 percent. That is well over one quarter of a million more stops. In 2008 stops were far more likely to result in an arrest and were therefore associated with a high degree of quality.
Your productivity is up, your concerns about the risks to your careers are down, your confidence in the discipline system is up, and most importantly - public confidence in you is way up.
Public Confidence was at the heart of the Federal Consent Decree. Two years ago, 71 percent of the Los Angeles public thought that you were doing either a good or excellent job. Responding to that same question today, 83 percent believe you are doing either a good or excellent job. The people rating your work as “excellent” doubled over the same two-year period.
An 83 percent approval rating and one that is trending up from two years ago is nothing less than phenomenal. Virtually any service provider who measures public approval ratings would love to have an 83 percent approval rating. Rarely do even popular presidents hold a rating this high for more than a brief time. Considering that police work is not always nice and neat, the trends in public confidence that you have achieved are very encouraging. Not only is the LAPD approval rating significantly higher than just two short years ago, but today a significant majority of the respondents no longer believe that crime is a big problem.
More than two-thirds of Hispanic and Black residents think well of the job the LAPD is doing today, rating us as good or excellent; yet a substantial minority within each of these groups remains unsatisfied with the Department, and 10 percent of Black residents report that almost none of the LAPD officers they encounter treat them and their friends and families with respect.
It is encouraging though that Black residents of Los Angeles are among the most hopeful about the Department. In fact, the vast majority of each racial and ethnic group is hopeful that respectful and effective policing will soon be routine.
Improving Status of Critical Positions
The Harvard Study reported an increase in the status of certain positions and groups, including the positions of Senior Lead Officer, the Inspector General and the Police Commission.
The Senior Lead Officers have become neighborhood specialists and experts in building relationships. The Harvard researchers found Senior Lead Officers to be very well informed about the basic car areas and the officers assigned to those areas. Unlike “community liaison officers” found in other departments, the Senior Lead Officer of today has more influence with the area command and supervision. Seventy-five percent of all officers completing the Harvard survey agreed or strongly agreed that the work of Senior Lead Officers helps to reduce crime. Eighty-eight percent of officers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “SLOs do valuable work for the Department,” with one-third strongly agreeing.
There is a growing respect for the Police Commission and the Inspector General. In the Harvard study, many described the status of the Commission as the strongest Board in a long time. Theirs is a full time job…for no pay. They handle complex issues, from the political to the technical.
The Inspector General has “earned respect” in the Department. During the Harvard Study, one officer reported “We need them … They’re in the business of criticism, and we’re not perfect.” The research was very complimentary of the current Inspector General with regard to his diplomacy. His new approach has earned him greater access than his predecessors enjoyed. The systems that he has implemented will help ensure that the improvements to the status of his position will survive a change in administrations, including his own, the Chief of Police or the Police Commission.
We are all stronger for the increased status and influence of the Police Commission and the Inspector General. It is my hope that we all recognize that there are no unimportant parts of the LAPD.
When it comes to the Core Value – Quality Through Continuous Improvement, we talk the talk and walk the walk. To me, the response “we’ve never done it that way before” is only mildly interesting. Change does not scare me in the least and I am not concerned if an idea comes from a much smaller agency, a probationary officer or an assistant chief; a good idea is a good idea. There is always room for improvement and, as the Harvard Study put it, striving for improvement is now a part of our life blood. We have integrated the mandates of the Consent Decree into our policies and procedures. They represent the best practices in law enforcement today. As a result, there will be little noticeable difference in our day-to-day operations. You deserve a tremendous amount of credit and I applaud your ability to work toward a better LAPD. The Harvard Study reinforced and confirmed my belief that you, the Department, our residents and our City, have significantly benefited from the Consent Decree. We are once again known for, admired for, and respected for our best practices, integrity and professionalism. It was a long a journey but one that was well worth taking.
The entire Harvard Study is available at www.lapdonline.org