When a police department is in trouble, there’s a good chance Chuck Wexler will be called in to help.
The executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum has carved out a reputation as the police reformer who has the ear of law enforcement. Over the years, PERF has been brought in as a consultant to troubled agencies in Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Camden, New Jersey.
In November, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she had hired the Washington, D.C.-based firm to lead “a top to bottom review” of Atlanta Police Department training and policies.
After the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in June, Bottoms vowed to revisit the police department’s use-of-force policy while bolstering training that emphasizes de-escalation.
But in the months that followed, crime soared in the city. Homicides increased by more than 50% from 2019 while morale plunged, as officers left the department at a much higher rate than in previous years. Popular police chief Erika Shields resigned in June, and her replacement, Rodney Bryant, has yet to shed the interim tag.
Despite all the turmoil, Wexler said the APD is in a strong position to turn things around.
“A lot of the departments we work with are in the dark ages,” said the former Boston cop educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “APD is not. Our job here is not to reinvent the wheel.”
But reforms promised by the mayor won’t be made without some resistance. Wexler has been one of the leading proponents of de-escalation, a policy that has gotten renewed consideration after protests against excessive force roiled Atlanta and other major cities last summer.
Police unions are among Wexler’s biggest critics, arguing that when they stand down, criminals step up. Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said contracting with PERF was unnecessary.
“APD officers are already trained in de-escalaton,” Champion said. “Every agency is different. To say there’s one approach for every department is just wrong.”
If policies needed to be changed, the city should’ve brought in local experts to consult with APD leadership, Champion said.
“Policies should be specific to the area you work in,” he said. “This city is famous for knee-jerk reactions and this is just the latest one.”
Wexler said PERF will not author APD reforms, nor set the agenda. Rather, his research forum will facilitate discussions between APD brass and leading experts in the field, such as former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca Inc., an organization that helps disenfranchised youths move away from violence.
The mandate for change is clear, Wexler said.
Less than two months in, PERF has already played a major role in one key policy change, reviving APD’s dormant chase policy. New protocols allow officers to pursue only suspects who have committed “forcible” felonies — ranging from murder to involuntary manslaughter — and present an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
A supervisor must approve a chase, and no more than three police cruisers can join in, the policy states.
“We think this can be a model for other departments,” Wexler said.
But the bigger changes are still to come. The way officers are trained will receive the most attention, particularly how they are taught to use force.
“Training has not dramatically changed in 25 years,” Wexler said. It has in the past focused on a use of force continuum — if the suspect brandishes a knife, the officer responds with a gun.
PERF takes an opposite approach. Forty percent of police shootings involve a person in crisis, Wexler said, and those are the ones he believes can be prevented.
The approach is simple enough. Officers are taught to slow everything down. Ask open-ended questions. Create more time. And avoid reaching for a gun unless truly necessary.
Wexler said a new study proves that model is effective. The Center for Police Research and Policy study found a decline in use-of-force injuries to citizens, and an even bigger decrease in officer injuries, in Louisville, Kentucky, which had implemented PERF training.
Whether that affects crime rates is up for debate.
Attorney Dan Grossman, who successfully pushed for training reforms after APD’s botched raid of The Eagle gay bar in 2009, said the city can’t have it all.
“The city needs to decide what it wants its police department to do,” he said. “Is your goal to have fewer civilians killed by police? Then you have to accept the cost, which is a greater risk to police and the public at large.”
Wexler said that’s a false choice. He pointed to Camden, New Jersey, which in 2014 had a violent crime rate six times higher than the national average.
“The police were despised by residents for being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst,” according to a recent article in Politico. “Today, violent crime in the city has decreased, and police officers are a regular presence at community block parties.”
“You can do both,” Wexler said.
Atlanta has contracted PERF for 18 months. Wexler said much remains to be done because the pandemic has made in-person meetings with cops and community leaders impossible.
“We’ve got to get on the ground and meet with people where they live,” he said. In the coming months he hopes to hold focus groups and town halls throughout the city.
Wexler said he wants to meet with a wide range of groups, including Black Lives Matter.
“You have to make the community a part of your crime strategy,” he said.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but will it take?
Dean Dabney, who chairs Georgia State University’s criminal justice department, said PERF has a solid track record but change comes slowly in major police departments like Atlanta’s.
“Atlanta police have been making accommodations for years to do more with less,” he said. “They have a depersonalized approach aimed at targeting major crimes. That’s a different goal than what the community is interested in. But the city hasn’t provided the resources to be what the citizens want them to be.”