Photo: Book Cover
In 1993, when he was a 21-year-old rookie police officer in Berkeley, California, Neil Gross pulled over a Black man for running a red light. Escalation on both sides took the infraction from a mundane traffic violation to a physical fight and one of the cops on the scene drawing a gun. At the last second, the man surrendered; if he hadn’t, he might have become one more person of color dead from an encounter with the police.
Since that terrible incident 30 years ago, Gross, now a sociology professor at Colby College, has been thinking about how to stamp out this kind of police interaction and teaching university students about policing, often spotlighting its myriad problems: the racism, the wall of silence, the militarization. In his new book, WALK THE WALK: HOW THREE POLICE CHIEFS DEFIED THE ODDS AND CHANGED COP CULTURE (Henry Holt; March 21, 2023), Gross shows what good policing looks like in practice, taking readers deep inside three departments around the country: in Stockton, California; Longmont, Colorado; and LaGrange, Georgia. In these very different towns, pioneering police chiefs signed on to replace traditional cop culture with something better: models focused on equity before the law, social responsibility, racial reconciliation, and the preservation of life.
Informed by research, unflinching and by turns gripping, tragic, and inspirational, WALK THE WALK follows the chiefs―and their officers and detectives―as they conjured a new spirit of policing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A former patrol officer in the police department in Berkeley, California, Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of two previous books and has also taught at Harvard and Princeton. He lives in Maine.
“Walk the Walk is mandatory reading and truly a roadmap to success in police reform.” —Art Acevedo, former chief of the Austin, Houston, and Miami police departments and past president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association
“A must-read for anyone who believes the time for change in policing is long overdue. As a former cop and distinguished sociologist, Neil Gross brings unique insight and empathy to this vexing subject. He knows how hard it is to achieve meaningful reform, yet he makes a convincing case: change is possible.” —Eyal Press, author of Dirty Work
“A refreshing break from our hyper-polarized debate over public safety and criminal justice reform, Walk the Walk shows that better policing is possible.” —Matthew Yglesias, author of One Billion Americans
“An illuminating look at the possibilities of policing, Neil Gross’s book should be required reading for every precinct across the country. Walk the Walk is infused with hope and wisdom, and offers a new vision of what law enforcement could be.”―Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises
“Neil Gross brings the debate on police reform to life with this nuanced and highly readable account of how three very different police agencies managed to change their culture and behavior. Walk the Walk is a crucial and timely contribution to our understanding of the state of American policing and its prospects for change.”―Elliott Currie, author of A Curious Indifference
Q&A WITH NEIL GROSS
You write about successful policing in three very different places: Stockton, California, LaGrange, Georgia, and Longmont, Colorado. What do the forces in those towns have in common, and how can those traits be transferred to other communities?
I chose to study Stockton, LaGrange, and Longmont because they’re so different in terms of geography, size, demographics, politics, and crime—and yet in all three communities, the police were able to change and get better. How? While elected officials, community groups, and activists played a role, it was the police chiefs leading these departments who were the most responsible for moving the needle on cop culture. The three chiefs I profiled went into the job with certain ideas about how to improve policing, based on their own experiences, but they also stayed open-minded and flexible. They didn’t insist on a fixed set of reforms. Instead, they did a lot of listening, and they ended up developing models of policing uniquely suited to the needs of their communities and departments. They also pushed for change slowly, steadily, remaining at the helm for years as they built up trust with their officers and citizens. Better policing in this country starts with better police leadership. That’s something any city or town can demand.
How did your on-the-ground experience as a cop inform your thinking about policing, and how did it impact the observations you were able to make in your research?
Much has changed since I was a cop 25 years ago—Berkeley PD was just starting to get computers in cars when I left the force, for example, whereas now interacting with those mobile terminals is a huge part of the job. But the day-to-day reality of dealing with people and calls—that hasn’t changed. In every community there’s theft, there’s violence; there are unruly individuals, fights, difficult and dangerous situations. The cops get called to handle things and restore order. I think the fact that I had been a cop made officers a little more trusting of me. No one thought of me as a fellow cop—I’m very clearly a professor—but that I’d once worn a badge seemed to help officers open up and share their stories.
To win votes, politicians often position themselves as “tough on crime”. What’s the best way to propose the kinds of changes you recommend without becoming vulnerable to political attack?
Equitable, humane policing is far more effective at reducing crime than its alternative. When people trust that cops are acting in good faith and aren’t biased, they’re less likely to break the law. They’re more apt to call the police when disputes arise, instead of taking matters into their own hands and grabbing a knife or a gun. If a crime occurs, they’re more likely to report it and share information about suspects, increasing the chances of arrest. There’s strong social science evidence for all these points. In the three cities I studied, improving cop culture by making it less hostile and aggressive improved public safety; it didn’t detract from it. Do the cops need to fight people sometimes? Of course. But when they consistently act like jerks, or tyrants, it alienates the community and makes crime worse.
What does an effective police force look like? How do we know when the cops are doing a good job?
To me, an effective police force is one that drives crime rates down as low as they can go given socioeconomic conditions; keeps fear of crime in check; is able to respond promptly to calls for service; diverts mental health, juvenile behavior, and substance abuse-related cases out of the criminal justice system as appropriate; and solves a high percentage of serious crimes. And they do this all while acting professionally and humanely, minimizing the use of force and intrusive police-citizen contact, eliminating unjust racial disparities, remaining attentive to people’s rights, offering meaningful accountability in the case of officer misconduct, and winning the community’s trust. That requires good policy, good training, high-caliber personnel, and a community-minded culture to keep officers motivated and on track.
One impediment to better policing in the US is that we don’t always have performance data that speak to all these dimensions. Citizens may not know, except through anecdotes, what percentage of burglaries in their communities are being solved, or how often cops act in biased ways during traffic stops. Without this information, they don’t know they should be pressuring their local police departments to do better—or praising them when they’re delivering the kind of policing they should. You might be surprised to learn that police supervisors don’t necessarily have that data either. Is officer X stopping a disproportionately large percentage of Black drivers? Most sergeants, in communities large and small, don’t have access to that information, at least not on a real-time basis, and so can’t take corrective action when it’s called for. I’d love to see states establish universal performance metrics for departments and require local agencies to report them out on a regular basis. There’s some of this happening now around use of force, but the effort is still in its infancy.
What degree of responsibility do the police academies have for imparting the more problematic elements of cop culture?
Police academy programs in the US vary in length, but on average you’re talking five or six months of full-time instruction at a highly impressionable point in officers’ lives and careers. Run a police academy like a military boot camp—like a lot of academies do —and you’re going to get cops who think of themselves as warriors.
At the same time, many cops will tell you that even more influential than academy training is the field training they receive once they’ve started the job. Usually, this entails 3-4 months of riding with senior officers who show rookies the ropes. If a chief is trying to change cop culture, getting field training officers on board is one of the most important things they can do. The last thing you want is grizzled officers telling rookies, hey, forget all that stuff they’re trying to teach you about fairness and justice, that’s not how we really do things on the street.
In a post-George Floyd world, is it possible for a mostly white force to effectively police minority areas?
The more that a police department’s demographics reflect the communities it serves, the better, for a whole variety of reasons. That said, there can be real barriers to diversity in police recruiting, not least the negative views of law enforcement that stem from brutal and discriminatory policing, past and/or present. Can police departments do a good job in the interim while they work to overcome those barriers? It’s hard but yes—and here especially changing cop culture is key. It’s incumbent on chiefs in mostly white agencies to remake their officers’ worldviews, so that cops working in minority areas see themselves as community-minded public servants, and not—as some do now—as an occupying force.
The police departments in Stockton, LaGrange, and Longmont are worthy of emulation, but the towns are all limited in size. Are there any big-city forces you see making positive strides?
Big-city agencies serve a sizable chunk of the US population. But it’s important to bear in mind that about 90 percent of the 15,000 or so local police and sheriff’s departments in the US have 50 officers or fewer—smaller than the smallest force I studied, LaGrange PD. Figuring out how to bring change to those agencies, which are often under-resourced, is critical.
About 50 million Americans live in cities larger than the largest city I studied, Stockton. (Stockton is the 58th largest city in the US.) There are some bright spots in police reform in big cities, but there are a lot of countervailing forces as well. Chief Art Acevedo was able to make headway during his time leading Houston PD.
New Orleans seems to be making some progress toward ethical policing, under the influence of a federally imposed consent decree and some local initiatives, but it’s not clear how deep the changes go; and the department is utterly failing when it comes to preventing violence.
Boston seems now to be moving in the right direction—I really like the slow, listen-first-and-gather-data approach of its new police commissioner, Michael Cox.
We’ll have to see how these efforts pan out. One lesson from my book is that changing cop culture can be easier in communities where there isn’t a huge, ossified police bureaucracy. An implication for larger cities is that they should decentralize their police departments to the extent that this is feasible, empowering precinct commanders to develop new models geared to the particular needs of neighborhoods.