Moving Forward: An Interview with Daniel Isom about Policing in America

 /  Oct. 10, 2016, 4:32 p.m.


Daniel Isom began his career with the St. Louis police department in 1988, rising through the ranks to become the department’s chief of police from 2008 to 2013. In 2013, Isom was named an Eisenhower Fellow and studied policing practices in Germany and Ireland. In 2014, he returned to the United States to serve on the Ferguson Commission charged with reforming policing practices after Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer. Isom holds a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctoral degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he is currently the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Policing and the Community. During his time as a fellow at the Institute of Politics, Isom sat down with outgoing Gate co-editor-in-chief Chelsea Fine to discuss policing tactics across the country.

The Gate: When Sean Bell was shot fifty times by New York Police Department officers in 2006, there was a lot of local outcry among New Yorkers, but it never really snowballed into a national story. How did we get to where we are now, having reached a point of national outcry about policing in America?

Daniel Isom: There’s been a series of incidents where people have questioned whether the criminal justice system is actually a fair and comprehensive process. I think for many people, this first came up in the Trayvon Martin case, although it was only law enforcement-related in a sense. At the time, people on many different sides were starting to question the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. I think there was some question on the part of many people about the role of objectivity in the police department investigating it, this issue of black versus white justice. So I think that was the starting point, and then, of course, we had a series of casesMike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Graythat we’ve seen play out in the media over time. So I think it’s really brought about a real conversation about the criminal justice system in general.

Gate: With Mike Brown in Missouri, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York, and Sandra Bland in Texas, the questions that are being raised are not confined by geography. How do you balance the need for a national conversation with the need for federal change, when police departments themselves are local institutions with localized control?

Isom: That’s a very good question, because a lot of people are thinking about a federal response, but policing is a local and state issue. And so any substantial reform that happens is going to be on those two levels, the local and state. So that’s where the problem really lies, because although there may be a national conversation and momentum, it may not be the same conversation and momentum in each state or city. So the issues of licensing police departments, officer certification, oversight, review, accountability, and transparency, all of those issues are local and state issues.

Gate: Do you see any localities or states that are enacting any promising reforms right now?

Isom: Well, I think there are a number of things going on right now across the country. I think people are taking a second look at civilian review boards, and whether they need more power and independence to do their job. I think people are looking at the investigative process in use-of-force incidents and in-custody deaths. Whether it’s Los Angeles, which has done a really good job, or Cincinnati, or Las Vegas, these are some places that have made some changes that we can point to and be proud of.

Gate: And can you elaborate a little more on what those specific changes are?

Isom: Cincinnati, after their riots, one of the things that they talked about was having an independent civilian investigative authority. So they have an independent group that is able to do investigations. This group has subpoena power, which many people point to as being important for these types of independent civilian investigative bodies. They made agreements that when a use-of-force incident happens, that video evidence will be released in those cases, and that there will be at least a summary released of what happened early on. So that’s positive. In Las Vegas, one of the things they’ve done is have an oversight authority that looks at systemic problems within police departments, not just officers, and is able to go into a police department’s policies and practices. And it has the authority not only to make recommendations but also to impose those recommendations on the police department once they are finalized. In Los Angeles, they have a process where they actually report the name of the officer who was involved in an officer-involved shooting, so that you can see which officers have been involved in multiple incidents over time. So these are issues of transparency, oversight, and accountability that have been put in place in other police departments, and they seem to be working well. People have greater confidence that the issues are being handled in an independent fashion and that they’re being informed of the outcome of these cases.

Gate: Some other reforms that have been proposed are dashboard cameras, body cameras, and receipts that document police-civilian interactions on the street and allow people to report misconduct. Can you talk about these types of reforms, which have less to do with high-level oversight and more to do with the day-to-day interactions between police officers and citizens?

Isom: I think body cameras and in-car camera systems are all good for police departments to have. I think that in reality, the record shows that they keep both people in the encounter honest. The behavior of both police officers and citizens changes as a result, which is a good thing. So having those in place should be something that all communities explore. Recording contacts gives both the police department and community a sense of how the police department is performing its job. Many police departments say that it is too onerous on them to record and share this information, but with technology, there’s a way we can do it that makes it easier for officers to accomplish. So I think both pedestrian and traffic stops should be recorded, and that officers should give justification for those stops. I think that’s very important for communities moving forward.

Gate: One common argument against these reforms, however, is that there is no money to install dash cams and create the technology that’s needed to efficiently accomplish the goals you’ve discussed. How would you respond to that?

Isom: Yes, it does cost something. But what are we investing in? We’re investing in the safety of our citizens. First, when you do these things, not only do you hold people accountable and provide transparency, but you also build a better relationship with the community, and that better relationship offers more security. At the end of the day, when you have better relationships between the police and citizens, you’re going to get more accomplished. I don’t know how you measure that, but I think it’s pretty valuable. The second thing is that police departments and communities end up paying when you have to pay out judgments for mistakes or bad behavior. If you could put a monetary value on what we’re losing by not installing cameras, I bet it would be a lot more than the amount we would pay for installing them. And the third thing is that the technology is getting better; the cost of storing information is going to go down at some point in time. So I think communities are better off investing in it than not.

Gate: In 2013, there was a report from the New York Attorney General that outlined just how much the state was paying because of unlawful stop-and-frisk interactions, which speaks to what you were saying about the costs accrued by bad policing. But stop-and-frisk is a deeply ingrained practice in the NYPD. It’s one thing to ask officers to put a camera on their vest, because it doesn’t really change their jobs day-to-day. But it’s another thing to change an officer’s daily job description. How do you propose institutionalizing a sweeping reform that impacts whom an officer can stop, when they can stop them, and other aspects that are integral to an officer’s daily duties?

Isom: I just had this conversation with someone back in St. Louis who is proposing stop and frisk for St. Louis. Stop-and-frisk in and of itself is not illegal. The problem is when you say, “We have a stop-and-frisk policy,” what does that mean? Does that mean that you can just stop anyone you want and frisk them? Well, that is illegal. And so when New York says they have a stop-and-frisk policy, well, that’s obvious, because the Supreme Court said you can stop and frisk people under certain conditions. So what extra are you asking officers to do? I think the issue is that we want to engage citizens, so how can we engage them when we may not have the legal right to stop and frisk them? Maybe it’s a voluntary engagement. Maybe we start teaching officers how to walk up to people who they might want to talk to and say, “Hey, are you having a good day today? We’ve got some problems in the neighborhood, so I just want to sit down and talk to you.” Maybe it is to collect information, but it’s a different way of doing it. It’s a way of engaging a person and trying to figure out what’s going on without using extralegal authority to do it. The Supreme Court doesn’t say you can’t just stop and talk to people. So we need to retrain officers to engage people when they don’t have the legal authority, but they need to figure out what’s going on in the neighborhood. But that takes a different approach. And it may be that the person walks off from you, and under the law, you have to allow them to do that.

So I don’t think it’s that officers have to stop talking to people on the street; it’s just that when you don’t have the requirements to do it under stop-and-frisk, you have to find a different means of doing it. And so the problem that we’re having is that we want to engage more people on the street. We may not necessarily have reasonable suspicion that they actually committed a crime. We may not have reasonable suspicion that they may be armed, but we want to make contact with people to let them know that we’re out here. We’re right here. There’s a way to do that.

Gate: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was probably stop-and-frisk’s biggest champion in New York, at least, and he said that it reduces crime. That was his point-blank argument. But a lot of people say that numbers don’t matter when you’re violating constitutional rights. Where do you see that balance falling?

Isom: Simply saying it reduces crime isn’t justification in America. We could do some things that would really reduce crime, but I don’t think everybody would like it. Can we do things that are really oppressive to reduce crime? Absolutely. If simply reducing crime is the litmus test for what’s acceptable policing, then I don’t think we want that as Americans. I know it’s not as easy as that, but let’s be honest and say that’s not what we want. We need to find the best way to engage people and hopefully not violate their rights.

Gate: Transitioning back to Chicago, Laquan McDonald has become one of the most recent names on a long list of victims of police brutality in the United States. What should Mayor Rahm Emanuel be doing to improve policing and community relations? Because a lot of people are fed up with the status quo.

Isom: I think you have to look at what systems are in place. There are a number of different blueprints out there. I think the things that are working are already out there. You don’t need a task force to do it. You just need to go and look at what other people are doing and see what seems to be working. He has political hurdles to get over as well: he has to get the local council to buy into his ideas, he has to get police organizations to buy into them, and he has to get the union to buy in. So there’s a lot of work he has to do, but the biggest thing is pointing to policies that are working in other places and doing his best to use the weight of the mayor’s office to get them implemented.

Gate: New York is a bit further on the path to reform than Chicago, and the NYPD is, for the most part, very against what Mayor Bill de Blasio is doing. Mayor Emanuel generally has a better relationship with the Chicago Police Department, but how do you see the “Blue Lives Matter” movement coming into play in Chicago, with people who are saying that too many restrictions may hurt officers? Do you think there’s merit to that argument, or do you think that police officers need more oversight?

Isom: I think it’s important that you sit down with the police unions and try to convince them that it’s in their best interest to have independent, non-political oversight and review. You don’t want mob rule and politics dictating whether an officer is charged. So their interests are even more aligned with the activists currently calling for reform. You want someone who’s independent and objective to look at these cases and will not be swayed by the politics of an election or anything else, who has independent authority to look at these things and give an objective analysis. And that’s what the activists want as well. So let’s sit down and figure out what that process is going to be together. What can we set up? Whenever it happens, both the police and the activists want someone to weigh in and make a decisionwhether it’s pro or con. One of the things we said in the Ferguson Commission was that we ought to have an independent investigative body outside the police department, and we should also have a special prosecutor. I think that’s in the best interest of both the police and the activists. Let’s get together and get that done. Do police officers want all this backlash in the community? Well, no. We want to be able to do our jobs. So let’s try to give people enough information so they can make decisions about how well you’re doing your job. So let’s be more transparent, because at the end of the day, I think most officers are doing a good job. What are we afraid of in terms of giving out more information? So those are the conversations you have to have to get buy-in from both sides, seeing what’s important to them and recognizing that everybody’s not going to get everything, but there has to be a dialogue about what we can all agree on.

Gate: You talked a little bit about how public pressure leads to prosecutions in some cases. How do you keep public pressure on a case without letting it die out until yet another instance of police brutality reignites the fire?

Isom: I don’t think you can. You need to hopefully settle on a process that minimizes crises when these incidents arise. You set up a process that deals with the issue head-on and that gives out enough information that people understand what’s going on along the way. So the hope is that if you set up an independent investigation, a special prosecutor, and an independent complaint authority, then you won’t have this type of problem in the future. That’s the hope.

Chelsea Fine


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