Posted 3/27/19


Numbers-driven policing can’t help but offend. What are the options?


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. It’s been a decade since DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance kicked off the “Smart Policing Initiative.” Designed to help police departments devise and implement “innovative and evidence-based solutions” to crime and violence, the collaborative effort, since redubbed “Strategies for Policing Innovation” (SPI) boasts seventy-two projects in fifty-seven jurisdictions.

     Eleven of these efforts have been assessed. Seven employed variants of “hot spots,” “focused deterrence” and “problem-oriented policing” strategies, which fight crime and violence by using crime and offender data to target places and individuals. The results seem uniformly positive:

  • Boston (2009) used specialized teams to address thirteen “chronic” crime locations. Their efforts reportedly reduced violent crime more than seventeen percent.
  • Glendale, AZ (2011) targeted prolific offenders and “micro” hot spots. Its approach reduced calls for service up to twenty-seven percent.
  • Kansas City (2012) applied a wide range of interventions against certain violence-prone groups (read: gangs). It reported a forty-percent drop in murder and a nineteen percent reduction in shootings.
  • New Haven, CT (2011) deployed foot patrols to crime-impacted areas. Affected neighborhoods reported a reduction in violent crime of forty-one percent.
  • Philadelphia (2009) also used foot patrols. In addition, it assigned intelligence officers to stay in touch with known offenders. Among the benefits: a thirty-one percent reduction in “violent street felonies.”
  • Savannah (2009) focused on violent offenders and hot spots with a mix of probation, parole and police. Their efforts yielded a sixteen percent reduction in violent crime.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     We saved our essay’s inspiration – Los Angeles – for last. It actually boasts three SPI programs. Two – one in 2009 and another in 2014 – are directed at gun violence. A third, launched in 2018, seeks to boost homicide clearances. So far, DOJ has only evaluated the 2009 program. Here is its full SPI entry:

SPI entry

      From a tactical perspective, the project falls squarely within the hot-spots and focused deterrence models. But its fanciful label – LASER – gave us pause. “Extracting” bad boys and girls to restore the peace and tranquility of hard-hit neighborhoods conjures up visions of the aggressive, red-blooded approach that has repeatedly gotten cops in trouble. Indeed, when LASER kicked-off in 2009 LAPD was still operating under Federal monitoring brought on by the Rodney King beating and the Rampart corruption and misconduct scandal of the nineties. That same year the Kennedy School issued a report about the agency’s progress. Entitled “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree,” it noted substantial improvements. Yet its authors warned that “the culture of the Department remains aggressive: we saw a lot of force displayed in what seemed to be routine enforcement situations” (pp. 37-38). And that force seemed disproportionately directed at minorities:

    A troubling pattern in the use of force is that African Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, are subjects of the use of such force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD….Black residents of Los Angeles comprised 22 percent of all individuals stopped by the LAPD between 2004 and 2008, but 31 percent of arrested suspects, 34 percent of individuals involved in a categorical use of force incident, and 43 percent of those who reported an injury in the course of a non-categorical force incident.

     During the same period the Los Angeles Police Commission’s Inspector General questioned the department’s response to complaints that officers were selecting blacks and Latinos for especially harsh treatment. In “An Epidemic of Busted Taillights” we noted that members of L.A.’s minority communities had filed numerous grievances over marginal stops involving “no tail lights, cracked windshields, tinted front windows, no front license plate and jaywalking.” Yet as the IG’s second-quarter 2009 report noted, not one of 266 complaints of racial profiling made during the prior fifteen months had been sustained, “by far the greatest such disparity for any category of misconduct.” (Unfortunately, the old IG reports are no longer on the web, so readers will have to trust the contents of our post. However, a May 2017 L.A. Police Commission report noted that LAPD’s internal affairs unit “has never fully substantiated a [single] complaint of biased policing.” See pg. 18.)

     Despite concerns about aggressive policing, LASER went forward. LAPD used a two-pronged approach:

  • A point system was used to create lists of “chronic offenders.” Demerits were awarded for membership in a gang, being on parole or probation, having arrests for violent crimes, and being involved in “quality” police contacts. These individuals were designated for special attention, ranging from personal contacts to stops and surveillance.
  • Analysts used crime maps to identify areas most severely impacted by violence and gunplay. As of December 2018 forty of these hotspots (dubbed LASER “zones”) were scattered among the agency’s four geographical bureaus. These areas got “high visibility” patrol. Businesses, parks and other fixed locations frequently associated with crimes – “anchor points” – were considered for remedies such as eviction, license revocation and “changes in environmental design.”

     South Bureau wound up with the most LASER zones. Its area – South Los Angeles – is the city’s poorest region and nearly exclusively populated by minorities. As our opening table demonstrates, it’s also the most severely crime-impacted, with the ten most violent neighborhoods in the city and by far the worst murder rate. When we superimpose South Bureau (yellow area) on LAPD’s hotspots map, its contribution to L.A.’s crime problem is readily evident:

LAPD South Bureau

     LAPD’s IG issued a comprehensive review of LASER and the chronic offender program two weeks ago. Surprise! Its findings are decidedly unenthusiastic. According to the assessment, the comparatively sharp reductions in homicides and violent crime that were glowingly attributed to LASER – these included a near-23 percent monthly reduction in homicides in a geographical police division, and a five-percent-plus monthly reduction in gun crimes in each of its beats – likely reflected incorrect tallies of patrol dosage. Reviewers questioned the rationale of the “chronic offender” program, since as many as half its targets had no record for violent or gun-related crimes. Many of their stops also seemed to lack clear legal cause. (Such concerns led to the offender program’s suspension in August.) While the IG didn’t identify specific instances of wrongdoing, it urged that the department develop guidelines to help officers avoid “unwarranted intrusions” in the future.

     Well, no harm done, right? Not exactly. At a public meeting of the Police Commission the day the IG released its report, a “shouting, overflow crowd of about 100 protesters” flaunting “LASER KILLS” signs demanded an immediate end to the LASER and chronic offender programs. A local minister protested “we are not your laboratory to test technology,” while civil libertarians complained that the data behind the initiatives could be distorted by racial bias and lead to discriminatory enforcement against blacks and Latinos. And when LAPD Chief Michael Moore pointed out that his agency had long used data, an audience member replied “yeah, to kill us.” He promised to return with changes.

     Chief Moore’s comments were perhaps awkwardly timed. In January the Los Angeles Times reported that officers from a specialized LAPD unit had been stopping black motorists in South Los Angeles at rates more than twice their share of the population. They turned out to be collateral damage from a different data-driven effort to tamp down violence. Faced with criticisms about disparate enforcement, Mayor Eric Garcetti promptly ordered a reset.

     It’s not that LAPD officers are looking in the wrong places. South Bureau, as the table and graphics suggest, is a comparatively nightmarish place, with a homicide every three days and a murder rate more than twice the runner-up, Central Bureau, and six times that of West Bureau. And while dosages varied, LAPD fielded LASER and the chronic offender program in each area. Policing, though, is an imprecise sport. Let’s self-plagiarize:

    Policing is an imperfect enterprise conducted by fallible humans in unpredictable, often hostile environments. Limited resources, gaps in information, questionable tactics and the personal idiosyncrasies of cops and citizens have conspired to yield horrific outcomes.

As a series of posts have pointed out (see, for example, “Good Guy, Bad Guy, Black Guy, Part II”), stop-and-frisk campaigns and other forms of aggressive policing inevitably create an abundance of “false positives.” As long as crime, poverty, race and ethnicity remain locked in their embrace, residents of our urban laboratories will disproportionately suffer the effects of even the best-intentioned “data-driven” strategies, causing phenomenal levels of offense and imperiling the relationships on which humane and, yes, effective policing ultimately rests.

     What happens when citizens bite back? Our recent two-parter, “Police Slowdowns” (see links below) described how police in several cities, including L.A. and Baltimore, reacted when faced with public disapproval. A splendid piece in the New York Times Magazine explains what happened after the Department of Justice’s 2016 slap-down of Baltimore’s beleaguered cops. Struggling in the aftermath of Freddie Gray, the city’s finest slammed on the brakes. That too didn’t go over well. At a recent public meeting, an inhabitant of one of the city’s poor, violence-plagued neighborhoods wistfully described her recent visit to a well-off area:

    The lighting was so bright. People had scooters. They had bikes. They had babies in strollers. And I said: ‘What city is this? This is not Baltimore City.’ Because if you go up to Martin Luther King Boulevard we’re all bolted in our homes, we’re locked down. All any of us want is equal protection.

     If citizens reject policing as the authorities choose to deliver it, must they then simply fend for themselves? Well, a Hobson’s choice isn’t how Police Issues prefers to leave things. Part of the solution, we think, lies buried within the same official reproach that provoked the Baltimore officers’ fury. From a recent post, here’s a highly condensed version of what the Feds observed:

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    Many supervisors who were inculcated in the era of zero tolerance continue to focus on the raw number of officers’ stops and arrests, rather than more nuanced measures of performance…Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for [gun and drug] offenses.

In the brave new world of Compstat, when everything must be reduced to numbers, it may seem na´ve to suggest that cops leave counting behind. Yet in the workplace of policing, what really “counts” can’t always be reduced to numbers. It may be time to dust off those tape recorders and conduct some some richly illuminating interviews. (For an example, one could begin with DOJ’s Baltimore report.) There may be ways to tone down the aspects of policing that cause offense and still keep both law enforcers and the public reasonably safe.

     In any event, police are ultimately not the answer to festering social problems. Baltimore – and many, many other cities – are still waiting for that “New Deal” that someone promised a couple years ago. But we said that before.

UPDATE (7/4/19): LAPD touts PredPol, a computerized “predictive policing” strategy that uses past activity to map where crimes are likely to occur. But many agencies now say that it doesn’t tell officers anything new, or that it simply doesn’t work. According to a researcher the software’s effect “is very can be hard to see.”

UPDATE (4/27/19): In the L.A. Times, a brief note about yet another shooting in South Los Angeles, this one resulting in the death of a young woman and the wounding of her young female companion, possibly committed by “men in a white Suburban”.

UPDATE (4/21/19): An LAPD deputy chief said Metro is in South L.A. because of the violence. “We’re not sending Metro to Pacific Palisades or West Valley. Because of where we put them, the stops are going to be blacks and Latinos.” During one evening, his officers stopped 24 cars and two bicycles. Twenty-five of those encountered were black and 10 Latino. Officers issued six tickets, sixteen traffic warnings and filled out 27 field interview cards. “They did not find any guns or drugs and made a handful of arrests...The biggest catch of the day was...the arrest of a black man [stopped for a traffic violation] who was wanted for a commercial burglary.” The next night South L.A. had three shootings, one fatal.

UPDATE (4/13/19): Although Chief Michel Moore insisted that it had helped reduced crime, LAPD discontinued LASER over concerns voiced by the Police Commission and community members that the approach was poorly controlled, inadequately assessed, and unfairly targeted minorities.

UPDATE (4/6/19): LAPD dropped its “chronic offender” program. Data will still be used, but officers will also revert to “old-school tactics” such as offender descriptions and focusing on recent releasees and known offenders. An officer and police union official called data helpful but distracting. “Community policing, he said, is done best when officers learn areas and know who commits the crimes.”

UPDATE (3/28/19): In a new initiative against violence, Baltimore enlisted the Feds to help in “Operation Seven Sentinels,” a month-plus effort to arrest persons wanted for serious crimes. From a list of 400 they arrested 264, including 25 wanted for murder or attempted murder and 86 for assault.

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A Workplace Without Pity     Two Sides of the Same Coin     Mission Impossible

A Magnificent Obsession   Police Slowdowns (I)  (II)    A Very Rough Ride    Location, Location, Location

Good Guy, Bad Guy, Black Guy II     Is it Always About Race?     An Epidemic of Busted Tail Lights

Too Much of a Good Thing?     What Can Cops Really Do?     Of Hot-Spots and Band-Aids

Posted 3/4/19


As good guys and bad ramp up their arsenals, the margin of error disappears

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. During the evening hours of December 8 Ian David Long, 28, burst into a busy Los Angeles-area nightclub, threw smoke bombs into the crowd and unleashed a barrage of more than fifty rounds from a Glock .45 pistol. Twelve patrons were shot dead and one was wounded. Long hid and waited for police. Two officers soon burst in. Long opened fire, striking Ventura County sheriff’s sergeant Ron Helus five times. A sixth and fatal wound, to the heart, was accidentally inflicted by return fire from a highway patrol officer armed with a rifle.

     Long legally purchased his gun two years ago. He had enhanced it with a laser sight and high-capacity magazines, the latter illegal in California yet easily obtainable elsewhere. Why he acted may never be known. During the horrific episode the six-year Marine Corps vet (he served in Afghanistan) posted Instagram messages denying any motive other than insanity: “Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought… f***it, life is boring so why not?”

     Long would soon bring the incident and his life to a close with a shot to his own head.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     One month later, on February 12, eight NYPD officers responded to a report that a man with a gun forced two employees into the back of a mobile phone store. Among those who rushed to the scene were two detectives who were nearby when the call came.

     Detective Brian Simonsen, 42 and his partner, Matthew Gorman, 34, accompanied two beat cops into the premises. Just then the robber, Christopher Ransom, a deeply troubled 27-year old, emerged from the back, flaunting a handgun. A 42-round barrage instantly followed.

     Both detectives were wounded; Simonsen, fatally. A beloved veteran cop, he was working on his day off. The 27-year old suspect, a chronic offender, was also wounded. As it turned out, his “gun” was a realistic-looking toy, so only police rounds flew. An accomplice who was outside acting as a lookout fled but was arrested later.

     According to the FBI, 455 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed with firearms between 2008 and 2017. Seventy-one percent (323) fell to a handgun. Most common calibers were 9mm. (94), .40 (78) and .45 (36). Twenty-three percent of deaths (104) were caused by high-powered rifles, with calibers .223/5.56 (34) and 7.62 (26) the most frequent.

     During the same period 800 other cops were feloniously injured with a firearm. Handguns were implicated in 557 (72%) of the 770 instances where kind of gun was known. Top three handgun calibers were 9 mm. (166), .40 (92) and .45 (80). Rifles caused 142 injuries (18%); top three calibers were 7.62 (60), .223/5.56 (28) and 5.45/5.56 (15).

     Firepower and gun availability have grown exponentially during the past decades. Excluding exports, domestic manufacturers produced 1,333,241 semi-automatic handguns in 2008. Of these, about 827,000 were in 9mm. and larger caliber. A decade later, in 2017, a staggering 3,415,582 pistols were produced for domestic consumption. About 2,220,000 were 9mm. caliber and beyond.

     With guns so abundant (and so enthusiastically marketed) it’s inevitable that many will wind up in the hands of criminals (click here for a related blog post and here for a longer piece.) In 2017 ATF traced 316,348 firearms, mostly seized by local police. Nine-millimeter pistols were the most frequently recovered, coming in at 84,196 (27% of the total). A more powerful caliber, .40, was second at 38,311. Forty-five caliber took fifth with 24,242, and .357 came in eighth at 9,500. Rifles were close behind. The devastating 5.56mm./.223 duo had 9,359 cumulative recoveries, while the fierce 7.62mm. of AK-fame had 7,145. These weapons are especially problematic, as their super high-speed projectiles create large temporary wound cavities that pulverize nearby organs and rupture blood vessels (click here for a summary and here for a quick course.)

     What’s available to counter these threats? Body armor. Its protective qualities are strongly impacted by bullet size, composition and, especially, velocity. Arranged by protective capability, from least to most, here are the most recent Federal standards for ballistic vests:

Body armor SMALL

Adapted from “Selection & Application Guide 0101.06 to Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor,” p. 12.
FMJ: full metal jacket; JHP: jacketed hollow point; S: soft point; RN: round nose

     Levels IA, II and IIIA denote increasingly protective (read: bulkier, heavier, hotter) versions of soft body armor. Defeating high-velocity rifle rounds such as the 7.62 or .223 requires the hard armor of levels III and IV, which are unsuitable for patrol.

     During 2008-2017 twenty-two officers died from bullets that penetrated their body armor. (Keep in mind that this doesn’t include non-fatal penetrations, which are likely far more frequent, nor fatalities caused by wounds to areas not protected by armor.) Only one penetration death was attributed to a handgun, a so-called 5.7mm. “big boomer” with ballistics similar to high-powered rifles (an example is the FN “Five-seven.”) All other penetration deaths were caused by rifles, with 7.62mm. and 5.56/.223 caliber tied for the top spot at six deaths each.

     How protective should armor be? Given the tradeoff between comfort and safety, Level II has probably been the most popular. Here’s what the Feds think:

    For armor intended for everyday wear, agencies should, at a minimum, consider purchasing soft body armor that will protect their officers from assaults with their own handguns should they be taken from them during a struggle; Level IIA, II or IIIA as appropriate. (p. 21)

     Of course, even the most bullet-resistant body armor can’t protect against wounds to exposed areas. A recent Houston drug raid gone sour left four officers wounded. Two were struck in the neck, one in the shoulder, and one in the face (all fortunately survived.)

     Let’s return to our two examples of “friendly fire.” We don’t know whether the Ventura County sergeant was wearing a ballistic vest. But only a cumbersome armor-plated garment could have protected him from the rifle round fired by his colleague. As for the NYPD detectives, neither was wearing armor, so the consequences seem, with the benefit of hindsight, sadly predictable. Here’s how the victim officers’ superiors explained the tragedies:

    Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub, about the death of Sgt. Helus: “In my view, it was unavoidable. It was just a horrific scene that the two [deputies] encountered inside the bar.”

    NYPD Chief Terence Monahan, the agency’s top uniformed officer, about the death of Detective Brian Simonsen: “We talk about the tactics, we talk about incidents that have occurred over the course of the last six months. You want to avoid that crossfire situation. But understand — it’s great to train — everything happens in a second. You’re reacting within seconds and you’re in fear for your life. Your adrenaline is high.”

      “Routinely Chaotic” addressed the chaos and confusion that accompany some street encounters. Can it occasionally lead cops to shoot each other? Well, we’re no tactical wizards, but before conceding that such things are inevitable, here are a few ideas for preventing poor outcomes:

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  • As NIJ suggests, everyone should wear body armor that will, at a minimum, stop a projectile discharged by a colleague. That rules out the use of long guns other than during highly coordinated tactical responses.
  • After Columbine,  delaying (i.e., “surround and call-out”) is out of favor when innocent lives are at stake. Still, responses must not become chaotic. To prevent possibly lethal confusion an early arrival should remain behind to coordinate colleagues as they show up.
  • Fire discipline is essential. Even the most impromptu entry team must designate “point” and “cover.” Who will engage, and who will protect those engaging, must be explicit from the start.
  • Routinely Chaotic pointed out that “butting in” can prove lethal. Late-arriving officers, including supervisors, must take their cues from cops already on scene.

     Of course, it’s not just police lives that are at risk. “Speed Kills” mentioned that innocent citizens are occasionally wounded and killed by misplaced police gunfire. (We distinguish this from purposeful shootings of citizens who turn out to be innocent.) Googling brought up two recent examples. In one, police bullets pierced a wall and killed a six-year old boy in his home. In the other, two bystanders – a 46-year old woman and a twelve-year old boy – were injured by police bullets that were meant for a fleeing suspect.

     In our gun-crazed land the threats that citizens pose to cops and to each other, and that cops occasionally pose to innocent citizens and other cops, are ballistically identical. Officers must routinely exercise great care to avoid compounding this intractable dilemma. We’re confident that at least to that extent, Sheriff Ayub and Chief Monahan would certainly agree.

UPDATE (9/1/19): A male in his 30s armed with a rifle hijacked a mail truck and went on a shooting rampage in the West Texas cities of Odessa and Midland. He killed seven and wounded nineteen, including three officers, before police shot him dead.

UPDATE (3/14/19): NYPD detectives are issued blue police vests but apparently seldom wear them. At present they must only do so when engaged in activities such as making an arrest, and it may be that in rushing in on the call Det. Simonsen and his partner left theirs behind.

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Two Sides of the Same Coin     Speed Kills     Routinely Chaotic     Ban the Damned Things!

Three (In?)explicable Shootings     Massacre Control     Is it Always About Race?

Good Guy, Bad Guy, Black Guy (I)     A Matter of Life and Death     Lessons of St. Pete     Bigger Guns

Oakland: How Could it Happen?     DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?

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.

UPDATE (7/26/19): Ruling that objectors (including the Sierra Cluib) lacked legal standing, the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s decision to spend $2.5 billion in Pentagon funds on a border wall in California, New Mexico and Arizona, where he said it’s needed to fight drug running.

UPDATE (2/16/19): President Trump signed a bill providing $1.375 billion to erect 55 miles of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley (a similar request had been turned away by the GAO. See above.) He also issued an Executive Order that would redirect $8.1 billion for border barriers from funds available to Treasury and Defense.

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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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A Not-So-Magnificent Obsession     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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