Police agencies can be secretive and mysterious. They have their own culture, and have even been known to practice peculiar initiation rites, indulge in unique forms of dress that separate them from the rest of society and their specially developed language leaves many baffled. A person, who solely reads crime novels and does nothing but watch television crime dramas, does not fully understand what it takes to police day-in and day-out. Even with “technical advisors,” most TV shows and movies get much wrong. While I’m sure the advisors are usually telling the actors, directors and producers what is realistic and what is not, Hollywood has a different mission. That mission is not reality; it is to entertain, which typically overrules realism.
I know many TV and print reporters whose main news beats for over 20 years have been crime, yet they still fail to fully understand the culture of law enforcement. The bottom line is: If you have never worn the badge, it is really hard to understand all that comes with that immense responsibility. Unfortunately, we, the law enforcement community, have not done a great job of explaining and showing the public what we do, why we do it and, most importantly, who we are. Because of these factors, the public, the media and our politicians are left to speculate on the current state of policing. Often their speculations are wrong and wholly misinformed but damaging nonetheless. The best and only way to combat these false narratives is by embracing a philosophy of openness called transparency in policing (TIP).
Why is it that so many police organizations feel that so much of the information they possess is a secret?
Why is it that so many police organizations feel that so much of the information they possess is a secret? I am not speaking about investigatory information that will impede the solving of a case, hinder its successful prosecution or leave an innocent person convicted in the press. Nor am I talking about specific protocols that are tactical in nature, even though the amount of knowledge regarding police TIPs known to the public is shocking. Due solely to his love of video games, my 17-year-old son and I can have meaningful and informed conversations on room-clearing tactics and weapon systems. What I am referring to — and what the public wants to know — is why and how police officers and law enforcement executives make their decisions. What are we thinking, and what is driving us? In a world where conspiracy theories abound, and the public has reached a boiling point over the accuracy and misperceptions of police, if we were to “pull back the curtains” and let the fresh, cleansing power of transparency shine in those dark places, we can illuminate any issue with honest and truthful responses. This is transparency in action, and the only way forward is to build and maintain trust with the public. Due to a lack of transparency, that is something we have lost in recent decades.
Due to the tragic death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, many police leaders, myself included, have been called upon to answer tough questions regarding policies, procedures, use of force and police reform. Some of my peers refused to answer this call for transparency. The unfortunate reality is that many were embarrassed to do so because they knew their policies and procedures were out of date. Or, if they did an honest self-assessment, they recognized that their agencies were not policing their communities in an appropriate and modern way. The simple reality is that we in law enforcement have continued to cling to a 19th and early 20th century model of policing that the American public has long since moved beyond and which it will no longer tolerate. We have allowed the unofficial culture of police to dominate and dictate how cops will behave and what they will try to get away with, completely ignoring the official culture that every department has. We in command and management positions have allowed this to perpetuate, even as we faced a new reality that every citizen has a video camera and the ability to film anything and everything we do. Long gone are the days when a group of police officers could get away with a concocted version of what they did in any situation, relying on the prosecutor and public to always believe the cops. Despite incident after incident of police versions of events being revealed as lies by video popping up on the internet, police have refused to change. And we in command have unacceptably refused to force them to change.
Now is the time that we can and must correct these deficiencies, not just to manage our risk and liability, but to do what is right and just. I would like to share several strategies that I found successful regarding transparency in policing.
Responding to questions: After the recent protests began, I was asked about the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign. “8 Can’t Wait” is a website that asked citizens to demand eight immediate policy changes that the authors claimed would reduce use-of-force deaths by 72%. Upon hearing these questions, I quickly responded with a press release clearly stating that these eight policy changes were already in place in my department and had been for some time. The rapid response by me to these questions, in writing, took the wind out of the sails of those who were looking to criticize my department and, in doing so, jump on what had become a vicious and damaging bandwagon of societal rejection of all police. By clearly showing the public that there was “neither smoke nor fire” in my department and that we had nothing to hide, I received high praise for being open and informative.
I also walked among the protestors on several occasions. My purpose in doing so was not to surrender either my command or my department to any who would break the law. Nor was it to imply that I agreed with or tolerated extreme behavior, no matter the political underpinnings. It was to let them know I was there to answer any questions they might have regarding my department. Most were friendly and greeted me warmly. A couple of protestors did take the opportunity to ask me questions about policing. What I quickly found out, and what many police officers already know, is that there is an incalculable amount of misinformation among the protestors, both young and old. In one instance, I spent over an hour speaking with a man about car stops and the Taser. I was happy when, at the end of the conversation, he thanked me for taking the time to answer his questions.
Now is the time that we can and must correct these deficiencies, not just to manage our risk and liability, but to do what is right and just.
Use of force: At the request of several church leaders, I was asked to address their congregations and answer questions relating to my department and policing in general. I answered questions for over two-and-a-half hours on a variety of law enforcement subjects. The group was respectful, and some of the questions were pointed and discerning, making honest answers all the more important. Still, I looked at this event as a great opportunity to get my message across that there would be no secrets in my department from the community that it serves; and serve them, it would. Mine is a modern, integrity-based, disciplined, progressive police department, one that treats all people we encounter with equality, dignity and respect. Behaving this way is not just the “official” version of police culture in my jurisdiction; it is the “unofficial” culture within the department as well. Speaking to congregations offered tremendous opportunities to educate highly influential groups, and one of the main topics was always use of force. That’s because the public has come to distrust law enforcement when we use force. They distrust what we say happened, and they have come to distrust us when we claim that certain levels of force were appropriate. They have also come to question the difference between when we say we are “justified” in using force versus when it is “appropriate.” The term “lawful but awful” has recently been coined to articulate that very lack of trust, and it has become a rallying cry for those who would see our institution dismantled. It is a reality we must not only address but that we must address with transparency.
Why are we as police leaders so afraid to release or publish information pertaining to use-of-force incidents? An overwhelming number of use-of-force incidents are justified and within policies. But our policies must also be appropriate. They must be appropriate and equitable for the public as well as our officers. During the Q&A session in one church, I broke down every one of my department’s use-of-force incidents that had occurred in 2019. I was able to clearly show that our officers are not brutal and that their use of force was always measured and justified. Some of the main points I was able to show was how rare these incidents are and how the simple act of an officer pointing a weapon at someone necessitates a use-of-force report. Showing the public that the police are not barbarians ready to stomp on citizens for any misstep is now necessary. Releasing and explaining use-of-force data can accomplish that mission and build trust with the community. Once more, the answer is transparency in policing.
Complaints: Another issue that receives great scrutiny from the public is the handling of complaints against officers. This offers another opportunity to explain to the community how seriously we take officer complaints. In being asked about this, I have described how easy it is to file a complaint and why we make it so easy (website, using our social media platform, front desk). I have disclosed the number of complaints my department receives yearly and how they are categorized after a legitimate and objective investigation (unfounded, exonerated, sustained and not sustained). On one occasion, I shared a story about one of the complaints, while protecting the identity of the officer, where he was wrong and violated policy when dealing with of our communities “frequent flyers.” The incident occurred off duty, and the subject baited our officer, who took the bait and responded verbally to him. The subject was knowledgeable about our complaint system and quickly came into the station to file one. The officer was interviewed about the incident, admitted guilt and accepted his discipline. It was important to show that when we are wrong, we, as a profession, admit it. My officers feel comfortable admitting guilt when they are wrong and accepting the appropriate discipline.
Social media: If your agency does not have a good social media program or platform, then it is incredibly behind the times! Police agencies have had many years to figure out what works with social media and what does not. Many departments are very restrictive on their officers’ use of social media, specifically when they represent the department. However, social media is not evil, as some may have you think; it is an excellent tool to get information out to the public. Let us face the facts, small-town and medium-city newspapers are dying all over this country, and the big city newspapers are not doing much better. Add to this the fact that the public is incredibly hungry, almost ravenous, for news and information gives us an opportunity to inform them. A successful social media presence can enhance departments’ profiles and, more importantly, aid in the engagement efforts they have with the communities they serve. Social media can become your department’s community newspaper. But do not make the same mistake that many media outlets are making today. Your agency must share the good with the bad, which is the cornerstone of transparency. Honest and accurate reporting is the only way to gain the trust of the public. The Chambersburg Police Department uses a social media platform called CrimeWatch (www.crimewatchpa.com). Since the implementation of CrimeWatch, our department’s ability to engage with the community has grown exponentially. Citizens can anonymously send us tips and information, which have significantly helped our crime-solving capabilities and public safety efforts. My department is known throughout Pennsylvania for our use of social media, but we still have not used it to its full potential.
Advisory boards: Good leaders know and understand that you cannot make decisions in a silo. The best decisions for an organization are made when you have input from many different points of view. It would be silly for a police chief who hasn’t done patrol in 20 years to design a patrol car when the patrol officer is in the car every day. The patrol officer can best tell you where to put the computer, the dashcam, the rifle rack and describe why the light and siren buttons should go in a particular place. To combat “silo” thinking, try including trusted citizens in your organization’s decision-making processes. One of the best ways to do that is by implementing a citizen advisory board or a chief’s advisory committee. This is not the same as a citizen review board; a chief’s advisory board does not have any oversight or regulatory power over the police department’s administration. Advisory boards or committees are created to advise, but this advice can prove invaluable to law enforcement executives and are often worth every minute you put into them. Advisory committees or boards are the perfect conduit for chiefs to hear from the community regarding the implementation of policies, procedures and programs. The key to success is that the boards and committees must be as diverse as possible so that the chief can get a wide range of views from the community. Another positive outcome of advisory boards or committees is the access it gives to engage and educate its members. How often have civilians been asked their opinions on police policies, public safety issues or crime-fighting strategies? Advisory boards will allow for the growth of new ideas and may keep chiefs from making bad decisions regarding how they police their communities. Most importantly, it shows the public a wiliness to fully commit to transparency.
Two philosophies that I subscribe to are “evolve or die” and “get out of your comfort zone.” These are essential guidelines if you want to implement a TIP program. But first, we must all accept the fact that we have entered an entirely new and unprecedented era of policing in the United States. That new era will demand TIP from each and every one of us. Police officers are masters at adapting to change. All you have to do is look at all the available technology to officers as opposed to 10, 20 and 30 years ago, and how well they use it. It is now time for law enforcement leadership to change and adapt regarding transparency. The listed strategies are just some of the directions you can go. Be innovative and make your own paths. Remember, what works in one community may not work in another. Being open and transparent, however, is the new normal. If you have nothing to hide, then these ideas and programs should be easy to institute. If you do have something to hide, then you are attempting to police in a way whose death knell has been sounded. Change is not coming, it is here. Get in front of it by implementing transparency in policing.
Ron Camacho is the chief of police at Chambersburg Borough Police Department in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Learn more at www.camachoconsulting.net.