A Citizen-Centered Approach to Police Reform – gothamCulture Podcast Transcript
Welcome to the Gotham Culture podcast, where we talk about any issue you like, so long as those topics are organization of culture, leadership, or people strategy. Each week, we talk with industry leaders and discuss cultural opportunities and challenges in the workplace, providing you with actionable tips and strategies that you can implement in your organizations. My name is Chris Cancialosi, and this is the Gotham Culture podcast.
Nationwide, calls for police reform have reached a fever pitch. Systematic racism, the excessive use of force and power by select law enforcement officers over the decades, the militarization of police have created a culture within law enforcement that really is misaligned with the diverse needs of the citizens that they’ve sworn to serve and protect. According to MappingPoliceViolence.org, more than 1,000 people a year are killed by police in the United States. In 2019 alone, 1,098 people were killed, 24% of them being African American, despite African Americans only making up 13% of the United States population. That’s nearly 1,100 people killed by police in the US, compared to other nations like Germany, the UK and Australia, for example, that have police-related killings in the single digits annually. So, something is obviously going on here, and it needs to be examined.
As law enforcement agencies begin to rethink the way they approach their work in order to ensure law enforcement is able to serve and protect in equitable ways, they’re going to be forced to examine the culture of policing in this country to its very core. How did law enforcement’s identity in our society form and evolve over time? What beliefs and assumptions do law enforcement officers and the agencies they serve believe to be true? And how do those beliefs and assumptions stack up against the current realities and the needs of their communities?
This is going to be a difficult process for many to engage in, as it fundamentally asks people to question their own personal and professional identities. One of today’s guests, Joe Smarro, discussed during one of his own recent livestream discussions with several police officers of color. He said, “The system is not broken. In fact, it never worked to begin with.” And his point was that the system was created by white men as a system of aggression. This is a pretty deep thought that challenges us all to take a hard look at the systems that we’ve created or perpetuated only because they make us feel comfortable. We’ll have a link to that discussion in the show notes, and I encourage you to take some time to check it out.
And it’s not just law enforcement organizations that are asking themselves these questions. I recently read an article by Dustin Riker in Northwest Sidebar about the need for law firms to do the same. It’s heartening to see organizations across the spectrum taking time to stop, to learn, to reflect, and to commit to changing for the collective good. We’ll also include a link to that article in the show notes, as well.
My guests today join me in a discussion about how law enforcement agencies might take a very different approach to evolving their cultures by building their reform in a citizen-centric way. Joining me today are two respected colleagues, David Hicks and Joe Smarro. David Hicks is CEO of TribeCX, a customer experience advisory firm that works with organizations globally. Amongst his expansive clientele, David has partnered with police agencies to redesign the way in which they approach their work in order to have more positive impact on the experience of their constituents, those being the citizens that they are sworn to serve and protect.
Joe Smarro is a police officer, and CEO of the wellness firm, SolutionPoint+. He’s also one of the police officers who was featured in the HBO documentary, Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops, which tells the story of the way in which San Antonio Police Department evolved its approach to responding to mental health-related calls, and the impact on those individuals and the community as a whole. I highly encourage you to check out this movie if you have not seen it. It really illustrates different ways of approaching police work. We’ll also include that link in the show notes for you, as well.
I’m thrilled to have David and Joe with me today to share their experiences and perspectives on this important topic. Gentlemen, welcome.
Thanks, Chris. I appreciate you having us.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for the invite.
To start off, I’d like to start with you, Joe. As somebody who’s worked in law enforcement for many years, and you’ve worked also with other law enforcement agencies as a trainer around some of the lessons and best practices that you and your colleagues at San Antonio PD have developed in the mental health unit, this was really a seismic shift in the way that law enforcement officers interacted with the portion of the community that was suffering from mental illness, and it had a lot of really positive effects. Tell us a little bit about it, Joe.
Yeah, thanks, Chris. Our mental health unit started in 2008, but what people really don’t realize is that what we refer to as CIT, crisis intervention training, it started in 1987. There was an incident in Memphis, Tennessee, where a black individual was killed by police, and there was outrage in the community, and as a result of that, they came together, they partnered with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the University of Tennessee in Memphis, and they created what is now known as the 40-hour CIT model, and it’s called the Memphis model. So, this has been around for a long time.
In San Antonio, they started this practice in 2002, they started the 40-hour training. Our full-time mental health unit started in 2008 as a pilot project, just to see, is there a need? Can we justify allocating manpower to this type of unit? And it was just two officers, and over six months, they collected so much data that it was like, okay, we have to actually make this a unit. That’s when I came on. It was in 2009.
So, I’ve been serving on the mental health unit full-time for about 11 years, and it absolutely goes against what most would expect when you think of a policing or law enforcement unit, because we wear plain clothes, we drive unmarked vehicles, our weapons are concealed, and we show up, and everything about our approach is different, right? For starters, we introduce ourselves by our names, not Officer Smarro. It’s just, “Hey, my name is Joe, and this is my partner. We’re here to help you out. We’re here to check on you.”
But because we are so saturated in this environment, because every call, 100% of the calls we respond to are people suffering from mental health crises, we know what we’re going into. Patrol officers, it’s such a wide variety of calls that they’re going to get, so it’s very, very difficult for them to have to put in the right mindset, if you will, for every call. And some are really, really intense. Some are low drag. And so, they have to be able to fluctuate. We know, every call we go into … Now, granted, they’re all different on some level, but we know, hey, we’re dealing with someone who here is a consumer, and they’re having a mental health crisis, and so it’s much easier for from that stance.
Got it. And what’s the, in terms of the approach, because this is really the way in which you and your team interact with your customers, your citizens, those suffering from mental health crises, and you talked about plain clothes. Talk about the process, interns of how it differs, just in terms of the engagement, interaction dynamic.
Yeah, so, for a long time now, I’ve been saying that one of the big differences between us, and again, nothing is one, right? So, I’m not saying 100% of anything, but a majority of patrol officers, their priority oftentimes is time, and when there’s calls holding in the queue, they’re trying to wrap up what they’re doing and get to the next one. For us, we truly, as cliché as it is, the most important call that we’re on is the one that we’re on, and we’ll take as long as it needs until we find a resolution that we’re all happy with.
But beyond that, we focus on the person, not the problem. Just understanding human behavior, understanding psychology, understanding what people are doing when they’re in a crisis. Even if they have a serious mental illness, they’re still human beings, and they’re essentially communicating something. And most often, it’s like, there’s something wrong, there’s something off. I need something, whether it’s attention, whether it’s love, whether it’s housing, whether it’s food, whether it’s medications, I need something.
And so, if we only focus on the behaviors of the individual, if we’re only looking at the surface … And that’s what I teach these officers. I say, your eyes deceive you. Don’t ever react based on what you’re seeing. Pause, take a step back, and think. What is actually happening underneath this? Why is this behavior being presented? And it’s in that curiosity I feel like where, that’s what we teach, is learn to be curious. Yes, this person is over here acting very, very symptomatic to their mental illness because they’re off their medications.
Where some officers, if they’re not educated or comfortable, they’re going to overreact oftentimes, or this is where we quickly see people resorting to a use of force, is because cops are very comfortable handling things through using the use of force continuum, right? We have this old way of policing called ATM, and it was ask, tell, make. I’m going to ask you do something, I’m going to tell you to do it, and then I’m going to make you do it. And it’s very quick. You get two chances, a third one, I’m going to force it on you.
We have to learn to slow down. Patience is one of our best friends. It’s one of the best tools that we rely on. And so, earning how to take a step back and just observe. As long as someone is not being physically hurt or injured, we can pause. We can take a step back and pause, and just observe what’s happening, and then ask ourself, I wonder what actually is going on here? This is a person in crisis.
And then I tell them, hey, learn to have some empathy. Imagine that that was you. Imagine that at 25 or 30 or whatever, that you were dealt this deck of cards, and it was like, you know what? You’re going to have schizoaffective disorder. You’re going to have major depression, or bipolar. How would you deal with that? And so, how would you want to be treated?
We talk about this all the time, but people get so lost or confused, and again, especially with officers, because if you think about everything going on right now, there’s this huge debate about police should not be responding to people in a mental health crisis. And I can understand, from a cerebral point of view, I can get that, because I do believe that if you are a person with a mental illness, you shouldn’t have to interact with the police just because you’re symptomatic.
But what’s the alternative? There isn’t adequate social services. There’s not adequate resources in the community, and because people aren’t trained in mental health, because it’s not a mandatory course, oftentimes people overreact when they see someone who’s simply symptomatic, and they end up calling the police. And then the police show up, and if we’re not trained to deal with it, it’s like, of course this is going to go wrong. Of course this is going to be handled pretty poorly, because I don’t know what it is I’m dealing with. But here’s what I do know how to do: force my presence on people, be overly authoritative, and then put handcuf