8,000 Chicago cops now a little friendlier

December 21, 2013

By: Robert Wildeboer

(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Lt. Bruce Lipman listens to a student in the police legitimacy training. 8,000 Chicago police officers have taken the training which encourages them to listen to citizens and treat them with respect.

There’s a video that’s gone viral of a Baltimore police officer getting some kids in trouble for skateboarding. He puts a seemingly compliant 14-year-old in a headlock and pulls him to the ground. “Sit down!” the officer yells. “I’m not a dude!  When I’m talking to you, you shut your mouth and you listen!”

The officer is unhinged. The video is about three and a half minutes and there are several times when the confrontation seems to be over. The kids stand around looking down and shuffling their feet but then the cop turns around, comes back and kicks it off again.

“Son, what is your problem?  Do you go to school and give your teacher this kind of lip and back-talk your teacher?  Now what makes you think you can do it to a police officer?”

The teen, flabbergasted, says Duuuude.”

“Stop calling me dude!” the officer yells. “A dude is somebody who works on a ranch!  I’m not man, I’m not dude, I am officer Rivieri.”

It was probably helpful that Officer Rivieri identified himself on tape for future disciplinary proceedings. He was fired.

Cops are trained to take control, but Chicago police are being taught there’s more than one way to do that. You don’t always have to come on strong, yelling out commands. In fact, officers are learning that that approach can actually make policing much harder.

McCarthy cites research

The video with Officer Rivieri is being used in a class at the Chicago police academy in what NOT to do. The one-day training on something called police legitimacy, an idea based on academic research into effective policing. Superintendent Garry McCarthy has been pushing it since he came to Chicago. He often drops the names of researchers and academics Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler who have articulated and championed the twin ideas of procedural justice and police legitimacy.

McCarthy explained those ideas on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift in February of 2012.

“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” said McCarthy. "So you can stop somebody but when you explain to them why you stopped them, and when you leave them with a different taste in their mouths rather than saying now, get the hell off the corner, there’s a whole different intention that people take away from that encounter.”

So, let’s say you get pulled over and get a ticket but the cop was really nice. The research finds that you could leave that interaction feeling good about police even though you got a ticket. On the flip side, let’s say you don’t get the ticket but the cop is a total… well, let’s keep it clean for the kids and just say he’s not nice. Even though you didn’t get a ticket you’ll likely leave that interaction with a negative view of police.

The point is, it’s not just the outcome that matters. The process is important, hence the name: procedural justice. McCarthy explains. “You explain to them why you stopped them, somebody got shot here, there’s somebody with a gun around the corner, whatever the case might be, instead of just saying, ‘Shut up.  I’ll ask the questions.’  Whole different dynamic there, so that’s a cultural change in policing that we have to infuse into the department-- of respect.”

Since McCarthy made those comments almost two years ago the department has trained 8,000  officers. McCarthy says this is a step towards repairing the legacy of mistrust between poor communities of color and the police.

At the police academy

By seven on a fall morning, Mike Reischl is getting a couple dozen officers settled in a class room at the Chicago Police Academy on the city’s West Side. He tells the officers there’s coffee in the back and asks them to contribute 50 cents. He clarifies that all the money goes to purchasing the coffee and drinks at the back. I guess it’s just in case you think someone might be skimming a couple quarters here and there.

“Police legitimacy, it’s got a lousy name doesn’t it?  It does!” Reischl tells the class. “Somewhere along the line you get the connotation that somehow you’re illegitimate, right?  So you got to come here and be legitimate.”

Reischl tells the officers that they’re not here because something went wrong, or because someone filed a lawsuit.

Like the other instructors Reischl wears a shirt and tie and there’s a gun on his hip. Police officers sit in plainclothes at desks pushed together into groups of four. Half the lights are off in the room so it’s easier to see the powerpoint presentation on the screen. Reischl casts a shadow on the screen as he moves around the front of the classroom and lays out a scenario.

“You got four gangbangers up against the car,” Reischl says. “It’s Friday night in the summertime, it’s a real hot night.  It’s going to be rocking and rolling all night long and all weekend long.  So you start your tour of duty, you want to find out what’s going on, what’s the conflicts?  What’s the problems I’m going to have to manage?  So you see the usuals on the corner and you throw ‘em up against the car and you start going through ‘em. You want that intelligence, okay, you build that rapport. All of a sudden they start talking to you. Yeah, Junebug’s mad at Mookie.  Mookie’s mad at Junebug, all that kind of nonsense. Alright?  But there’s four of them and there’s two of you. Good officer safety technique, hey get another unit over there. Go on the radio get back-up. The gangbangers, they start giving you the information you need. All weekend long you’re going to need this information. All of a sudden your back-up shows up, car pulls up, all of a sudden copper hops out of the car, starts walking toward those kids, every one of those kids shut up because they realize who’s walking towards them. All of a sudden all of that intel goes out the window.  Why did they shut up when that one officer shows up on the scene?  Didn’t treat them fairly and respectfully, and now guess what?  You don’t know what’s going on on your beat.”

I can’t help but think that if there are any cops in this room who have used bull-headed techniques in the past, they might be shrinking in their chairs at the thought that their brothers and sisters in blue might view their tactics as moronic. Reischl goes on to tell his students they need to listen to the citizens they’re serving. 

“If you don’t give anybody a voice and you don’t listen, the people on the other end get irritated and get mad.  How many coppers, ‘sit down, shut up.’  ‘I didn’t even tell you why I….’ ‘Sit down and shut up!’  Well, I didn’t even tell you why i called you….’  ‘ SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP I’M THE POLICE I’LL LOCK YOU UP!’  Coppers do that, right?  They don’t give em the voice,” says  Reischl.

All this training is based on research measuring how citizens engage with police. But Reischl knows his audience and he and the other instructors sometimes poke fun at the “pointy headed” researchers and academics who come up with the phrases like, “giving voice.” But one instructor tells the cops that even the best batters in the major leagues take advice on their swing from people who can’t hit a ball but know the physics of hitting the sweet spot on the bat.

And the instructors appeal to the officers’ self-interest.

Chill out.  You’ll be less stressed.

Reischl asks each pod of four officers to write down their goals on a large white sheet of paper that’s taped to the wall. Each group comes up with essentially the same list. The officers want to make it home safe each night, make it to retirement and avoid lawsuits or getting sent to prison themselves.

Instructors then talk about how treating citizens with respect is a way to get more trust and compliance from citizens. Compliance means less stress and less physical contact and that means cops get to go home safe.

For Officer Nicholas Gould, a lot of this is just common sense. “It’s a good day if you don’t throw down.  I don’t need to come to work and get hurt.  I don’t need broken bones or skinned knees or, what’s the one rule?  To go home safely,” Gould says.

Gould is 6’1” and more than 300 pounds and in this classroom he kind of looks like an adult sitting in a child-sized desk. We chat during a break and he tells me perhaps because of his size, he rarely needs to put his hands on people to get them to comply ,but he also says he’s respectful and able to keep his cool even in heated situations.

“I’m able to, I don’t know how you say this, like, just calm people.  I’m very good at that,” he says..

Does it work?

A couple officers I talk to make fun of this class. One who is a couple months from retirement says it’s a little bit late.  But most of the officers say it’s a good reminder. That’s what Lt. Bruce Lipman hoped when he developed the training.

“It’s a fairly nasty part of society that police see,” Lipman says during the lunch break of the legitimacy training. “We very seldom get called to a house and asked, ‘Hey listen, you want to come over and have tea and coffee?’ Even people who are, you know, just victimized, we feel bad for those victims. Just over time, just starts to make officers cynical and they start to kind of lose their way a little bit about why they started on the job.  Most of the officers, 99 percent of the time, I mean really, and the statistics bear this out, do the right thing. They’ve learned this is the way to do it but this is more like a refresher for them.”

More research

Lipman says the police department isn’t just hoping that this training has an impact. They’re measuring it with help from Wesley Skogan at Northwestern University. Lipman says thousands of officers have been surveyed, some before taking the training and some after. They were asked to rate statements like “listening and talking to people is a good way to take charge of situations.” Officers who filled out the survey after the training gave that statement significantly more importance than officers who hadn’t yet had the training.