Posted 1/14/19


Ideological quarrels drown out straight talk about border security


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Before moving on, try to identify the authors of these quotes. Click on the links to check your answers. If you’re right, you get bragging rights! And if not, don’t fret. You’ll be in great company.

    “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in. And I do think you have to control your borders.” (article  video)

    “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants in this country.” (article  video)

     Were you surprised? So was your blogger. Yet when it comes to immigration and its control, the tenor of these times is decidedly different. On January 20, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13767, directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “take all appropriate steps to immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, using appropriate materials and technology to most effectively achieve complete operational control of the southern border.”

     Two years later, having run smack dab into another wall (a Democratic House), the President’s “five-billion dollar” dream remains unfunded, hobbling the Government and leaving reasoned discussion about border security for another day. But like our hero Sergeant Joe Friday, Police Issues is all about the facts. So, what are they?

     According to historical U.S. Border Patrol data there has been a decades-long increase in illegal crossing along the southwest border. In 1960 arrests totaled 21,022. After a protracted climb, apprehensions peaked at 1,615,844 in 1986 and at 1,643,679 in 2000. Counts have since dropped to the levels of the early 70s, with 303,916 apprehensions in 2017 and 396,579 in 2018.

     Arrests, of course, represent only a fraction of unauthorized entries. A comprehensive February 2017 report by Congress’ General Accounting Office (this essay’s main data source) estimates that during FY 2013-2015 (October 1, 2012 - September 30, 2015) more than one million persons illegally entered the U.S. through the southwest border.

     Physical security has not been ignored. A 1996 law ordered the installation of fencing in areas highly impacted by illegal entry, including a “triple-layer fence” near San Diego. Subsequent amendments upped the game so that by 2015 miles of fencing along the southwest border had increased more than five-fold. Its quality was also enhanced, with pedestrian (left photo) and vehicle barriers (right photo)


transitioning to a hardy “bollard” style made up of closely spaced, large-diameter vertical posts. Our nearly 2,000 mile long southwest border (696 miles land and 1295 miles of river) is now secured by 354 miles of primary pedestrian fencing, 82 percent (290 miles) of bollard design, and by 300 miles of primary vehicle fencing (225 miles of a more impervious, modern design.)

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     During FY 2007-2015 $2.3 billion was spent to improve and extend barriers. Routine maintenance came in at about $450 million. With average costs of $6.5 million per mile for primary pedestrian fencing and $1.8 million per mile for primary vehicular barriers, the enhancements didn’t come cheap. For example, replacing 14.1 miles of legacy pedestrian fencing with bollard-style in Tucson and Yuma cost $68 million, or $4.9 million per mile. Other recent projects include $13.4 million to replace 1.4 miles of pedestrian fencing in New Mexico and $45 million for a similar 7.5 mile project in Naco, Arizona.

     What was the payoff? According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), bollard-style fencing is pricey but superior, keeping illegal immigrants from gaining ready access to populated areas and forcing the more determined to travel to remote, unguarded locations where they cannot quickly blend in. CBP recorded nine-thousand-plus breaches of pedestrian fencing during 2010-2015, with legacy barriers suffering nearly six times as many incursions per mile (82 v. 14) as their bollard counterparts. In Nogales, bollard fencing reportedly reduced assaults on agents by 81 percent, while bollard-style vehicle barriers slashed “drive-throughs” in Tucson by 73 percent. Many “degraded” sections of pedestrian and vehicle fencing remain to be addressed.

     Even the most modern barriers, though, aren’t foolproof. Bollard fences can be climbed and, as illustrated by the photograph at the top, forcibly breached. That’s where the President’s obsession comes in. A solid, sturdy wall that prevents drive-overs and drive-throughs, is of sufficient height to discourage climbing and rock-throwing, and has a foundation that obstructs ready tunneling, would be by far the most effective. Still, even those who disagree with Speaker Pelosi (she said a wall would be “immoral”) might find its prison-like ambience off-putting. And the cost of building a continuous wall, and doing it right, would be astronomical. Five billion seems just a down payment.

     But we’re ahead of ourselves. If Congress’ number-crunchers have anything to say about it, the wall’s prospects are dim for another reason. You see, the document we’ve been filching from is entitled “SOUTHWEST BORDER SECURITY: Additional Actions Needed to Better Assess Fencing's Contributions to Operations and Provide Guidance for Identifying Capability Gaps.” Before passing judgment, the GAO’s nitpickers are demanding the facts, just like Sergeant Joe. Here’s an extract from their ultimately disparaging assessment:

    CBP has not developed metrics that systematically use these, among other data it collects, to assess the contributions of border fencing to its mission. For example, CBP could potentially use these data to determine the extent to which border fencing diverts illegal entrants into more rural and remote environments, and border fencing’s impact, if any, on apprehension rates over time. Developing metrics to assess the contributions of fencing to border security operations could better position CBP to make resource allocation decisions with the best information available to inform competing mission priorities and investments.

Bottom line: tell us how many illegal border-crossings your proposals would prevent, and we’ll decide if it’s worth it.

     A copy of Homeland Security’s response appears on pp. 67-68 of the GAO report. Echoing its antagonist’s often impenetrable verse, DHS promises to supply appropriate “metrics” by March 31, 2018.  Well, that date came and went. Then in July 2018 the GAO issued a second report. It’s entitled “SOUTHWEST BORDER SECURITY: CBP Is Evaluating Designs and Locations for Border Barriers but Is Proceeding Without Key Information.” Its assessment focused on a request to expend $1.6 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to build 65 miles of wall in Rio Grande Valley (page 11.) However, in GAO’s not-so-humble opinion, the “metrics” still didn’t – no pun intended – measure up:

    DHS plans to spend billions of dollars developing and deploying new barriers along the southwest border. However, by proceeding without key information on cost, acquisition baselines, and the contributions of previous barrier and technology deployments, DHS faces an increased risk that the Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected. Without assessing costs when prioritizing locations for future barriers, CBP does not have complete information to determine whether it is using its limited resources in the most cost-effective manner and does not have important cost information that would help it develop future budget requests.

     These comments might seem perfectly reasonable, but in the context of law enforcement – that, after all, is what CBP does – our nation’s auditors are asking for an awful lot. Measurement is simple and arguably accurate when variables are readily quantifiable; say, profit and loss in business, crimes committed and cleared by arrest in everyday policing. But demanding that DHS produce a cost-benefit analysis for each border-hardening proposal would require it to attach numbers – accurate numbers, not just guesses – to the illegal crossings and, even more importantly, other crimes the expenditures would prevent. That seems a bit much. After all, had proof of such effects been a condition for funding ATF, your blogger wouldn’t have a retired special agent’s badge to display on his bookshelf.

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     So why the obstinacy? While GAO enjoys a reputation for impartiality, its employees may not appreciate the President’s “my way or the highway” approach. (Incidentally, GAO’s report about the costs of the President’s excursions to Mar-a-Lago are yet to be made public. One can only hope they will reflect the same tenacity and attention to detail that characterizes the agency’s more mundane work.)

     Of course, Congress gets the final say. GAO is only there to inform. In this case, though, their joint efforts have aligned in a way, intentionally or not, that can only frustrate the President’s ambitions. From that perspective his perhaps regrettable tantrums make perfect sense. Meanwhile, the nation still pines for a comprehensive, truly objective assessment of what (and how much) ought to be done to safeguard its borders. Alas, in this ideologically fraught, hopelessly divided climate, that prospect seems no more likely than building the wall.

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Sanctuary Cities, Sanctuary States (I)     Ideology Trumps Reason

Posted 1/3/19


To improve police practices, look to the workplace

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. How policing gets done clearly matters. Even if it’s mostly done right, do it wrong once and the consequences can haunt a community and the nation for decades. We’ll examine several prominent, science-based approaches to improving police practices, then (saving the best for last!) offer our own, workplace-centric view.

     In 2011, not long before budgetary concerns brought down the annual shindig, your blogger sat in the auditorium as Dr. John Laub delivered the welcoming address at the NIJ conference. In his speech the agency’s freshly-minted director introduced a new way to fuse science and practice.

     If that doesn’t ring a bell, shame! Have you never heard of “translational” criminology?

    If we want to prevent and reduce crime in our communities, we must translate scientific research into policy and practice. Translational criminology aims to break down barriers between basic and applied research by creating a dynamic interface between research and practice. This process is a two-way street — scientists discover new tools and ideas for use in the field and evaluate their impact. In turn, practitioners offer novel observations from the field that in turn stimulates basic investigations.

     We’ll come back to the newfangled concept in a moment. But first, let’s take a brief detour. In 1998, as part of the Police Foundation’s “Ideas in American Policing” series, Professor Larry Sherman applied the “evidence-based” concept from the field of medicine to the field of policing:

    Evidence-based policing is the use of the best available research on the outcomes of police work to implement guidelines and evaluate agencies, units, and officers. Put more simply, evidence-based policing uses research to guide practice and evaluate practitioners. It uses the best evidence to shape the best practice.

     If acting on evidence seems, well, commonsensical, keep in mind that action-directed cops and reflective scientists are probably not a natural mix. But problems have a way of forcing change. Propelled by a series of social crises, some of which police themselves instigated or made worse, and supported by initiatives such as George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, evidence-centric research took off.

     DOJ promptly jumped in. “Using Research to Move Policing Forward,” an article in the March 2012 NIJ Journal, highlighted the many benefits of “being smart on crime”:

    Evidence-based policing leverages the country's investment in police and criminal justice research to help develop, implement and evaluate proactive crime-fighting strategies. It is an approach to controlling crime and disorder that promises to be more effective and less expensive than the traditional response-driven models, which cities can no longer afford.

The Feds also announced a new website,, that would function as a virtual repository of evidence-based criminal justice practices: organizes evidence on what works in criminal justice, juvenile justice and crime victim services in a way designed to help inform program and policy decisions. It is a central resource that policymakers and practitioners can turn to when they need to find an evidence-based program for their community or want to know if a program they are funding has been determined to be effective.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays is more than a bookshelf. It includes an evaluation component, with experts assigning grades on a sliding scale: effective, promising, inconclusive or no effects. To date, they have appraised 80 policing programs, mostly targeted efforts aimed at a specific community, and 11 broader practices. For example, the program “Hot Spots Policing in Lowell, Massachusetts” focused on reducing disorder in high-crime areas by, among other things, increasing misdemeanor arrests and expanding social services. Evaluators found that it reduced disorder and significantly reduced citizen complaints of burglary and robbery. It was rated effective. “Problem-Oriented Policing,” a widespread practice that assesses community problems and tailors a response, was reviewed through a meta-analysis of ten studies. In all, the practice seemed to yield significant reductions in crime and disorder and received the second-best rating, “promising.”

     Basing decisions on evidence is all well and good. But how should knowledge be turned into practice? That’s where “translational” comes in. In his address, Dr. Laub defined translational research as “a scientific approach that reaches across disciplines to devise, test and expeditiously implement solutions to pressing problems.” Just like evidence-based science, the translational approach also has its origins in medicine. To assure that end products are responsive to real-world needs, translational researchers and practitioners must collaborate at each step, from defining the issue to devising, implementing and assessing interventions. Involving practitioners allows them to share real-world knowledge with researchers, while involving experts allows them to convey and interpret scholarly findings to practitioners, who might otherwise be forced to rely on secondary sources.

     So what’s mising? Neither the evidence-based nor translational approaches offer a template for discovering needs. That’s where a third paradigm, “Sentinel Events,” comes in. Initially described by Dr. Laub as the “organizational accident model,” it got started in aviation, was adopted by medicine, then became a key NIJ initiative (full disclosure: I was recently welcomed into its listserv and appreciate the kindness.) Sentinel researchers are alerted by things gone wrong. Using a structured, science-based approach, actual episodes of police shootings, wrongful convictions and such are examined in depth to discover weaknesses and devise changes “that would lead to greater system reliability and, hence, greater public confidence in the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

     Several studies have praised Sentinel’s potential. For example, “A Sentinel Events Approach to Addressing Suicide and Self-Harm in Jail” (2014) concluded that using it to probe violent episodes in correctional facilities can “help to instill a new culture…that better ensures the safety and well-being of those under their custody.” Still, there is an obvious “if.” Sentinel’s success depends on acquiring accurate and complete accounts of what took place. But strangers who pop in with lots of questions after things turn sour might get a cold reception. How to get the real scoop? Here is what our nation’s medical accrediting agency recommends:

  • Those who report human errors and at-risk behaviors are NOT punished, so that the organization can learn and make improvements.
  • Those responsible for at-risk behaviors are coached, and those committing reckless acts are disciplined fairly and equitably, no matter the outcome of the reckless act.
  • Senior leaders, unit leaders, physicians, nurses, and all other staff are held to the same standards.

     NIJ’s 2015 guide for conducting sentinel reviews, “Paving the Way: Lessons Learned from Sentinel Events Reviews” emphasizes avoiding blame. And, harking back to translational research, it recommends that to insure an informed judgment review teams include “sharp-end-of-the-stick practitioners with front-line knowledge” and researchers with “one foot in the practice world and one foot in the research world….”  (For a 2014 NIJ collection of brief essays about the sentinel approach click here.)

     Sentinel drew our attention because Police Issues also works back from real events, admittedly in a far less scientific way. So what is it that we could possibly add? Let’s begin with a little story.

     A very long time ago, after completing his coursework at the University at Albany, your blogger turned to the matter of his dissertation. Fortunately, only two years had passed since he had interrupted his career as a Fed, so his memory of the workplace was still vivid. With invaluable support from Hans Toch and Gary Marx, two scholars with deep knowledge of the police environment, he got the job done. The product, “Production and Craftsmanship in Police Narcotics Enforcement,” explored the interaction between “quantity” and “quality,” which has long bedeviled practitioners of the policing craft. (Click here for a journal article based on the dissertation and here for a more chatty piece.)

     We need hardly mention which of the two characteristics addressed in the title proved the more dominant. After interviewing and administering instruments to members of drug units at six police departments of varying size, it was apparent that line-level officers struggled to balance the same pressures to make “numbers” that had dogged your blogger and his colleagues. Here’s a typical officer comment about the salience of “numbers”:

    It filters down [that superiors] want higher numbers, so inevitably we give them higher numbers. You turn in your monthly report, you’ve got two arrests, they say “you had only two drug arrests”? Now, you may have gotten the two biggest dealers in the State, but they’re still going to complain because you’ve only got two.

Here’s one about the meaning of a “quality case”:

    A quality case is a case where you cover all the little aspects. You make sure your reports are descriptive, that they contain all the elements of the offense necessary for prosecution, that the evidence is properly handled....Basically you’re [covering] all the bases that you feel will be necessary to successfully prosecute that case.

And here’s how your blogger reconciled these views:

    It may be that a narrow definition of case quality is an adaptation that allows narcotics police to maintain a craftsmanlike image while presenting the smallest possible impediment to production.

     Production pressures have had an unending run in the nation’s major police agencies. Bill Bratton brought along number-centric COMPSTAT when he stepped in to manage LAPD. In 2012, three years after Bratton left, CRC Press released “The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation.” Authored by two John Jay Criminal Justice professors (one, a retired NYPD Captain), the book spilled the beans on Compstat’s corrupting influence. To make things seem hunky-dory, supervisors ordered officers to increase what could be counted, like car stops, while downgrading the severity of crimes (or if possible avoiding taking reports altogether.) Disgruntled cops soon spilled the beans, generating internal inquiries and a slew of damning media accounts. Alas, Compstat had already been adopted by many agencies and praised as a policing wunderkind (for the Police Foundation’s supportive assessment click here.)

     Pressures to “make numbers” (or to keep certain numbers down) are well known in industry. But they’re seldom considered in policing. Let’s plagiarize from a recent post:

    In every line of work incentives must be carefully managed so that employee “wants” don’t steer the ship. That’s especially true in policing, where the consequences of reckless, hasty or ill-informed decisions can easily prove catastrophic. But we can’t expect officers to toe the line when their agency’s foundation has been compromised by morally unsound practices such as ticket and arrest quotas. This unfortunate but well-known management approach, which is intended to raise “productivity,” once drove an angry New York City cop to secretly tape his superiors…. And consider the seemingly contradictory but equally entrenched practice of downgrading serious crimes – say, by pressuring officers to reclassify aggravated assaults to simple assaults – so that departments can take credit for falling crime rates.

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     When probing officer-involved calamities your blogger always considers pressures to produce. Another likely suspect is chaos. A never-ending series of posts (most recently, “Routinely Chaotic”) addresses factors likely to precipitate a disorderly police response; for example, a lack of information, insufficient resources, unpredictable citizens, and officers who are impulsive or unwilling to accept risk. Despite the best de-escalation training, such deficits can transform so-called “routine” encounters into nightmares that are virtually impossible to manage, let alone peacefully resolve. (For an instant workshop on chaos click on the “related posts” section of that blog piece.)

     Over the years, the messiness of the police workplace has led us to suggest a host of correctives, from not involving cops unless absolutely necessary (an idea from, gee, medicine!) to implementing early intervention protocols so that problem characters get snagged before they cause their own demise.     Our suggestion here is that whatever the approach, whether evidence-based, translational or sentinel, explicitly considering the forces that affect (some would say, beset) the police workplace can point us to remedies that really work. To begin, check out the posts linked below. Then, let’s get busy!

UPDATE (1/3/18): A detailed sentinel review of a murder conviction in Maryland that led to an innocent man’s imprisonment for sixteen years blamed eight factors, including sloppy investigative and witness identification procedures and a poor defense. Nothing was mentioned about the pressures that detectives face to clear homicides. (For more about that see “Fewer Can be Better.”)

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Routinely Chaotic     Why do Cops Lie?    Be Careful What You Brag About (I)     Fewer can be Better

A Stitch in Time     Cooking the Books     Quantity, Quality and the NYPD     Catch and Release

The Numbers Game     Translational?     Forty Years After Kansas City     Teaching Police Departments?

Which Way, CJ?     First, do no Harm     Predictive Policing     Liars Figure     Science is Back

Can We Outlaw Wrongful Convictions? (II)


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