Pushing Science In Policing Under A 'Law And Order' President

Mar 14, 2017

President Donald Trump has called for a return to “law and order” policing and shown support for stop and frisk and heavy use of force. Many modern police leaders aren’t buying in.

This week on 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris looks at one non-member, nonpartisan organization that conducts field studies with real cops to find more nuanced data-driven ways to reduce crime.

Police Foundation President Jim Bueermann says scientific evidence should be the criminal justice system’s first and only guide.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Jim Bueermann, the Police Foundation historically has been a research based organization that did some of the pioneering research on police effectiveness all the way back to the 1970s. How do you see your mission being today? What's the mission of the Police Foundation now?

JIM BUEERMANN: The police foundation is the country's oldest non-membership, nonpartisan police research organization. Our mission is to advance policing through innovation in science. Because we don't have members, we focus simply on the scientific truth about policing and its strategies to control crime as we can determine them. So we like to say that our only constituency is the truth about policing as we're able to determine it. We think there's an important place for that in the country, because we're not trying to advance anybody's agenda we simply are saying that this piece of policing – whatever we're talking about – either works or it doesn't. It's not liberal it's not conservative It either works or it doesn't work. We should focus on the things that work and spend less attention on the things that are proven not to be effective.

HARRIS: How can the new Trump administration help local police deal with violent crime that we're hearing about?

BUEERMANN: Well I think the very first thing that the federal government needs to do is to acknowledge that violent crime is a problem in some cities and that it needs to be a very high priority of the federal government – not just the local police, but also the federal government and all of its various law enforcement agencies. The barriers to the police and the federal agencies working together should be identified and removed. And I'm hopeful that they will have an interest in spending more money on the scientific efforts to evaluate what works and what doesn't work to control crime and disorder in this country.

HARRIS: President Trump, during his campaign and since he became president, has talked about crime as an issue for “inner cities.” Does he understand crime as a real phenomenon as people in the profession do?

BUEERMANN: I think that we're going to get a better sense of what the president understands and how he feels about crime in the coming months. Early in his presidency. He's been focusing on other issues, I think, about national security and regulations and things like that and has not had an opportunity to engage in dialogue with police chiefs and sheriffs and line officers about what's important. I don't know that he's had time to spend time with criminologists to understand the scientific piece of all of this. So ask me that question six months, eight months into the administration and I'll probably have a better sense of it. Clearly he has an interest in it in terms of being the “law and order” president. He has developed a relationship with the line officers through one of the country's largest unions, the Fraternal Order of Police, and all of those things are important. Whether that translates to safer communities and a better understanding of what causes crime and how we're going to control it in a constitutionally correct manner remains to be seen.

HARRIS: You're 2017 report, Reducing Violent Crime in America's Cities, is kind of a clarion call for federal involvement to help local police departments. A lot of that report stressed more federal efforts against guns – more federal prosecutions, background checks, things like that. Have you had a lot of pushback from the NRA or other gun rights advocates?

BUEERMANN: We haven't. Now we're not advocating, per se, any particular position. That report captures the sentiment of the Major City Police Chiefs Association and its members, and they feel very strongly about these kinds of things. But they've been saying this for quite a while; this is not new. They've been involved in other partnerships that focus on the federal government's role in national gun control, and that may be why we're not hearing much from the people that have been historically opposed to the kind of things that they're proposing. I think at some point here we've got to get away from some of the discussions we had. Nobody's taken everybody's guns. The Trump administration clearly does have an interest in this. The Congress doesn't have an interest in this. The Supreme Court has weighed in. So we ought to be focusing on the ways that we make this country safer given its clear connection to guns and its affection for the idea of individual gun ownership.

Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.