Assoc. Prof. Christopher Harris Studies Police Practices and Misconduct

Assoc. Prof. of Criminology Christopher Harris at UMass Lowell Image by Adrien Bisson
Assoc. Prof. Christopher Harris researches police practices and misconduct. He says community policing works.

By Katharine Webster

Criminology Assoc. Prof. Christopher Harris researches police misconduct, police accountability, public perceptions of police, and early intervention systems intended to identify and re-train officers flagged as more likely to engage in misconduct, including excessive use of force.

While much of Harris’ research is quantitative, he also works closely with city police departments to improve and evaluate their policing as well as their work with community agencies on violence prevention projects.

His research and experience yield some important insights into police behavior and community trust, especially now, as protesters call for police reforms, new limits on the use of force and greater civilian oversight of police departments.

Recently, he spoke with us about which reforms and programs work, which don’t, and how police can work to restore public trust.

Q: It seems like some big city police departments have undertaken decades of reform efforts, yet new scandals break out that look a lot like the old ones. Why is that?

A: Sometimes, it’s because the reforms weren’t going to work in the first place. One example is civilian oversight panels – even those that can accept complaints and investigate them independently, in parallel to a department’s internal investigations.

Research shows that civilian review panels don’t find police misconduct any more often than internal affairs investigators do, because they’re dealing with the same testimony and evidence. The only thing that civilian panels might accomplish is to give a department greater legitimacy in the eyes of the community.

Another reason is the nature of police work and the way it’s organized. Most police work is highly discretionary, very uncertain and done out in the field, away from supervisors. So even when supervisors are committed to reform, a lot of things can happen that they just don’t control.

Q: You have done research into data-based early intervention systems that are designed to flag officers with problematic behavior and retrain them before the behavior escalates. Are they effective?

A: Not as they’re currently used by most departments. Generally, these systems will flag an officer who exceeds a threshold number of citizen complaints or use of force incidents within a certain time period. When a city police department asked us to determine whether they were setting those thresholds correctly to “separate the smoke of police misconduct from the exhaust of routine policing,” as my mentor likes to say, we looked at the data they had collected during 14-plus years of using one of these systems.

With the department’s cooperation, we did the first-ever study that compared officers who were flagged to a control group of officers who weren’t flagged, matching them by age, race, gender and year of graduation from the police academy. The first thing we found was that most of the officers who got flagged were significantly more productive than the control group. They responded to more calls and made more arrests, so they had more contacts with the public, but the rate of complaints as a percentage of those contacts was about the same – they weren’t outliers.

We also found that, over time, as they gained job experience, both the flagged officers and their peers did better, drawing fewer complaints. It’s possible that the flagged officers might have done better in part because they underwent extra training in dealing with the public – which they referred to as “charm school” – but we found a less obvious reason that concerned us: After the intervention, they became much less productive than the control group, which suggests that they stopped working hard in order to avoid being flagged again.

If departments are going to use these systems, we recommend a much more nuanced approach: analyzing complaints as a percentage of interactions with the public and comparing officers with higher levels of complaints to others working in the same area at the same job, to see whether they are outliers.

Q: Since Sept. 11, 2001, many police departments have been equipped with military surplus weapons, equipment and training. Has that hurt reform efforts?

A: Yes, I think so. Giving police military surplus runs counter to policing in a democracy, which should be by consent. And overall, police rarely have to use force, so whether they need military weapons is very questionable.

It also feeds into this war mentality, us vs. them, the idea that they’re soldiers in a war against crime who are looking for an enemy combatant among civilians. It can justify a lot of bad behavior if officers start to subscribe to that mentality.

Q: Do you think that mentality led to some of the recent clashes between police and protesters that involved police use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag guns?

A: Yes. It sets a bad tone if police show up to a protest in riot gear. That tells the protesters the police are expecting trouble, and that can escalate the situation. It doesn’t say to the crowd, “We’re here to facilitate your protest,” which is what police should be doing. Of course, if there’s violence, police have to respond, but when police meet with the protesters ahead of time to lay out guidelines and even march with them, as some departments did, violence is much less likely.

Those are some of the best practices for handling protests, and some police departments used them. But other police departments kind of forgot about them and started treating all of the protests like riots or potential riots after they saw what happened in Minneapolis, with the police precinct burning. They were afraid.

Q: Historically, what kinds of reforms have worked, and who’s doing a good job?

A: States can and should set police certification and training standards. Police departments should also examine their training and policies on the use of deadly force, among other things. But if you want to make reforms stick, you need to have policies with real consequences for officers on the beat.

A good example is the New York City Police Department: After a rash of police shootings, the NYPD changed its policies to prohibit officers from firing their guns except to save their own life or that of another person – no warning shots or shooting at fleeing suspects. Police shootings went way down because every time an officer discharged their weapon, they had to fill out a lot of paperwork and undergo a review of the incident.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is an example of a police department that’s made sustained reforms. Riots broke out there in 2001 after a white police officer shot and killed a Black teenager, Timothy Thomas. He was the 15th Black man to be shot and killed by police in five years.

The city and the police union were already facing a lawsuit from the ACLU and the Cincinnati Black United Front over allegations of racist policing, and after the riots, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in, too. Ultimately, all of those groups worked with multiple community organizations to settle the lawsuit with the Collaborative Agreement, which spelled out reforms and put a DOJ monitor in place.

The police department recommitted themselves to community policing, changed their use of force policies and invested heavily in training. They also changed their communication practices to be very transparent about use of force incidents. Police use of force plummeted and confidence in the police went up – not a lot, but some.

These kinds of changes can work, but it takes a lot of money, a lot of willpower, and police supervisors taking things very seriously.