Dealing with Police-Community Conflict


Bernard Melekian was police chief of Pasadena, CA when he was chosen by President Barack Obama in 2009 to become director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS).

COPS was created during the administration of President Bill Clinton to oversee the hiring of 100,000 community policing officers around the U.S. under the 1994 federal anticrime law. Before he left office last week to return to his home in California, he spoke to The Crime Report's Washington Bureau Chief, Ted Gest about the model his office developed to encourage police departments to reform their practices, about how strained law enforcement budgets can drive change, and on the need for gun regulation in the aftermath of Newtown.

The Crime Report: Your agency probably is best known for providing funds to help law enforcement agencies around the U.S. hire 100,000 community police officers in the 1990s. How would you describe the current role of the COPS Office?

Bernard Melekian: (COPS) helps local police agencies solve local problems. It's important to remember that in the 1990s, COPS had enough funds to help more than 90 percent of law enforcement agencies that applied for money. If you fast forward to 2009, when we were in the middle of the nation's economic downturn, we were able to fund only 10 percent of the agencies that applied. In part that was because of the amount of money available, and in part because the demand was so great.

The office was perceived incorrectly as a federal hiring program. The purpose always has been to advance community policing, not to serve as a federal jobs program.

We've shifted our focus in the last few years to require our grantees to identify specific problems they want to address. The challenge to the law enforcement profession is not to think of us as an antidote to budget cuts. They should think of these grants as four-year problem-solving grants. [We want them to ask] what mission do you want to address that some additional resources would help?

I think we've been very successful with that. We cannot measure success by how many officers we have funded to hire. The question has to be: what did those officers accomplish? Did they make their communities safer? We are not providing funds for just hiring, but hiring with a purpose. It's hiring for a specific public safety outcome.

TCR: Even if we aren't focusing just on the numbers, how many local officers have been hired with federal funds under your tenure?

BM: Since I've been here we have funded about 8,000 officers.

TCR: Can you give some examples of how you are using your reduced budgets, compared with the 1990s?

BM: The Sacramento County, CA sheriff's office used COPS officers to develop a very comprehensive community-based anti-gang strategy that has driven down violence. Atlanta used a COPS grant to hire 50 officers for one of their highest crime housing projects to develop a geographic-based community-policing model that appears to have had very significant results.

A number of agencies have used COPS grants to put officers in violence reduction projects or hire them as school resource officers. The big cities get larger numbers of officers, but the small cities that get four or five officers each are doing similar things.We're holding communities accountable to do what they say they're going to do with these officers.

TCR: The COPS office is involved in a major police-reform effort in Las Vegas. What is that about?

BM: Our collaborative reform project in Las Vegas may turn out to be one of the most significant things that has happened during my tenure.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a five-part series on a number of officer-involved shootings that raised concerns about the quality of follow-up investigation and oversight. It created a crisis in community confidence and a demand for the Justice Department to seek a consent decree with public officials there, as it has in other cities.

I looked at that and thought there was an opportunity there. I reached out to Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who was on board with the concept, and to Thomas Perez, director of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, to make sure this approach was OK. The Civil Rights Division is a critical partner. They recognize that if the work that we're doing is successful, it saves them a lot of time and effort. If it's not successful, it may give them the foundation for a case, so it's a win-win relationship.

It took eight months of independent analysis, but we came up with 75 recommendations for collaborative reform. It was mutually arrived at, not a court-ordered consent decree. Now we'll go back and do an assessment, to see where they are on the recommendations.

TCR: Can you elaborate on how this differs from the consent decrees that the Justice Department has negotiated in cities like Seattle and New Orleans?

BM: This is an entirely new model for dealing with conflict between the community and the law enforcement agency that serves it. It is very inexpensive to implement. The single most important criterion is the buy-in from police leadership. One of the best measures of success is that we've had 10 major agencies call us wanting to get a copy of the Las Vegas report because they want to use the 75 recommended reforms in it as an internal audit of their own agencies.

That kind of thing has cost federal taxpayers very little money and has cost the citizens of Las Vegas next to nothing, other than the time of the personnel involved. It will have long-term results because everyone is involved in the solution. That is an aspect of the COPS office that gets very little attention but is incredibly important.

We have made presentations on this concept to the main Justice Department and the White House, and we now are working with Spokane, WA Police Chief Frank Straub on a similar approach.

I anticipate this will become the wave of the future in terms of organizational transformation.

TCR: Does this imply that the consent-decree approach that the Civil Rights Division has been using is misguided or ineffective?

BM: It's not an either-or proposition. The consent decree process is expensive and time consuming. If a community brings an issue to the Justice Department's attention that involves an issue of constititutional policing that it takes to produce a consent decree, the Civil Rights Division is able to pursue a consent decree in only a small fraction of cases because of the time and expense.

If there is a willingness of the leadership of a police department to engage in this kind of collaborative reform effort, it benefits everybody. If it is successful, the time for implementation is measured in months not years, and the costs will not be in millions of dollars, which it costs for a consent decree.

If the collaborative reform process doesn't work, a significant amount of evidence has been gathered that can then be used by the Civil Rights Division in in a consent decree, a process that normally takes two or three years. We did the collaborative review process in Las Vegas in eight months.

TCR: Do the 75 recommendations in the Las Vegas report go beyond basic constitutional violations?

BM: They involve things like police training, tactics, investigations, the role of the coroner's inquest– everything that has to do with the use of force and investigations of use or force. The essence of any police department is to provide constitutional policing. You can't have collaborative reform if the leadership isn't committed.

TCR: What are some other kinds of program in which the COPS office is involved that go beyond police hiring?

BM: We've sponsored convenings about the concept of police legitimacy, based on Yale professor Tom Tyler's work, and around racial reconciliation issues, just to name two. These are big-ticket items not in terms of dollars but in terms of impact.

TCR: Washington now is in an era of budget-cutting, with questions about the federal role in many public issues. Are you confident that the COPS Office will continue in this climate?

BM: I'm absolutely convinced of that. The best evidence is that last year, the House Appropriations Committee wanted to zero us out, but here in 2013 we still are funded in spite of all the budget restrictions. The real question is what level of funding we will have and how much flexibility will we have?

TCR: What is your annual budget?

BM: Last year it was $111 million, although it got as high as $1 billion in 2009 under the Recovery Act. Note that Congress requires us to spend half of our hiring funds on law-enforcement agencies serving populations of under 150,000, and any state with at least one eligible applicant is entitled to some money, to ensure that COPS hiring is a national program. Still, those requirements can dilute the impact.

TCR: Do we know yet whether all the funds spent in 2009 was money well spent?

BM: A part of our monitoring is to insure that problems were dealt with. Did funded agencies hire the officers, and beyond that, what did those officers do to engage the problems they said they were going to tackle. I believe the COPS program has been successful. I wouldn't be sitting here in this job if I didn't. It has made an incredible difference in American law enforcement. Any detailed analysis would suggest that.

TCR: Do we know how many of the officers hired in 2009 have been retained by their agencies?

BM: Our grants are for three years. The local agency is required to pay any officer hired with COPS funds for an additional 12 months with local money. There can be hardship waivers for issues not predictable at the time of the grant, but we've had very few such requests. Otherwise, it's a four-year program.

TCR: Have most local agencies kept officers initially hired with federal funds beyond four years?

BM: My sense is that most of them have, even though many police departments have been shrinking in size.

TCR: This agency was established to promote community policing. There are different definitions of that. The hiring of 100,000 officers had an impact in terms of numbers but what about the concept of community policing?

BM: There is no simple answer. As a philosophy, community policing is widely accepted. Community policing involves building relationships and solving problems. We shifted our focus in grant making to emphasize problem solving.

In small and mid-sized agencies, such as those with between 100 and 500 officers, many do community policing by default because there is a small number of officers and they are geographically confined.

The challenge is particularly in large agencies. In the shrinking of many departments, we have seen a loss of law-enforcement jobs. Many police departments could engage in reactive “911 policing” and community-based problem-solving , and could lay them on top of each other

Departments had sufficient resources to do both models at the same time. We don't have that now, so departments have to make choices.

We are finding out whether departments really had a community policing philosophy or just a series of community policing projects. I think most police agencies philosophically embrace community policing.

TCR: Have some cities abandoned community policing and returned to “911 policing”?

BM: if they have, then they weren't doing community policing in the first place—they were doing projects. Some police chiefs have told me, “I had to lay off my community policing officers.” They weren't really doing community policing but rather projects.

Community policing probably is more critical in our current economic environment than before, because you don't have same number of employees, whether sworn officers or civilians. You have to find other ways to do business, including leveraging community resources and calling in citizen volunteers.

TCR: So is community policing engrained in the philosophy of most departments?

BM: Most big cities are still doing it, but remember that an overwhelming number of police agencies are small.

TCR: In the faltering economy, have we seen much consolidation of police agencies?

BM: There have been regional approaches. For example, we try to maximize the impact of some of our grants by rewarding such proposals. For example, in an urban area with many police departments, anywhere from three to eight of them might create a task force to deal with auto burglaries.

TCR: There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the nation. Is that a very efficient system?

BM: It wasn't designed to be efficient, but the economy is driving change. We're seeing some regionalization of entire departments, or more likely, in core services. For example, does each police department need a major crime unit or a SWAT team, or can such specialized services be regionalized without sacrificing an agency's core identity?

Some small police departments are going out of business and contracting with the local sheriff to do their work. In Los Angeles County, for example, 44 of the 88 cities are policed by the sheriff.

There are different ways to approach this. A few years from now, we will have fewer than 18,000 police agencies.

TCR: Gun violence has been a major political issue after the Newtown school massacre. The Obama administration has made a proposal to Congress and is taking some administrative actions. What is your view as a law enforcement professional about what is needed?

BM: It is very difficult to find middle ground on the gun issue. All of the major law enforcement organizations support common-sense regulations. Whether any consensus will emerge remains to be seen.

There is more regulation on Sudafed and on cars than on handguns. No one is having any serious conversations about taking guns away from people.

TCR: What do you think are the most important things that can be done?

BM: Instituting universal background checks with no exceptions except for gun sales between family members. Secondly, give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the ability to automate its records. It's ridiculous that it can't. And third, give the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies the chance to do meaningful research on gun violence issues.

TCR: Does the public support these measures?

BM: They make sense to me.

TCR: The Obama administration and National Rifle Association agree on putting police officers in schools, although there may be disagreements about the scale and their authority. What do you think?

BM: I am incredibly supportive of the concept of school resource officers. We need comprehensive school safety reform, including identification of the best practices. School resources officers already are very widespread and, very effective. It's an incredibly powerful tool, and they make schools safer.

We need to set standards for giving grants for school resource officers.

We also need to focus on school discipline issues. We are concerned about the so-called school-to- prison pipeline. A lot of good work is being done on this, and we hope to make it part of our grant- making process.

School resource officers should not be used to enforce school administrative discipline. That is a basic starting point that is easily dealt with. The job of the school resource officer is to be a counselor and mentor and example to the students, to be a resource for the faculty and the administration, and to ensure the safety of the campus. The officer should not be caught up in the process of enforcing the disciplinary process.

TCR: Any final thoughts?

BM: I've been the COPS director for three and one half years. I regard it as a privilege, and an incredible experience. I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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