The CopDoc Podcast: Aiming for Excellence in Leadership

Dr. Neil Gross on Bridging the Gap Between Academia and Policing

December 12, 2023 Dr. Neil Gross, Colby College Season 6 Episode 118
The CopDoc Podcast: Aiming for Excellence in Leadership
Dr. Neil Gross on Bridging the Gap Between Academia and Policing
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

TCD Podcast - Season 6 - Episode 118

What does it truly mean to be a police officer in today's America? Can police departments adapt, innovate, and transform their culture to better serve their communities? Join us as we explore these questions with Dr. Neil Gross, a sociologist from Colby College and a former short-term law enforcement officer in California. We talk with him about the changing landscape of policing, spotlighting innovative police departments across the United States - from Stockton, California, LaGrange, Georgia, to Longmont, Colorado. 

In our chat, we discuss police and academia, tracing the evolution of this complex relationship over time. Neil takes us behind the curtain, revealing how social scientists have observed policing since the 50s and 60s, and the pervasive feeling of stigmatization within the police force. We also talk about the parallels and self-selection processes in both academia and law enforcement, and the reasons why professors and scientists may lean more liberal. 

In our chat with Dr. Gross, he shares some laudable efforts of police chiefs like Lou Deckmar, who transformed the LaGrange, Georgia police department with a steadfast commitment to the rule of law, equity, and professionalism. We also draw insights from Neil's experiences teaching sociology to undergraduates, sparking critical thinking and fostering open discussions about policing. This conversation is a great listen for anyone eager to grasp the complexities and opportunities within police departments today. Tune into The CopDoc Podcast!

Contact us: copdoc.podcast@gmail.com

Website: www.copdocpodcast.com

If you'd like to arrange for facilitated training, or consulting, or talk about steps you might take to improve your leadership and help in your quest for promotion, contact Steve at stephen.morreale@gmail.com

Intro-Outro:

Welcome to The Cop Doc Podcast. This podcast explores police leadership issues and innovative ideas. The CopD oc shares thoughts and ideas as he talks with leaders in policing communities, academia and other government agencies. And now please join Dr Steve Morreale and industry thought leaders as they share their insights and experience on The CopD oc Podcast.

Steve Morreale:

Well, hello again everybody. This is Steve Morreale, coming to you from Boston today, and today we're shooting to central Maine, to the beautiful area of Waterville, Maine and Colby College, and a colleague professor of mine, Dr Neil Gross. He is a sociologist working at Colby College. Good morning to you, Neil. Good morning Stephen. Thanks for having me on. Thanks so much for being here. You caught my eye when you wrote a book. You do an awful lot of writing for the New York Times and you're teaching occasionally in the police sector about policing and sociology of policing and the American city policing. I want to ask you to tell us a bit about how you ended up in the police arena. I know, but tell the audience.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, sure, happy to talk about it. So I didn't originally expect to become a social scientist, teach sociology at Colby College, like you said, and I'm thrilled thrilled to be here and doing this job. But it wasn't my original occupation that I chose. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s, graduated high school in 1989. And in high school and throughout college I set my sights on a career law enforcement. That's what I wanted to do. So I did all the things that one does on the rate of that kind of a path. I was an explorer. I worked as an explorer for the Berkeley Police Department. I went off to UC San Diego from a first year of college and worked as a community service officer for that department and then a dispatcher, ended up transferring back up to UC Berkeley and worked part-time for Berkeley PD as what was called a police aids, kind of like a uniformed intern position and then graduated from Berkeley and got hired by Berkeley PD, set to the Police Academy in Sacramento. I went through that academy and graduated and worked on the street Now not for very long. I ended up leaving after about 11 months, but that was my original thing that I wanted to do and so I went to academia thinking I'm going to research policing, do some work to improve the profession, improve public safety, end up going in a completely different direction in my research career for like 20 years, 25 years, and only came back to it recently because there's so much talk about data policing in the US and I wanted to dive back in and see if I could make some kind of a contribution.

Steve Morreale:

So you write an awful lot, but one of the most recent books that you wrote was called Walk the Walk how three police chiefs defied the odds and changed cop culture, and I have begun to look through it and what I find very fascinating about this is that it is a story. It is certainly not empirical, it's more qualitative. And what I really like about this, neil, is when I first got the book I thought, yeah, well, he's in California, he's going to just talk to three police chiefs that he knows and let's see what happens. And indeed you did not do that. You spread it around the country, stalked in California, lagrange, georgia and Longmont, colorado, and that's interesting. Talk about how you thought about this, how you conceived this and how you went about finding people who you would like to sit, observe and chat with.

Neil Gross:

Well, I'll tell you, the idea for the book comes out of a larger interest in mind in the question of how do you make institutions as good as they can be. And I think we're at a moment in the history of our country when there is tremendous criticism of existing institutions, but often less interest in actually fixing them and getting them right than just in criticizing the institutions. And a really important thing to do if you want to make an institution be as good as it can possibly be is to look for examples of where that institution's doing things right. And so, in the realm of policing, I thought well, look, there's a lot of police departments in the US. You know 15 to 18,000, depending on how you count. You know clearly there are some that are having some problems, but there must be others that are really innovating, excelling, doing things exactly as citizens most citizens would want them to be done. Rather than look for police departments that were especially problematic, I set out looking for police departments that were really innovative, again, doing things really differently. So I cast the net widely, did you know? Had lots of interviews with people, you know lots of crunching numbers to try to find agencies where things look like they were going well, and these are the three that fell out. Among my criteria was not only that they be agencies that had worked hard to kind of reinvent police culture in different ways, but the agencies had to also be willing to talk to me. There were a couple in particular that I initially set my side on and spent a lot of time there, but they wouldn't, they weren't transparent at all. Everything that I tried to get access to had to be through their like PR team, and that was not going to work for me. So so I'm selecting these agencies because they're they're really different. The chiefs are. They have really different politics. What they've done in the departments are really different. The cities are really different Stockton's like 320,000, serious gang violence problem. Longmont's becoming more of a suburb, about 100,000. Out of 10, sure, Yep, Yep, Yep, yeah. But near Denver, the grains, Georgia, you know city about 31,000, half black, half white, a very different and a very conservative community. So they're different demographically, they're different terms of their crime problems and the chiefs are all really different in terms of what they, what they tried to do. But they all innovated in an important way and I wanted to highlight that. And the idea is here's some ways in which departments can innovate. There's lots of other ways that departments can innovate, but maybe if people read about these innovative departments and the challenges that chiefs face, challenges that cops face in those agencies, that might inspire citizens to get more involved and help me to give their departments the resources they need to innovate in perhaps similar ways in their communities.

Steve Morreale:

Thank you, and I truly believe that in many, many circumstances, that one person can make a difference, but they can't do it alone. In other words, they've got to bring the rest of the people to get a buy in, and it can't just be the police department, it has to be the external stakeholders, from the community itself to the city or the town that they work for, and it's a formidable job, as you well know. So, going back for a moment, one of the things that popped through my mind is you have written things and landed in the New York Times with op-eds, and one of them had to do with if you want to criticize, here's one thing you can do Become a cop yourself, take some of the progressive ideas you have and see what you can do to make a difference instead of complaining from the side. And I find that very, very interesting, because it's very easy to complain until you have done it. And so my question would be your time in the police academy has to change your perspective, and your time in the police department has to change your perspective about what can be done, who works there, the trials and tribulations of that kind of job, the discretion that is availed to police officers. How did that sort of frame your view on policing?

Neil Gross:

It's a great question. I'll say at the outset that when I first started the research for this project and I went back and it was the first time that I spent time in police cars in decades and I was struck by how much it changed. There were no computers in police cars when I was doing it. Well, they had just started with laptops, but it wasn't really very functional at that point. You know, certainly we didn't have cell phones. A lot of the tech was different, but there was a lot that was the same or similar. Just the dynamics of how you deal with disputes among people, whether it's domestic disputes or fights among neighbors, dealing with people who are really struggling, dealing with people who have committed serious offenses, dealing with victims of crime. There's that human side of it, the side of conflict and all that. That is really the same. So I think, to answer your question, one thing that really stood out to me when I was on the job, and for a very short time and over the years, is just how complicated the policing job is, how emotionally fraught it is, how oftentimes it's not exactly clear what it is you should be doing or maybe it is clear, but it's not clear in the moment, just the incredible complexity of the job and how diverse it is in terms of the number of situations you have to deal with. I think that if you're outside policing, it's easy to stereotype the occupation and to imagine that the cops are all they do sit around all day, drive around and stop and harass people. And anybody who's been in knows that there's this other side to pretty much every town, every city, where people are really struggling, hurting one another, all that sort of thing, and the cops are there to deal with it. I just am always impressed by how challenging the position is and, in some ways, how ill-prepared most young officers are to really do the work. So I think that's one thing that stuck with me. And then if you have a police department that can really adequately train officers and create a culture in which they'll be oriented toward doing the job as the community wants them to, those are all good things.

Steve Morreale:

Was it helpful, as you were introducing yourself as Dr Gross, but a former police officer Did that help?

Neil Gross:

at all. It's hard to say. I did the job so long ago that I don't think anybody that I spend time with, or any of the chiefs, really thought of me as anything to do with law enforcement. I think they just thought of me as someone doing some research. It helped to build a little bit of trust. I mean, I think, as much as some departments are open and want to be cooperative with the research community, I think there's a lot of, or at least a fair bit of, suspicion about what academia is like and whether people studying the police are basically just out to get them. And so I think, if anything, I think maybe the fact that I had a background in law enforcement at least gave cops the belief that I wasn't out to get them and then actually doing exactly what I was said I was going to do, which was to write a book about a book that's in any way kind of inflates what I saw, benefits of what I saw, but the book that would just be a straightforward account of what it looked like in three departments that had really tried to move the needle on police culture and, again, the challenges that they faced, and so I think there was a baseline level of trust. But I have to say one thing that was intriguing. I really thought when I first started hanging out with the cops and doing research I thought they'd be really resistant to me recording them because I wanted to get transcripts of what they said. And they were surprisingly okay with that. And the reason they said that they were okay with it is because they say you know, we're recorded all the time.

Steve Morreale:

I was just going to say that it's a completely different world than you and I grew up with, for sure, Absolutely.

Neil Gross:

You know, policing is such a more like public occupation in a way than it was back whatever 30 years ago for me, so that was a remarkable change to observe.

Steve Morreale:

You know it's interesting. A little while ago you said something and it was about trying to see what people are doing, right? I remember having a professor come in as the chair of the department professor came in and said Steve, I want to do a special topics, and you know what a special topic is. I just kind of want to explore. It's not a course, but I want to kind of go down a road. I said, okay, what's it going to be called? And he said I want to talk about doing things right and policing. And I looked at him and I said what? the hell is that? And I literally thought myself that I shouldn't have been so negative, but I said well, wait a minute, wait a minute, tell me about what you're talking about. And he told me that when he was a graduate assistant, as a doctoral candidate, he was teaching classes at night out on the West Coast in Washington state. And he said there were people who related to me different than the professors, who were a full time and felt comfortable saying things to me that they probably weren't with others. And he said I remember talking about the things that were bringing down police departments. And somebody raised their hand and said you know, with all due respect, john, I'm sick and tired of coming to school being told what police do wrong. When are we ever going to be told what we do right? And he said at that moment I said I want to do a class on what police do right. And at that moment it was the light bulb that we all have Sometimes. I said, oh my God, that is brilliant. I want to work with you on that. And so you understand that there's this pushback sometimes from people who and we talked about this before we started about the view of academia from the outside and especially in policing, that they see in many cases that academia has become way too liberal and way too down on policing. You've done some work on that. Talk a little bit about that.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, there's a lot there to dive into. You know, I understand why officers feel that way. There aren't a lot of other professions where there's perhaps this level of scrutiny right now and this level of criticism. I get that. On the other hand, it's always been a unique occupation in the sense that policing is the power of the state to inflict violence on people in order to ensure that the law is respected and that people are brought up before judges if they're suspected of committing crimes. So it's always been a very high stakes occupation. So I get why cops are worried about the level of scrutiny. On the other hand, it kind of is part of the territory. The other thing that's interesting is that, doing research of this book, I went back and looked a lot at the history of policing and a lot of the history of research that's been done on policing over the years, all the way back into the 50s and 60s. There's a period when there were lots of social scientists who were hanging out with the police and trying to observe them. One thing that's interesting to note is even back then, I think in a period when lots of cops you know the cops had so much respect from the citizens and everyone loved the police. Yeah, the cops back then thought of themselves as a stigmatized occupation. They thought that everyone hates us, they don't want to be friends with us, they're afraid we're going to arrest them if they get drunk in public or whatever. So, even back then, part of the reason that policing has always been this closed community where people look out for one another is that there was the sense that there was the police and there was the rest of society. Yes, yes, it's the yes versus them problem. Yes, so a lot of things that we think of as modern day things like it's just happening right now, are just kind of built into the structure of the occupation and have kind of always, always been there. So I understand why police feel that way, you know. The other thing I know about policing, though, is that, despite all the grumbling, you know cops want to want their departments to do as good a job as possible. You know most of them want to do as good a job as possible, and so you know if there's research that academics, who are doing it in good faith and have some really sophisticated research methodologies, can bring to bear to help policing get as good as cops wanted to be, you know, that seems like something that people should be willing to embrace. So again, I understand that that level of suspicion, and it's hard to be an occupation that's being criticized all the time. But again, if you can make the occupation better, you should. But see, there's one last point I want to make is an interesting parallel there, I think, between what's happening in policing and what's happening in academia, right? So think about how much folks on the left criticize policing these days, but think about how much folks on the right criticize academia. Is almost a really interesting parallel there. And one thing that I've always been intrigued by is the ways in which criticism of academia from the right Ironically helps to make academia even more progressive. Because if an occupation is super Criticized by one side, by the right for example, then people who might consider going into the occupation, who are conservative, would say I'm never gonna go into academia, that's a terrible occupation, it's not for me. And so you get a lot more self-selection of liberal folks into academia on the other side. I think in policing, if folks on the left are constantly criticizing policing, saying it's horrible, it's racist, that kind of thing, you're gonna get fewer folks on the left who are going to go into policing and so you get this. It's kind of this weird like polarization dynamic where the more one side Criticizes an institution or occupation, the more it becomes associated with the other side. So it's this kind of ongoing, ongoing dynamic. So I've always been intrigued by the kind of weird parallels between policing and academia in that regard well as a second career, academic.

Steve Morreale:

I would say to you that my experience has been, first of all, adapting to academia is not an easy thing. After being in policing for 30 years, you need to tone it down, you. You need to adapt to the new climate and the new organization and the new culture. But very often I find that I have to tone down or Tamp down my own opinions because they do not relate to most of the people on Campus. So I just kind of keep to myself, do what I have to say. I've been accused of being an apologist for police. I've been told to take my cop hat off in faculty meetings, which just blows my mind and in other cases I've had to defend Students and even in sometimes my students feel very uncomfortable in other classes where they are being asked by certain Professor certainly not all to think like them, to write like them, and that they're not very well seen because they're seen as future police officers. Now, criminal justice is absolutely. We're not a cop shop, right, neil? And by the way we're talking, neil Grossi is a professor up at Colby College in Maine and he is most recently known for a new book called walk-to-walk how three police chiefs defy the odds and change cop culture. But my point is that I've had to modify me with my behavior and certainly even when I was in policing. You have to modify behavior. You don't, you can't say what you always feel. You have to keep some of your political thoughts or your thoughts about what you see in front of you and Maintain some form of professionalism. But you wrote something and this is what I want to say. You wrote something a while. Why are professors and scientists so liberal? What caused you to go in that direction?

Neil Gross:

I feel a little bit not strange answering the question, but I'm gonna give it maybe a different answer than you would expect. I really am of the view that, well, it's probably inevitable that social scientists bring you know Some of their values to bear on the kind of questions they take up, and so on. I mean, I really am of the strong position that if you're in the sciences whether it's the social sciences or the natural sciences you know you should do your best to make sure that the answers you give to questions Reflect the actual nature of the world and not just your political opinions. So I took up that topic of why are professors liberal, not because I had a particular Dog in that race that I was worried about, but because it's just an interesting social science question, you know. So the answers that I came up with weren't because of my own kind of political views. They were, you know, after doing a ton of research using a whole range of methodologies, and you know, I think there's lots of explanations. It kind of in the same way that the policing has been the stigmatized occupation for years, academia has been a pretty liberal occupation for for years, at least since the 1950s, there's always been more liberal academics than there are folks who are progressive in the country as a whole, you know. So I looked at lots of different possible explanations. Is it because of discrimination against conservative professors trying to get it, get a job? Is it because of something to do with psychology? You know something about particular kind of mindset that maybe makes people both more liberal and more inclined to go into academic work. You know, is it because of class interests? Thought a lot about that right, like if you're your professor and you're doing research, you you want a lot of research funding from the state and so maybe, maybe that makes you supportive of the party that wants a bigger state, namely the Democrats. None of that stuff really holds a lot of water empirically. Problems with all those claims and what I eventually came down to is the idea of self-selection, and that is that. You know. I think many, many years ago actually write the founding of research universities are not too long thereafter. Through some fairly Random reasons, academia started to get a reputation as a place where, if you were smart and had kind of left Sensibilities, where you could do your work without getting in too much trouble, and that reputation kind of grew and developed over time. And now I think if you're really smart, academically motivated and your young person graduated from college and you're on the left, you might think to yourself yeah, academia, it's a perfect career for me. I could really see myself there. If you're smart and academically motivated on the right, I think you'd think to yourself I would never go into academia, that's not a career for me. And you see that all the way through. If you look at the proportion of, if you look at undergraduates who say they aspire to career in academia huge disproportion of folks on the left to folks on the right. Do you look at graduate students, huge disproportionate folks on the left, folks on the right, assistant professor same thing all the way up the ladder. So I kind of think it's self-selection all the way through. I think that's kind of the biggest explanation, self-selection driven by the ongoing reputation of the profession. So that's kind of what I found after poking around and doing doing a whole lot of research.

Steve Morreale:

Yeah, well, I mean for those who were listening when you're doing some of this research. So you've got to start with a question what's your research question and what your hypothesis and and as you go through, and when am I gonna use my, where am I gonna find my sample, what kinds of questions am I going to ask and how am I gonna get that information? It would be survey or will be interviews, and I understand all of that and what I like what you said and what I say very often to doctoral students who I am supervising is Simply, and I understand. So you might have a cop or you might have a teacher, you might have a firefighter, and they bring with them that experience and one of the things I have to remind them that I Don't care who you were. You are here as a researcher and you have to take that hat off and be a researcher and Pay attention to the rigor of a scientific investigation, without your own biases or without injecting your own experience. Let the data talk, let the people talk, and it sounds like that's what you were doing.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, that's what I, that's what I tried really hard to do and and you know we use lots of different kinds of data a huge nationally representative survey of the faculty. They wanted studies where we pretended to be, you know, conservative or liberal people applying to graduate school to see you know what kind of responses we got from different departments, tons of interviews with people around the country. So it was a very multi method kind of approach. You know, one thing I'll say, steven, is that you know, a lot of cops have to do something similar, right? I remember talking to one of the chiefs who was a Republican and quite conservative and he said you know, I'm a conservative and a Republican but I'm a police chief first, and I think that's true. For you know, for most cops, like whatever their, whatever their political views, they have to kind of check it at the door and be law enforcement officers first. So I think you know people know what that's like and it can be challenging. It takes a lot of work and it's easy to fall into the trap of letting your own views or whatever Influence the way you behave. And you know some of that influence is inevitable. But you know, the more you can do to create a culture where everyone's trying to put those biases behind them, the better off things can be.

Steve Morreale:

Yeah, we talked a little bit about some of the things that I'm working on, or Understanding the socio-political risks that those in criminal justice, especially police chiefs, have to deal with, and we also talked about just before that. You know, I have this inkling that, while police departments are accused of implicit bias and and forced sometimes but encouraged to take implicit bias, training there is, and again, this is my own Thought. It's the question that I would pose, and that is is there implicit bias against criminal justice programs on campuses? And it's for another day to explore, but I just posed that question. I want to focus, neil, on the book, the most recent book again, and you began to talk about one of the three police chiefs, and we're talking Neil Gross. He's up at Colby College getting ready to start the academic year soon and that's in Waterville, maine. But the three chiefs that you had the opportunity to sit and talk with, different people, talk about what you took away from being able to visit their organizations, talk with their people, but also talk with them.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, thanks. I want to start just quickly by coming back to that implicit bias point because I think it's Interesting and it speaks to you the ways in which you know sometimes there isn't enough of a connection between Law enforcement and rigorous social science research. Among social scientists. I think the evidence is pretty clear that Implicit bias training does not work. That's true in the realm of policing. There's pretty good evidence that it doesn't work in the corporate sector either. In fact it often makes things worse because people who actually have biases are really pissed off by having to do the training. So, despite the fact that there's really very little evidence of its effectiveness, you know it's been mandated for so many departments and I think that you know maybe if there were tighter connections between law enforcement and you know segments of academe that were, you know, doing kind of serious, rigorous work, you know maybe there'd be some reason to pull back on some of that training. But as to the three police chiefs, they're all really different. The guy in in Stockton is now retired Actually all the chiefs are now left was a guy named Eric Jones who was a long time Stockton cop. I said earlier, stockton is a city with very diverse city, really serious gang violence problem and he took over the department back in in 20. 12 after heaven worked his way up the ranks. Stockton is kind of a blue collar city in California, in the Central Valley. At the time Stockton was reeling from the financial crisis. There have been tons of foreclosures there. It was one of the first cities in the country to declare bankruptcy. When Eric Jones took over the department, the city was facing this huge, huge budget shortfall. They ended up having to department about 400 plus officers. They ended up having to either lay off or force into early retirement about 100 of their cops. So a fourth of the department went away. As you might imagine, homicides shot up during this time. Jones' first task wasn't reform or anything like that. It was just how can we try to tamp down this level of violence and bring offenders to account for what they've done? So we got involved in a serious effort at addressing it. He actually got involved with a program that you'll know from your Boston days, a program called Operation Ceasefire, which originated in Boston and involves really targeted efforts at deterrence, where you bring gang members in others who are at serious risk of committing offenses or serious risk of being victims of violence. And you say look, we're watching you closely, I think you do. You step out of line for a second. We're going to be there, but also here's some carrots. Would you be willing to consider stepping out of this gang life? So they tried that once before in Stockton. It worked pretty well. Eric Jones tried it. No one would come talk to him A very few people come talk to the department, because no one had any trust in Stockton PD. And the reason was that Stockton PD had a pretty terrible reputation in the community as a department that was quite violent and quite racist. And so Jones kind of realized that if he wanted to actually work successfully at reducing levels of violence he needed to build trust between the department and the community, especially the Black and Latino communities and also the Asian communities in Stockton. And so that's when he kind of got the idea that he needed to work on changing the culture of the PD. He wasn't motivated by some kind of political, it was just like how can we bring down gang violence? Lots of ways we do it. We need better staffing, we need more effective staffing, traditional things, but also we need to improve the culture of the department. And he set out to do it and was relatively successful. I mean it's not like it's a say in the book, it's not like Stockton's become a policing nirvana, it's still a rough and tumble town. When I spend time with officers there they say it's not really part of the Bay Area and they would say the difference between us and the Bay Area is in Stockton you go hands on and they go hands on a lot. But he was able to significantly shift the culture of the department in ways that citizens noticed surveys show that and that really improved things. Other chiefs were different and happy to talk about those. But Stockton is the biggest of the three cities and in many ways the one that is closest to kind of the problems that many other large cities face.

Steve Morreale:

To get this book out and to pull all of this stuff together and to do all of the background work to figure out who will I focus on, what departments are showing progressive ideas, the change in culture. I understand that it takes an awfully long time, sometimes several years. And there's another issue that the difference between action research and longer research. We in academia sometimes take an awfully long time to get through from start to finish and police are looking for answers today, not answers for three years from now. But once you figured out the three organizations you were going to look at and looked to open the door, let's talk a little bit about Georgia. What a completely different place than California.

Neil Gross:

Yeah for sure. So LaGrange, Georgia, like I said, it's about an hour outside of Atlanta, it's near the Alabama state line and it's a community of 31,000. It's majority black, sort of half black and half white, a relatively small Latino community there, and it's a former mill town. Georgia has tons of counties and it's in, let me say still it has really a lot of counties and it's in Troupe County. Troupe County, if you go way back, Troupe County, was the fifth largest slave holding county in Georgia and then, as the end of the 19th century rolled around, LaGrange became a mill town. People who were pre-roll were milling cotton and it became a sort of industrial center and a bit of a cultural center for the local community. So really different set of traditions and issues than other places that I looked at. Lagrange has quite a high rate of poverty and again, there's this really long and troubled history. So the chief there is a guy named Lou Deckmar, and Lou Deckmar's not from the south, from New Jersey, originally grew up in Oregon and then worked in Wyoming in law enforcement for many years before deciding to move to Georgia and he inherited the department several decades ago and it was a mess, you know, as he describes it. There were officers under investigation for a whole range of offenses. The district attorney's office would routinely throw out cases because the officers either wouldn't send over case files or didn't do a good job maintaining evidence. Training was terrible and the level of racism in the department was remarkable. I talked to one retired black officer who joined a long time ago and he said you know, when he first came on he was not allowed to stop white people. It was just not allowed. I mean, this was a city that had de facto segregated swimming facilities for black and white kids up until the 90s.

Steve Morreale:

Oh, my goodness.

Neil Gross:

Imagine that you know very, very different kind of place. So Deckmar came in, like I said, a conservative guy, and set out to kind of remake the department and he's a big advocate of kind of rule of law, equity and just really strict professionalism and so he set out to change the culture of the department and make it much more rule based. That was, I think, his big, his big thing. And then, as I described in the book, really interesting thing happened. He made a bunch of changes in the department up the training, implemented a whole host of requirements for filling out forms, we got the department accredited with Kalea, which a bunch of your. That's a big deal. Yeah, it's a big deal. He did all that and then he heard about something that he'd never explored before, and that was that back in 1940, the department had played a role in the lynching of a young black man named Austin Callaway, and he decided to start finding out more about this in conjunction with efforts that were already underway in the community, and he ended up in 2017 apologizing in a big public forum for his department's role in that atrocity, and he ended up being, I think, the first Southern police chief to apologize for his department's role in a lynching and, you know, got some pushback from his cops and from some folks in the community said look, how can you be responsible for something that happened so many years ago? But he thought it was just an important thing to do to restore trust and, to me, convince people that his department would never again engage in that kind of an activity. So he ended up basically shifting the culture of the department in a very different way than happened in Stockton. So a second and quite intriguing case for me to get to know the cops down there, spend some time there and tell that story.

Steve Morreale:

You know you just talked about history and Bill Bratton. When we talked to him on the podcast, he makes an interesting point and says it's extremely important for police officers to understand the history of their police department and how they may have had an impact or played a role in demeaning others or taking advantage of others or being racist or arresting slaves that had escaped, and I think there's some value to that to understand why a great grandfather or a grandfather would have some disdain for a police department that behaved that way even if it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. I think it's very helpful to young people to understand who are coming on, what the history is and how we're working to avoid that from repeating itself. And so it sounds like this is what the chief done there in LaGrange was doing.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, I think he recognized that it was a place where the history of the department in the community and its reputation was. He was making changes to the way the department was run, but there was still this kind of lack of trust between the department and the black community in LaGrange and a lot of that yet had to do with history. I think you're right, steve, about getting to know that history. Sometimes it's easy for cops to think that that stuff doesn't matter. But history, the legs of history are really long. Sometimes you see that even in agencies where you wouldn't even think of it. Right Like Boston good example right Like segregation and school busing and all that I lived through it. Yeah. And then, even going back, you think, well, Boston was different than other departments and it's founding in the sense that in the south we know that some of the police departments that were formed there really did emerge out of these civil guard units that were. Their first responsibility was capturing enslaved people who'd run away. We typically tell the story in the north of like, okay, well, but in Boston, New York, it was different, and it was different in the sense that it really arose out of urbanization, the kind of problems around urbanization. But after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, there were folks who were involved in law enforcement in Boston, who were in the business it's not the right word but who were involved in trying to return fugitive slaves to the south and met with tremendous protest in Boston. So even in places where you think the history is different, sometimes there's parts of it that you don't know. So, yeah, I think it's so important that departments understand the history and know that their civil chief said to me look, when you put on that badge, it's important that you know that people aren't seeing you, they're seeing the badge and they're seeing everything that that badge represents to them, including the history that it represents to them and you're policing against all that history.

Steve Morreale:

So we're talking with Neil Gross, dr Neil Gross. He's a sociology professor at Colby College, an avid writer and a researcher, and most of what we're talking about is the most recent book, easton 2023, walk the Walk how Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture. And the last place is Longmont. Longmont, colorado, outside of Denver. Talk about that.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, very, very different kind of agency. And there the chief gentleman named Mike Butler and Mike has a fascinating kind of history and story which I tell in the book. A side note is that at least several of the chiefs at least two of them in particular both strongly religious some of their efforts at changing their departments were partially motivated or maybe given support by their religious views. And that's partially the case for Butler. Although he was very much believed in separation of church and state and all that kind of thing. He took over the department in the 90s. After working his way up in Boulder PD, which is like 15 minutes away from Longmont, he decided that he wanted to make the police department a very different kind of thing than it had been there. There was some history there too. Longmont has a sizable Latino population and there'd been a police shooting. Two young Latino men were killed, one of them shot in the back, running away from a fight after a traffic stop, and so Butler set out to change the department, but he changed it in ways that are kind of much more progressive than you see in the other two cities that I profile. So, for example, he got really into the idea of restorative justice, which is this alternative model Obviously many of your listeners will know about it where not appropriate for everybody, obviously, or for all offenses. But you've got someone who you think like this is someone who's committed an offense but it's going to make their lives worse. Make them more criminogenic is the word if they spend time in jail, if they seem appropriate for it can steer them into a restorative justice program where they're brought into a circle with the people that they've harmed others. A long education process. They have to pay some restitution, they have to apologize for what they've done, that kind of thing. So lots of departments have this or lots of cities have this.

Steve Morreale:

But I don't mean obviously I mean those who do or don't know where it's active, and I know it's very active up in Vermont, actually, among other places. But it is an alternative. It's a community alternative to an overburdened court system and obviously it keeps people out of the system and therefore not to have a record that will linger with them for a long time. So I just I wanted to interject that. Go ahead, yeah, thanks.

Neil Gross:

Well, yeah, that's, that's right. The thing that was really unusual about Longmont is Chief Butler worked out so in Longmont the cops could steer people into restorative justice instead of making an arrest. In most places restorative justice is a post arrest diversion, but here it's a pre arrest diversion, at least it can be. You've got someone like a teenager who's shop lists a piece of jewelry. Do you want to slap handcuffs on them or do you want to try to set their life in a different course? The interesting thing about restorative justice is there's really good experimental evidence on its effectiveness, good evidence out of the UK in particular. Kind of all else being equal, it produces less repeat offending and offenses that are more violent. It produces less post traumatic stress disorder on the part of victims. You know again, definitely not appropriate for a lot of things. There's debate about this seems to me wholly inappropriate for sexual assault, for domestic violence, violent crimes, violent crimes Exactly. But you know, for some things it seems to work pretty well when it's done right, when it's done right. That's the key. And Butler was really concerned about over incarceration and so he steered his department that direction. But more generally, he tried to move his department toward being, I would say a more humane agency. That was one of his big takeaways, partially from his religious sensibilities, and he worked to kind of thread that model through training, recruitment and just the ethos of the department. But a lot of time with law enforcement officers got to know him really well, including a couple of domestic violence detectives but also patrol officers and you saw it on the street like the way that they policed, amount of time they took to deescalate situations was just remarkable and partially that was they had more time because it's not as busy an agency as other places are. But it was remarkable to see and I try to tell some of those stories in the book of kind of what that could look like.

Steve Morreale:

We're winding down talking Neil Gross, who's up at Colby College, waterville, maine, and after this experience, and obviously sending pen to paper and taking so much time to write and to rewrite and to tell these stories, were you, in your experience, pleasantly surprised at the value of these changes, the hard work that was being done in these particular agencies to respond and to change the way they interact with community.

Neil Gross:

Yeah, I left this research impressed and hopeful. It's obviously time of tremendous political division in our country at the state level, but especially the national level, and sometimes the opposing camps seem to be so at odds with one another that it seems like everything's going to hell in a handbasket and there's no possibility for anything to get better. I think if you look at what's happening at the local level in communities across the country, you see a lot of institutions that are filled with people who are trying to do a great job, trying to serve their communities, dedicated public servants, whether it's policing or education or whatever, At the local level. I think there's a lot of hope. At the local level. A lot of people say you sometimes have to put ideology aside and just get the job done. You just have to make sure the trash is collected and the water runs in the households and that kind of thing. So when I actually drilled down to the local level here, I saw lots of places where departments were innovating, working hard to do a good job, forging ties with our community. I left more hopeful, not just about law enforcement, but also more hopeful about the future of our country. I think there's a way in which, if we can put aside or tune out some of the intense partisanship coming from the national level and kind of focus on what's happening in our communities and just trying to make our communities do a good job.

Steve Morreale:

We should not pay attention to national politics, but there's a lot of good that can be done at the local level and I think that at the local level there's lots of great things happening in those places, and one of the things I just wrote down and you started the move in that direction was that, in my view, doing an awful lot of training and facilitating for executives and for high-level police officers. I continually say, look, your job is you're not the quarterback, you're the blocking back. In my mind, what you're doing is to point your people in the direction of doing the job the right way, through the noise, and if you do the job with the best of intention, then I will help you move forward. It's very, very important, because you can't do the job without the people and you can't do policing without the backing of the community, and so that's just a constant push and pull. I appreciate that. As we move to the end, I'm curious to know what's on your to-do list.

Neil Gross:

Well, there's no shortage of interesting things to do. I really like teaching my students, and so I'm eager to jump into the school year with new courses and new books for them to read and work their way through. Colby's a liberal arts college and really emphasizes getting students to think for themselves and think clearly, and I really value watching my students grow and develop in their views over the course of their time at Colby. So that's on my immediate to-do list.

Steve Morreale:

Finish my syllabi get my classes, me too, my friend.

Neil Gross:

And look forward to the school year.

Steve Morreale:

Great, andy, you have a bucket list. What are the things on your list to do? You mean research and writing wise. Anything Getting away? Yes, maybe researching, maybe writing what's in the bucket.

Neil Gross:

I don't know, I'll let you know. I feel like you should make your bucket list. You can't really make your bucket list until the very end. It's like a retrospective bucket list. These are the things I should have done. That's good.

Steve Morreale:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yes. Let's finish by talking about the students and some of the things you do in teaching sociology and teaching about policing, and I don't know that you can talk about sociology without talking about cities and towns and the many different layers and the institutions and such, and I hear you saying that you're guiding them towards being more critical thinkers. How do you open conversations about police?

Neil Gross:

Great question. This obviously varies a lot by campus and it may be something unique about Colby I don't know if it's the clean air up here or the good water or something but I find the students are very open-minded and very curious to them. Some of them have had experiences with policing, in the sense of having been stopped or having family members who've been stopped or something along those lines. But most don't know much about it other than what they've seen in the media, whether from news reports or just watching TV shows or movies. So they're curious, they want to know more, they want to go deeper, so found that they're quite willing to have conversations. People come in sometimes with strong views and my goal in teaching is just to expose them to more information. Yeah, I mean it's. My aim is just to get them to be able to, whatever their views are going to be, to be able to have those views on more solid grounds and be supported by evidence?

Steve Morreale:

necessarily not. I understand and you know, neil, one of the things I will say and certainly I have morphed into an academic over time but I will say to people, and I'm sure you do the same thing look, look, I don't want you to think like me. In fact, some of my views never come out. What I want you to do is simply think and support, support your views.

Neil Gross:

fair statement, yeah absolutely, and I think that's you know that's crucially important and again, it's very rewarding. I'm sure you've had this experience but as I watch students kind of grow and develop over the course of their four years here at Colby, you can kind of see the growth in their intellectual maturity. Their positions might not have changed what they're arguing for and I'll say you know, a lot of things I have my students think about aren't things you have political positions on. Necessarily they're just basic social science points. But you can see that they're, that they're thinking is growing more complex, that they're better able to use evidence, they're better able to think about counterarguments. And so that's for me the super rewarding aspect of my job just watching those students, kind of like I said, grow and grow and mature over time.

Steve Morreale:

Well, the last thing I will say is especially teaching criminal justice, but you having had some experience in policing in a number of ways, I'm asking students to dig, to investigate, to support and when you're doing your searches, don't just look for the first page on Google or on Bing, but to keep digging and looking for support and looking for comparing and contrasting, and to me that's our chore as professors.

Neil Gross:

That's right. I mean, there's a joke that's often told about the University of Chicago and the joke is that the ethos on that campus is that you walk to the campus and you say to somebody beautiful day, isn't it? And they say what's the evidence for that? Yes, and I think that's a good motto for many of us. If you can cultivate that kind of curiosity and sense that like you really need to look for the evidence and it might turn out one way, it might turn out the other way. That's a good kind of form of instruction you can give to people Terrific.

Steve Morreale:

Well, thank you so much for your time. Good luck this academic year. I appreciate it. We've been talking to Neil Gross and he is a professor of sociology up at a beautiful campus, Colby College in Waterville, Maine. It strikes me as I go to Maine and you know, I was a police officer in Dover, New Hampshire just over the main line and when you cross the Piscataquaqua River I'm sure you've done that a few times what's the first thing that you see on the sign Maine? The way life should be. Isn't that interesting? So you're in a wonderful place. So thank you for your time, for your insight. I appreciate it. Good luck with your future endeavors, and how can people get in touch with you if they need to?

Neil Gross:

They can just pop on to the Colby College website. They'll find my email there and you know the books on Amazon and those other big retailers. So if they want to pick one up they can get them there. And I'll just say just to put it in a last plug, the audiobook I am especially happy about it's the voice actor that they ended up hiring is this. It was a former cop out of out of the Los Angeles area, Really terrific guy. So if you want to listen, to listen to the book, you know his voice is a lot Sounds a lot better than mine does, and that's a great way to go Also thank you for that.

Steve Morreale:

And so we're finishing up with Neil Gross, and he most recently wrote the book Walk the Walk how Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Change Cop Culture. And again, that is Longmont, it is LaGrange and it is Stockton that are the targets of this investigation. So thank you very, very much, neil. Have a great semester, steven, you too, thanks. That's it. Another episode of The Cop Doc is in the books. Thanks for listening. Please share if you get value from listening with your colleagues and friends. We'll see you on the next episode.

Intro-Outro:

Thanks for listening to The Cop Doc Podcast with Dr. Steve Morreale. Steve is a retired law enforcement practitioner and manager, turned academic and scholar from Worcester State University. Please tune into The Cop Doc Podcast for regular episodes of interviews with thought leaders in policing.

Exploring Police Leadership and Innovation
Challenges and Perception of Policing
Parallels Between Policing and Academia
Self-Selection in Academia and Law Enforcement
Police Chiefs and Changing Cop Culture
Hope for Change
Teaching Sociology and Policing

Podcasts we love