Can policing culture be fixed?

By Jesse Harris

By now everyone has heard the story of Alex Wubbels, the nurse arrested for correctly telling a police officer that she could not legally do a blood draw on an unconscious man. The most astounding part of it is that the Salt Lake City Police Department didn’t place the officers on leave until the body cam footage was publicly released a month later. Despite all of the talk of taking the matter seriously, it took national public embarrassment for the city to take what everyone agreed were the correct steps to take. It’s a huge blow to any confidence that the SLCPD can correct itself over the long term and a problem that affects all police departments.

This motivated former SLCPD officer Eric Moutsos, who was fired for refusing to ride in a gay pride parade, to share some stories about how the department has some extreme dysfunction coming from the very top.

It’s pretty much an open secret that most departments, whether legal or not, require a quota of tickets to generate a certain amount of revenue. What’s disturbing, though, are the quotas for making arrests. That’s right: officers are required to arrest a certain number of people per day regardless of the crime level on that day. It sounds insane because it is. Apparently, these arrests help prop up numbers to qualify for state and federal funding.

This is why police departments and the profession as a whole has such a strong eroded trust. Arresting and ticketing people to generate revenue, not because it contributes to public safety, leaves the public jaded. So does failing to investigate serious abuses of power until you are shamed into doing so. None of it has to be this way.

And yet, it is this way. It has been for long enough that cynical jokes about quotas and law enforcement officers not being held accountable are part of the national culture. Each incident like what happened to Nurse Wubbels, each policy that requires people be arrested even if there’s no good reason to do so, each time a police department says they are “taking the matter seriously” while not proactively doing what’s necessary to adjudicate the matter in a way that assures the public that their employees are above board, that attitude is reinforced.

People will almost always do what they are incentivized to do. If you make individual officers’ jobs dependent on ticket and arrest quotas, they will ticket and arrest that much regardless of if it is necessary or improves public safety. If the money that a police department receives depends on crime statistics, they will always find a way to meet those goals to get the funding. If a department can make something quietly go away to avoid embarrassment, they will do that. Until you resolve these issues, nothing will change.

I won’t much expect Congress to do anything to help with this, but the state legislature can and absolutely should. A key component of this should be regular independent audits with consequences to force the issue. Yes, the police unions will absolutely hate these changes. They will most likely back the opponent of anyone who tries to clean up these deep-seated cultural issues and throw around labels like “cop hater”. They have to be reminded that they are public servants above all else. When you fail to serve the public interest, you are no longer doing your job. Good cops know this and should welcome the changes. I’ll leave it to you as to what conclusions to draw about opponents of transparency and reform.

Liked it? Take a second to support Utah.Politico.Hub on Patreon!

Related posts