As calls continue for police reform across the country, numerous top cops are either resigning or being fired in connection with use of force in their departments.
Whether this will lead to the change protesters are calling for remains to be seen. Some call it a shame that chiefs in various parts of the country are losing their positions when they are needed most, as the public is calling for police reform. Others, however, say police want the public to see these firings and resignations as a win, when in reality they will simply slow reforms.
“It is very hard being a police officer today and harder to be a chief because police have become a lightning rod,” said Dean Esserman, senior counselor for The National Police Foundation, which works with departments across the country on various issues, including relationships between officers and their communities.
“These resignations are hurting because reform takes time and when a chief is hired or promoted to reform a department, they have to manage a department while they reform it at the same time. One mistake by an officer in the middle of the night can cost the police chief his or her job,” Esserman said. “That is unfortunate because many good chiefs believe in reform and are in the midst of reforming and then they are gone. Reform takes a sustained chain, but the tenure is three to five years for most chiefs. They take the blame when something goes wrong.”
Some say ‘cleaning house’ is needed
DeRay McKesson, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to ending police violence, sees it differently. He agrees chiefs are in a tough spot, but believes by getting them out, departments can more easily “clean house.” New chiefs, he said, have not yet built loyalty with the officers they have to reform. And those leaving, he said, don’t want to stick around “to clean up the mess” left behind by officers who went over the line with use of force, especially against minorities.
Dallas Police Chief U. Renee’ Hall, the first Black woman to lead that city’s department, is resigning following criticism over the department’s response to protests against police violence and racism, according to NPR.
She is just the latest in a growing string of chiefs to resign or be fired as national protests continue over how law enforcement treats minorities. Seattle; Portland, OR; Louisville, KY; Atlanta; and Rochester, NY have all taken a hit at the top.
She took over the city’s top police position when Chief David Brown retired. Brown led the department through a period when five Dallas officers were shot in July 2016 during a protest against police shootings of Black men. Hall will stay until the end of the year.
“I hate that we are losing” her, Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said of Hall, according to a Fox News report. Hopkins said Hall was “what Dallas needed.”
Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary was fired and two of the department’s command staff are resigning while two others are returning to previous positions as lieutenants as protests continue over the March killing of Daniel Prude, a Black man. Prude died due to asphyxiation after being restrained by police, an act that was caught on video by an onlooker.
In Louisville, following the killing of Breonna Taylor, the mayor named Yvette Gentry as the city’s new interim police chief. A retired Louisville officer, she is the first Black woman to lead the Louisville Metro Police Department. She starts Oct. 1. Gentry served the department for more than 20 years before retiring in 2014, according to this NPR article. She is the department’s third chief since March, when Taylor, a Black woman, was killed by Louisville police officers who broke down her door in search of narcotics. None were found.
Taylor’s death at the hands of police officers, along with that of George Floyd in Minneapolis and others across the country sparked this summer’s calls for police reform and continuing protests over police brutality and racial injustice.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said he chose Gentry because she wants to “reimagine public safety and address systemic racism. We wanted somebody right now that represents some independence of viewpoint so that we could move forward with that,” he said at a news conference.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, that department’s first Black director, resigned in August amid ongoing talks of police reform and budget cuts.
Seattle is embarking on one of the most ambitious police restructuring plans in the country, the New York Times reported. Best said she felt left out of the process and the target of vindictive salary cuts.
Money and more research required
Esserman, who is a lawyer and was a chief in four cities for 25 years, said police reform has been going for his entire career. But it is often slow due to funding issues. He advises mayors and police chiefs and conducts research for departments across the country.
“Community policing went from two cops in a car to decentralized police departments with diversity training and hiring. What I hear now when I hear defunding is a call to re-fund social services. Many police officers already have social workers and clinicians riding with them already, in New Haven, Providence, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. There are also several departments that are starting to send counselors without sending officers. That is starting in Albuquerque and in New Haven. In many ways, it is progress.”
He believes the soaring use of body cameras on police officers will make them more accountable. It will also be a more transparent way of operating that will quell the use of force.
As for the ongoing problem of excessive use of force, Esserman said, officers do need to be held accountable. “Yes, sometimes an officer crosses the line, including the abhorrent situation in Minneapolis” where a police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing.
“When one officer does wrong it casts a pall on all officers,” he said, but the resignations of police chiefs is not necessarily the answer.
Police reform costs money because forces are decentralizing and must collaborate with various partners, he said. “They need to spend more time on problem-solving and co-producing work and need more training and procedures at a time when there are less officers in the country.”
McKesson, of Campaign Zero, is a protester and Teach For America alum, having taught sixth-grade math in New York City. He has been documenting the events of the reform movement via Twitter and is the founder and co-eEditor of the Ferguson Protestor Newsletter.
He takes a harder line on these resignations and firings.
“Most of these police chiefs and officers who are resigning, likely have jobs lined up, we just don’t hear about it. Rochester, for instance, I think those people are leaving so they don’t have to be part of the cleanup,” McKesson said. “The resignations get them off the hook and they had the institutional memory to make changes. Now it will take three months to get the next people in line, so change will be slower.”
It looks like a win, to the public, he said, but he sees it as part of the police strategy. “This sudden spike in retirements, for most of them, the overtime they got for the protests is probably the most they have ever made in their career and their pensions are tied to their gross salary. The city will replace them with lower paid officers, so this won’t be a net decrease. They are leaving at the best time financially for them.”
He said he realizes the police chiefs are in a tough position.
“They know there is no accountability. They also know they’ve got to work with those people. Here is the rub, nobody wants to make the tough call. It is easier to leave. They have to be the bad guy to the officers and certainly to the unions. You can count on one finger the number of police chiefs who are willing to do that. They know the power of the police unions is ridiculous but won’t say that in public. The public, not just activists, are pushing for accountability. A new person can come in and clean house.”