In quest to improve policing, time is on our side

It would do a world of good if officers just slowed down

IN THE WORLD of policing, what do waiting for nature to call to a drunken – and disruptive – Red Sox fan, taking a measured approach to car stops, and calmly engaging someone who is illegally selling loose cigarettes all have in common? They use the resource of time to achieve a desired outcome with the least chance of a situation spiraling into unnecessary violence or, at worst, fatal tragedy.  

In this time of heightened scrutiny of law enforcement, police departments in Massachusetts and around the country would be well-served by taking a hard look at using time as a tactical resource.  

The late Boston police commissioner Mickey Roache once described his deployment of time, behavior – and physiology – to address drunken rowdiness in the 1970s in the bleachers at Fenway Park. The Red Sox policy was to hire big, tough ushers/bouncers, such as Boston College linemen, to wade in and remove the most obnoxious. This typically led to wider chaos, as the targets’ drinking companions started swinging at the bouncers.

Roache, then a sergeant on the force, had a better idea. He asked the ushers to point out the worst offenders. Since drunks frequently go out to get more beer – or to relieve themselves of the pints their body has already processed – Mickey would have a few officers waiting just out of sight on the ramp. The belligerent went down the ramp – and were quickly guided up one step into the police wagon, done for the night.

The good sergeant prevented a lot of mayhem without having to get any noses broken. Every effective police officer I have known has used time and creativity to resolve situations. The officers give people the time and space to do what the officers want them to do. These same principles can be applied to urgent situations as well as chronic disorder problems.   

Many situations to which police apply rapid interventions would come to better outcomes if police got there fast and then slowed down, using time as a resource to devise lawful, customized solutions. Some situations, such as when lives are in danger, demand swift police action. But 85 percent or more of the situations to which police respond are less than life-threatening emergencies or serious crimes in progress. 

Urgent situations such as the execution of search and arrest warrants; responding to individuals threatening to harm themselves; trying to calm a mentally ill person in crisis; and reacting to people who resist police in motor vehicle-related stops could be brought to better outcomes through the application of time. Chronic disorder problems, too, would benefit from the mix of time and tailored solutions. Humans are far better equipped to speed things up as necessary than to slow down action that is in full steam. 

The value of time seems to have gotten trampled by what the late police scholar George Kelling called a “a culture of hurrying.” One can identify three powerful forces that shaped those beliefs and practices.

It started with the reinvention of US policing in the Progressive Era. Reformers were deeply influenced by the industrial efficiency ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor (the Academy of Management voted his book, The Principles of Scientific Management, the most influential management book of the 20th century). Taylor believed, among many things, that all work could be routinized. Reform-minded police chiefs bought in, believing that police work could be reduced to a set of routine activities. History has discredited the routinization idea – police work is marbled with variety and discretion – but the thinking hangs on as the ideological bulwark of patrol strategy.   

The second contributor to the culture of hurrying was the introduction of 9-1-1 in the 1970s as the principal way for the public to summon the police. Efficiency replaced effectiveness as the ideal. Police personnel learned from the culture that a good response is a fast and brief response. A proper response is also a take-no-shit response. 

Finally, these forces contributed to a police identity as rapid-action crime warriors. How fast one resolves a situation became an unspoken aspect of what makes a “real cop.” Real men have the manly skills to handle what’s in front of them and to handle it quickly. Resistance of any kind is too soon met with physical force. Officers of all sexes, genders, and sexual identities are subject to the toxic masculine norm. 

When we think of some of the prominent recent tragedies involving police, we can begin to see how the tincture of time could have yielded better outcomes. In January, members of a specialized police street crime unit in Memphis pulled over 29-year-old Tyre Nichols for reported reckless driving. Within minutes of the stop Nichols was fatally wounded beneath a frenzy of kicks and blows from the officers. The context for murder and for reckless disregard for human life was the culture of hurrying and the twisted sense of what it means to take command of a scene. It is the ultimate tragedy to which the take-no-time, take-no-shit mind set can lead.   

It’s extremely unlikely that the murder of Tyre Nichols represents the first time the specialized Memphis unit rode roughshod over the subject of a stop, a pursuit, or an arrest. Most larger cities, including Boston (see The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston’s Racial Divide by Dick Lehr), have a story to tell about an out-of-control specialized unit or precinct. Details vary but the basic tale is the same. A pattern of behavior goes unchecked and a norm forms; more and more morally corrupt behavior becomes acceptable. A trail strewn with civil rights violations and abuse of force ends in homicide.  

What if they had fostered and enforced a norm that officers slow down once they have motor vehicles blocked by police cars? What difference might it have made if the Memphis police had in place a policy and practice that emphasized restraint and the taking of more time? What if ripping Tyre Nichols from the driver’s seat as the officers’ first action, before even speaking to him, was seen not just as a procedural violation but as abnormal behavior? What if that behavior, like any abnormal behavior with an in-group, earned you a shunning? Why wasn’t the fact of multiple officers reportedly screaming contradictory orders at a frightened man seen as bizarre and abnormal? What if the culture made it abnormal not to use time to back off and regroup, and to relieve the officers who first laid hands on Nichols?   

Another case in point is the choking death of Eric Garner on New York City’s Staten Island in 2014. Officers were attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. What was the rush in getting Eric Garner in custody?

If handled using time as a resource, these incidents today might be never-remembered, one-line summaries in police digital archives. Instead, Tyre Nichols and Eric Garner were killed, indictments and lost careers followed, and public confidence in police was further eroded.  

In the aftermath of Garner’s death, officials focused on the use of a chokehold by now-former officer Daniel Pantaleo. But two other big questions went unaddressed. Garner appears from all accounts to have been a chronic nuisance in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island. Officers from the local precinct had responded several times to complaints about him. The first big question is, why not take time to learn more about what made Eric Garner tick, to try something new, after doing the same thing so many times? What additional levers and strings were available to modify the cigarette seller’s behavior?  

Better use of time requires a change in how the police and public understand power. The assertion of power based on authority, rather than physical force, does not come with a play clock. When the police arrive, the game for the suspect or subject is effectively over. It may take five minutes or five hours, but the presence of the police signals the situation will be resolved. 

Meet the Author
Time could obviate use of physical force – and all the bad outcomes that can come with it. Departments should study this question and develop procedural guidelines that encourage slowing down. Everyone would end up better off. 

Jim Jordan is the retired director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and in training settings around the country.