Ferguson: The Mission and Why Mission Statements Matter

Ferguson CopsBack in 2002 the Department of Justice updated its guidelines on the use of force by local police departments. [DoJ]  The time machine must be fully operational today because the remarks in the document sound very much like the current headlines:

“Violent confrontations between police and their service population does not support a cohesive community or a responsive police department. Unfortunately, unjustified violence between police and minority members is not something from an era of policing that is behind us, as evidenced by recent, well publicized cases across the county.”

We now have yet another ‘well publicized case’ in Ferguson, Missouri, twelve years since the release of the 2002 guidelines report.  When people are posting comparative photographs of the St. Louis County Police operations in Ferguson alongside those from Egypt, China, and Heaven Only Knows Where, we’re obviously looking at unjustified violence and a community which is anything but cohesive. We’re also looking at what the Department of Justice in 2002 warned us about concerning the police culture and policing a community:

Instead of the recommended (1) problem solving, and (2) community partnering, we’re witnessing the third element in the list — (3) police culture. Let’s take a look at what the 2002 Guidelines had to say, it’s two paragraphs, but the time it takes to read through them is worth the effort:

“Clearly all police departments have a culture. The key question is whether that culture has been carefully developed or simply allowed to develop without benefit of reflection or guidance. There are police agencies, for example, where the use of force is viewed as abnormal. Thus, when force is used in such an environment, the event receives a great deal of managerial and administrative attention. Such scrutiny reflects the department’s culture: the use of force is viewed, and responded to, as an atypical occurrence.

Contrast such a department with one that does not view the use of force as abnormal. In such a department, there may be minimal written rules providing officers with policy guidelines regarding the use of force. There may be a lack of clearly articulated administrative procedures for tracking and investigating officers’ use of force. Finally, and most importantly, the culture of these departments is such that officers may view the use of force as an acceptable way of resolving conflict with the public.”  [DoJ 2002]

Now we have a foundation for asking some serious questions about police culture in our own communities.

Do the policy statements of the police force in question demonstrate the characteristics in paragraph one or two?  Are the rules clearly specified, is there a ‘clearly articulated administrative procedure’ for investigating  the use of force?  What managerial controls are in place to reduce the incidents of unreasonable or unjustifiable use of force?

If the culture of the organization is such that force is perceived as an intrinsic part of ‘police work’ and there are no administrative or managerial constraints in place then why would we not conclude that the officers do, in fact, see the use of force as a perfectly acceptable way to resolve conflicts?

Unfortunately, what we may well be witnessing in St. Louis County is a toxic combination of a local police department in Ferguson giving visual evidence that force was an acceptable way to enforce compliance with police directives, augmented by a county police department with an armory of weapons suitable for putting down a large riot in Tahrir Square which it was all too eager to put into play.

That’s the larger picture, but what do we find when we drill down to the statements the local police department makes to citizens who use the web site to find out about their local department?  The FPD is please to describe its mission as follows: “The Ferguson Police Department provides protection of life and property in Ferguson through the enforcement of laws and ordinances and assistance with emergency medical services.” [FPD]

Notice the emphasis upon protection and enforcement?  Protection and enforcement are indeed crucial elements, but compare the statement above to the mission statement of the Los Angeles Police Department — not without its own set of community relations problems:

“It is the mission of the Los Angeles Police Department to safeguard the lives and property of the people we serve, to reduce the incidence and fear of crime, and to enhance public safety while working with the diverse communities to improve their quality of life. Our mandate is to do so with honor and integrity, while at all times conducting ourselves with the highest ethical standards to maintain public confidence.”

There certainly might be legitimate questions about the LAPD’s capacity to carry out the improvement of their quality of life portion of the mission, and whether there is public confidence in their efforts — however, the department has at least established a framework in which the discussion of community diversity and ethical standards are an official part of the conversation.  It may be telling that the Ferguson PD didn’t find it necessary to incorporate those elements in its mission statement, and if they aren’t in the mission statement then how might they be a part of the discussion of the relationship between the police and the community?  The FPD has a similarly terse statement regarding community relations:

“Our relationship with the community is enhanced by our commitment of personnel to the positions of Community Relations, DARE, and school resource officers.” [FPD]

One of the first flags that goes up flashes on the word “positions.”  This is a quantifiable element not a qualitative one.  Nothing in the brief statement a person would find on their web site gives any further information about what community relations actually does or how the effectiveness is measured, and how the DARE and school resource officers are perceived.  Indeed, if we go back to the mission statement from the FPD the department will have done its job in the community if life and property are secure because the laws are enforced.

True, mission statements and web site information often tend to be terse, too often glib, and all too often relegated to posters on walls over coffee machines — also true, they illustrate the foundational elements of a police culture described in the 2002 Department of Justice Guidelines.

So, here’s your homework assignment! Look up the mission statement of your local police force.

Does the mission statement state or infer that the primary reason for the existence of the police department is enforcement?  Is this modified in any way to suggest a larger role in community relations?   For example: The Las Vegas Police Department tells its public:

 “The mission of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is to partner with the community to provide outstanding service and protection through prevention, innovation and leadership. Recruiting, hiring and training qualified and diverse individuals to serve the Las Vegas community are central to the successful achievement of this mission.” [LVMPD]

Once the mission statement is found how well the department in question is achieving its basic goals can be evaluated.  Have other organizations or agencies already evaluated the department’s performance? In the case of the Las Vegas police the ACLU issued a report in 2012 (pdf) proposing revisions to the use of force policies.  In other cases there may be site visits and evaluations available.

A little ground work is necessary to analyze the nature of the mission statement and what police culture it implies, to evaluate the efficacy of law enforcement efforts to secure the peace and safety of a community, and to synthesize these elements into a coherent judgment about the effectiveness of the local police department in term of its stated mission.

The President asked this morning for a comprehensive review of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri — there is nothing wrong with a bit of pro-active review by citizens who elect the public officials responsible for police oversight to determine the appropriateness of the police mission and to ask questions about the capacity of the department to accomplish it.

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