More than 120 U.S. police officers have lost their lives so far this year on the job. Michael J. Carroll, new president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, met recently with The Crime Report’s Ted Gest and Stephen Handelman to discuss his priorities in the year ahead, including concerns about officer protection and better media relations.
THE CRIME REPORT: Have relations between reporters and the police gotten better or worse in today's environment?
MICHAEL CARROLL: I think there’s a problem on both sides of the equation. On the law enforcement side (there's a feeling) that the state of journalism today is a “gotcha” mentality. Rather than being a source for the police to use to get a message to the community, the press are seen by police as approaching them (with the attitude) that if I can nail a big name to the wall, it’s going to enhance my career. In smaller communities, there is not a whole lot of press presence, unless you have an incident that the press is interested in. [In my area] we'll have an incident that has news value, and we’ll get all three TV channels there in 20 minutes. But unless there’s something they are interested in covering, we don’t see them.
TCR: Have you had a good relationship with the press?
CARROLL: Yes. There was a huge case that lasted about three years (from 1977-1981) …relating to a group of individuals known as the Johnston Brothers, who ended up killing six people in Chester County (Pennsylvania). During the course of that investigation, relationships were entered into that were beneficial not only to the press and the public, but also to the police and investigators. Information was not (published) if an official asked a press person, “would you hold this?” Sometimes (reporters) would pass along sources to investigators to follow through. That kind of relationship, in which the reporter is part of the process and not an adversary, is important.
Police officials also have to learn to make the media a tool that’s useful in completing our mission. That can be done by being open, by having a relationship in which it’s possible to say, “I can’t do that now, but when I can, I’ll get back to you.” That’s how it should work on both sides. But I don’t think they’re being taught that mentality in journalism schools. There’s a place for the media in our society to be a watchdog on the police. That’s an important part of our system. But it has to be directed against corruption, against impropriety, as opposed to “Officer Jones was stopped for DUI last night.”
TCR: What are your own goals for your presidency of the IACP?
CARROLL: My most important issue, the one I hope to accomplish in my year, comes under the umbrella of police officers' safety. I don’t celebrate when I hear the news that, compared to 170 officers killed last year, only 140 were killed this year. Things are improving. Don’t get me wrong. But 140 killed is a problem that needs to be addressed. It is a leadership problem and a training problem. But we can reduce this in a major way (with) a tool that has already been proven to have saved 3, 000 lives. (I'm speaking of) protective vests. Today, 60 percent of police chiefs do not require their officers to wear those vests. Most provide the vests, but don’t require them to be worn. Some don’t even provide it at all. I don’t think anyone should ever have to knock on someone’s door and say their loved one was killed, while the vest is hanging in their office completely usable. This is not a question of money. The vests cost $800 apiece, and the federal government pays 50 percent. Getting them is not the problem. It’s just a question of making them wear the vest.
Some unions say the vests aren’t comfortable, but it’s a helluva lot more uncomfortable to have your family go to a funeral. The vests are very thin. they’re not uncomfortable, and they protect you. If I catch one of my group when they’re working without a vest they’ve got a problem, and they know it.
TCR: Other priorities?
CARROLL: My second priority is related to the first. If you look at how officers are getting seriously injured or killed, the perpetrator who starts the violence has a one-second or two- second jump on the officer reacting to that violence. There are things we can do to cut down on that reaction time to give the officer a better chance of surviving. (One) is to study every segment of that incident—not to blame the officer for doing something wrong, but to look for an indicator that the officer didn’t see. You can then train other officers to look for (that indicator), and maybe save a half second or second in reaction time. We are in talks right now with the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety (to create) a center for the study of violence against police. It will come up with training keys for officers to look for, to keep them on their toes. It’s going to save lives.
TCR: Beyond that, are you concerned about institutionalizing some of the changes that the latest generation of police executives have brought to policing, especially since some of the leaders of that generation, such as Bill Bratton of Los Angeles, have moved on.
CARROLL: We have the number one police leadership program in the world, but it’s only been attended by less than 1,500 officers so far. We want to get to the level of a national academy, so when you go to look for an executive job, in addition to entering the FBI National Academy on your resume you can also show that you completed the IACP leadership program.
Access to Obama Administration
TCR: Are you finding any traction with the new administration in Washington DC?
CARROLL: In the Bush administration the (law enforcement) budget was either zeroed out, or the funding that state and local law enforcement relied on was reduced. We had to go to Congress to fight to get it put back—and then just at the level of 60 percent of what we needed. There was no access for many of the law-enforcement associations, including the IACP, to the executive branch of the government. (We) were peripheral; we sat down at high levels for half an hour, and that was the end of it.
That’s all changed. I'm not making a political comment when I say this, but we are being asked for our opinions. And our answers are being considered. (Last month) I was in DC and I met with the two closest people to the Secretary of Homeland Security. I met with the new drug czar. I met with the head of the US marshals. They all wanted to know what was important to our members, how they can help us. I’ve met twice with the Vice President on law enforcement issues. We have access that we hadn’t had before.
TCR: Will that access lead to more money?
CARROLL: It’s very hard to predict, because of the economy. The total stimulus package was $4 billion for law enforcement. We’re really looking for that attitude (of support) to turn over to the executive budget presented in Congress. I think that's going to happen. We’re going to see the importance of law enforcement in (the budget), which is the only way state and local police get money from the federal government. It goes to the states that comes from Congress through the states to local police.
TCR: You need money for better technology, more cops?
CARROLL: Both. (President Obama) has indicated the importance he places on our priorities by what he did with the stimulus program. But as much as he made some people happy, he made a lot of people mad. There is a small group that got the grants — God bless'em– but there was a bigger group that got told no. He knows he has to do something to rectify the situation.
TCR: A persistent complaint is that many law enforcement resources are being diverted to Homeland security
CARROLL: It’s a disbursement of funds issue. We always dealt with Justice. But once Homeland security appeared, a lot of disbursement was transferred to Homeland Security and then to the states through a person who represented FEMA or its equivalent. That meant fire people and rescue people. So you’ll find firehouses full of brand-new equipment, while police departments didn’t get (basic) stuff. You’ll probably hear that before they couldn’t get a fire truck and we got a police car. But there has to be a middle ground. And we need someone in law enforcement to (be involved) in those decisions. As in every other area of emergency, police officers are first responders. But in terrorism the only duty of a first responder is to clean up the mess. That’s not what police officers do. We are preventers when it comes to terrorism, and we need to have the means, the education and the training to operate as preventers, as opposed to first responders. That’s something the government needs to pick up on.
TCR: Legislation to create a national commission on criminal justice or the bill is currently pending. The IACP has had issues with it. How do you feel now?
CARROLL: We want a commission that looks at all aspects of the criminal justice system, from pre-arrest and prevention to arrest, incarceration, trial, conviction — the whole process. The model is 1965 when President Johnson had his commission on crime. I don’t think this is going to be as revolutionary, but we're looking for something that could codify the responsibilities of law enforcement, the judiciary, the corrections system, so there’s more working together instead of bumping heads. There is so much bureaucracy in our system. That wastes time and effort. It doesn’t have to be that way.
TCR: Are you concerned about the fact that criminal justice has dropped lower in the national agenda over the past few years, partly as a result of the reported drop in crime, and because other issues seem much higher right now. Are policymakers and the media dropping the ball?
CARROLL: When the crime rate goes down, they pull the funding; and when it goes up they put the funding back. It’s a roller coaster, and that concerns us. Health care, Afghanistan and Iraq are all important issues, but they’re going to be solved in the next 10 to 15 years. The crime problem is never going to be solved unless we make it a priority in our political agenda, as well as the social agenda.
Quality of Life Policing
TCR: From the perspective of your members what are the crime threats out there?
CARROLL: Crime statistics don’t (reflect) the quality of life. That’s reflected by everyone’s personal experience, where they live, and how they get along. In most areas, there is a reduction in violent crime, homicides, assault, rape. But quality-of-life crimes, burglaries, robberies, assault below the level of aggravated, have not been reduced. There’s more confrontation between citizens than there has been in the past.
(We know) that you will make a greater impact on your community if you arrest the 18-year-old who was baseball-batting mailboxes than by arresting the homicide, the one guy who killed his wife. The community is more interested in you taking care of the vandalism than what happened in that person’s house. Of course it’s equally important to catch the killer.
TCR: Are you comfortable with the evidence-based movement underway now to reduce prison populations?
CARROLL: I don’t know enough about it to comment, but I’m suspicious of rules being made by people who don’t know the reality of the situation. It’s much different studying a situation a week or month or a year later than living through it. (My recommendation) is that when you are dealing with these studies, don’t leave the law enforcement community out of discussions. That’s where the rubber meets the ground, and where the reintegrated felon is going to make it or not within the community.