COP CORNER: Measuring police success and accountability in the 21st Century

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In the United States there are 17,985 law enforcement agencies. As you can imagine, that total contains the best departments in the country and also includes those which are considered to be the worst.

Historically, crime numbers are used in the world of policing to measure the effectiveness of police departments. If crime is down, the department is doing a great job, if it’s up, not so much. There is no standardization across police agencies to gather measurements about operations that are consistent from one agency to the next.

Does American policing desperately need some type of scorecard to determine what agencies are doing exceptional work? Right now it’s the community’s perception of an agency instead of reliable quantifying data that is the standard measurement.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to establish the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The impetus for the task force was the extensive distrust between communities and police departments. The work that followed was an attempt to re-shape policing in America.

Based on my 32 years of policing experience, the quality of leadership in a police department is essential to its success. An agency’s culture should reflect the values and priorities of its leaders. Citizens should be able to determine an agency’s priorities very easily, without question.

Once again there are no metrics to measure any of that.

A former police chief I used to work for would tell his staff “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I never fully understood this until I became a police chief. Since 2010, after arriving at VCU Police, I can tell you that we measure everything with numbers, from how many people officers speak with during an event to how many LiveSafe app downloads occur after new student orientations. It is impossible to establish strong goals, evaluate our effectiveness and truly gauge our performance without these measurements.

Police agencies need new metrics and measures to establish trust and legitimacy with the communities they serve. Procedural justice is the fair and equal treatment of everyone by the criminal justice system. Procedural justice leads to trust and legitimacy of police agencies. The final report of the president’s task force tells us you cannot have one without the other; both are critical elements. I think it’s also possible to look at the programs departments implement, as well as the type and quality of training that departments are completing to establish efficacy.

In 2011, I created a perception of safety survey to establish a baseline of how safe people felt on VCU’s campuses. This tool was created by the VCU Survey, Evaluation and Research Lab (SERL). When I implemented this concept I wanted the data collected and analyzed scientifically by an external entity that was not affiliated with VCU Police.

The survey was created for purposes of transparency and so that the data would have credibility with the VCU community. In the most recent results 96.4% of the community members surveyed reported feeling either “safe” of “very safe” on our campuses. I believe that the high percentage of people that feel “safe” or “very safe” is directly tied to trust with, and legitimacy of, the VCU Police Department.

In my opinion, if people distrusted VCU Police officers the percentage of people that reported feeling “safe” and “very safe” would be significantly lower. I believe the survey is a usable metric to measure police effectiveness and to gauge trust and legitimacy with students, faculty and staff.

VCU Police have reduced officer involved use of force by 81% over the past five years. Complaints have also been reduced significantly.

Generally when a police officer uses force the question that follows is: “was the force justified?” The VCU Police Department asks another question first: “was the force necessary?” If the answer to that question is “yes” then we can explore the justification of the use of force.

If law enforcement agencies want to reduce officer-involved use of force both of these questions need to be deeply explored. This is certainly a metric that departments can use. It’s clear that America wants less force being used by police officers.

There is a paradigm shift underway in American policing with an increased focus on police establishing a guardian mindset. This shift strongly ties the mission of law enforcement to community policing strategies and objectives. Although tying standardized metrics to community policing and community engagement will be extremely difficult, a method must be established.

By VCU Police Chief John Venuti

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