These Police Chiefs Are Working to Change Perceptions

WALK THE WALK: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture, by Neil Gross

When it comes to policing, this is no country for optimists: Few Americans seem to believe in the promise of reform.

On the left, police abolitionists insist that policing in the United States is so profoundly bound up with racism and violence that reform efforts are at best irrelevant and at worst nefarious, since they serve to whitewash a brutal institution. On the right, those who style themselves advocates of the thin blue line assert that “woke” reforms leave police departments underfunded and demoralized, reduced to watching impotently as violent crime rises.

And in the middle? Although polls suggest most Americans favor police reform, fewer than one-third say they’re optimistic about making progress. In Congress, major police reform efforts have stalled, and this seems unlikely to change.

Amid all this skepticism comes a new book by the Colby College sociology professor Neil Gross. In “Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture,” Gross makes an informed and impassioned case for the value of small cultural changes, one police department at a time.

Gross is dismayed by the atmosphere of pessimism that prevails among policymakers. It’s as though, he writes, they “can’t imagine what ethical, effective, democratic policing might look like.” But if reforms haven’t worked in the past, he argues, it’s not because they can’t work; it’s because reformists haven’t been sufficiently attentive to the need to transform police culture, which is “notoriously closed” and “suspicious of outsiders.” Mandating reforms in police departments full of hardened, cynical officers is like tossing grass seed onto sheet metal: If the grass doesn’t grow, you can’t blame the seeds.

But although an insular law enforcement culture can make police departments remarkably resistant to reform, Gross — who served briefly as a police officer in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1990s — insists that transforming policing is both necessary and possible. It’s leadership, he argues, that makes the difference: Law enforcement culture can change when police departments are helmed by creative chiefs with “organizational savvy, skill at communicating with cops and citizens, historical awareness, humility and perseverance.”

Good chiefs know when to push, and when to tread lightly. They introduce incremental reforms, instead of forcing change before officers are ready for it — and as departments become more open to change, those incremental reforms can start adding up. When we get more community engagement by the police, more willingness to ease up on traffic stops for trivial offenses, more alternatives to incarceration and more efforts to recruit a diverse work force, things get better for these communities. There are fewer police abuses, fewer arrests — and fewer crimes.

Gross organizes his book around three case studies: Stockton, Calif.; Longmont, Colo.; and LaGrange, Ga. In some ways, the three towns could hardly be more different, but each had the benefit, Gross says, of the kind of dedicated, imaginative police chief every department needs.

In Stockton, Chief Eric Jones embraced the concept of “procedural justice,” an approach to policing that emphasizes transparency, fairness, impartiality and a willingness to give citizens a voice. He supported officers as they developed a new procedural justice training program; he established a community advisory board and arranged trust-building workshops with police critics. But he also won his officers’ trust by listening to their concerns. He obtained funding for costly new equipment, and took care to foster good relationships with the police union.

In LaGrange, Chief Lou Dekmar similarly invested in new equipment and increased officer salaries, but he also introduced policies mandating de-escalation and improving officer training. During his time as chief, he dramatically increased the Police Department’s homicide closure rate and decreased the use of force by officers. In 2017, Dekmar made national news when he publicly apologized for the department’s complicity in the 1940 lynching of a young Black man.

In Longmont, Chief Mike Baker embraced “restorative justice,” an approach to crime that — when the victims agree — allows perpetrators to acknowledge the hurt they have caused, apologize and make restitution, instead of facing prosecution and prison. He also adopted a harm reduction approach to drug use. Instead of trying to “stamp out narcotics use by subjecting manufacturers, dealers and users to criminal prosecution,” Baker focused on partnering the police with social services “to treat addiction and ameliorate its underlying causes.” This approach acknowledges that while completely eliminating drug-related crime isn’t realistic, ensuring that drug users do “as little harm as possible to themselves and the community” is within our power.

As narrative, “Walk the Walk” doesn’t entirely succeed. Gross hops from story to story, often introducing new characters and anecdotes that aren’t fully tied back to the book’s central argument. He tries to humanize police officers by focusing on Jones, Dekmar and Baker, but his protagonists remain flat — characters exemplifying virtue in a morality play, rather than complex human beings.

Gross’s intended audience is also somewhat unclear. Although he brings a scholar’s expertise to his subject, he sometimes seeks accessibility at the expense of nuance, and his prose veers toward the simplistic. At times, he falls into cliché: “The country was a powder keg waiting to explode.”

More critically, Gross doesn’t fully come to grips with the chicken-and-egg problem that makes police transformation so elusive: Policy changes won’t be effective unless police culture changes, but it’s not clear police culture can be altered without policy changes. “Walk the Walk” relies rather too much on the Good Police Chief as deus ex machina. But where do these transformative leaders come from? Can such leadership be fostered, or is it a matter of sheer happenstance? Can top-down reforms work without bottom-up changes? Gross doesn’t always ask the questions — or have the answers.

All the same, “Walk the Walk” is a thoughtful and important book. At a moment when the country is indeed, well, a powder keg waiting to explode, Gross’s optimism about police reform offers an antidote to the cynicism and gloom that pervade most such discussions. His book is replete with both empathy and pragmatism. “We can’t write off the police, not in the foreseeable future,” he warns — but although utopian visions of a world without policing may be far out of reach, that’s no reason to give up on smaller reforms.

Gross never states it directly, but his approach to policing — like Chief Baker’s approach to drug use — centers on harm reduction. Creating a better police culture is no “substitute for structural change in the justice system or in American society generally,” Gross acknowledges, and reforms won’t undo the poisonous legacy of racism and violence. Nonetheless, some police departments are better than others, and every department can improve.

If we can “press our local agencies to rethink their culture and operations” and support enlightened police leaders like Jones, Dekmar and Baker, our communities can become safer, kinder, happier places. Simplistic? Sure. But it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the author of “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City.”

WALK THE WALK: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture | By Neil Gross | 259 pp. | Metropolitan Books | $27.99

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