The two questions a police commissioner tells his officers to ask every day

The following is the first half of an interview with one of LEAP's newest representatives, Commissioner Branville Bard. He spent the majority of the last 25 years with the Philadelphia Police Department and has gained attention for implementing crime reduction and police training programs. He was appointed Commissioner of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts in 2017.

"I simply ask my officers to apply this two-prong test at encounters with citizens. I tell them to ask themselves: did my actions contribute to the relief of a citizen, and did I have the opportunity to show compassion or kind-heartedness?"

Monica Westfall: You are a big proponent of procedural justice, especially in solving problems with racial profiling. To me, procedural justice means showing common decency and compassion to other human beings by following established procedures and treating them fairly during an encounter; why do you think it has been slow to catch on and to be embraced as an effective solution to police-community relationship problems?

Branville Bard: Anytime you adopt something new (and I’m using air quotes for “adopt,”) in some ways it’s like saying there is something wrong with what you were doing. Unfortunately, in my profession we tend toward being indignant and defensive during times when we should be introspective. So really, it’s just our unwillingness to change, not that we’re any different from society. Society is averse to change, but for us being in an authoritative position, I think particularly any change that seeks to hold us accountable or question our authority, we resist it. But, yes, it is common sense that procedural justice is the lens that we should view most police/citizen interactions through. 

Bard's swearing-in ceremony. Source: 22-City View, Cambridge.

What do you consider to be the main tenets of procedural justice? 

To simplify, the tenets are: fairness, transparency, voice, and impartiality. We talk about them all the time and we train our officers ad nauseum on those tenets. Fairness and impartiality, they may sound similar, but in this context, fairness means, did the enforcement action fit the infraction, like ‘the punishment must fit the crime’; where impartiality means that the same thing that happens to me, happens to you and happens to another person regardless of our race, ethnicity, or any other factors.

How can you tell if an agency is ready to embrace the tenets and begin training in procedural justice? 

As far as being ready, I think leadership is about doing something because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s popular or necessarily the right time to do that thing. It boils down to a leader gauging how best to facilitate the implementation in that agency, at what speed – not whether to do it or not. I think they have to ask themselves with whom they have to start, and questions of that nature. I’ve always found that it’s best to show individuals the benefits of taking a particular course of action when I’m asking them to take that action – explain to them how their improved relations with citizens benefits them; how increasing police engagement results in increased community engagement that allows us to build political economy and support from the community and get them to lobby for us for things like better equipment and better working conditions. And there’s so many other benefits. Some just have to be shown those benefits. The fact is, this is change that must be implemented and I prefer to be out in front shaping that change instead of being swept up by its momentum. You can layout the advantages of…and show them what shaping that change should look like.

It sounds like it really is about culture change. 

Yes, it comes from the top down. So, if you’re not a strong proponent of procedural justice – you know, you can’t be hypocritical. I created an office of procedural justice here. One of the things I wanted to do was show its importance through organizational placement, so I made it a direct report to my office. Instead of assigning authority or low-level supervisors, I asked the city manager to allow me to expand the organizational chart and create a new deputy superintendent position, because that’s how important procedural justice needs to be in this agency. It needs to have that high level of authority – somebody capable of making decisions – in charge. Without blinking an eye, he said yes, and we put it in the budget for this year.

In my experience, compassion and empathy for others (the soft skills) seem to be some of the toughest things to teach. It seems like a person either has them or they don’t. So how do you make that connection between the use of proper procedures and adapting those soft skills?

I’ve had success by showing my officers how I expect them to interact with and treat members of the public. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an officer use my affective words nearly verbatim – weeks or months after they’ve heard me utter them. I take pride every time I hear one of the officers do that. I simply ask my officers to apply this two-prong test at encounters with citizens. I tell them to ask themselves: did my actions contribute to the relief of a citizen, and did I have the opportunity to show compassion or kind-heartedness? If so, did I take it? I say it in my speech to every graduating class because I want my officers to associate it with one of their earliest memories of me. That’s something that I promulgate – compassion and making sure that you know that your job is to contribute to the relief of citizens.

What do you feel is an appropriate way for officers to be held accountable when they do not follow the tenets of procedural justice? 

I think it’s just important that they are held accountable. I don’t know necessarily what the appropriate way is, if it’s a blatant issue, like insidious racial profiling, then retrain them – some punitive discipline may be necessary. If it’s a smaller infraction, something less serious, like not allowing one citizen to have a voice during a particular encounter – amounting to something like rude or discourteous behavior, it should be addressed with something less severe. The most important thing is that the public knows, and the officer knows that they will be held accountable for breaches of expectations.

In recent interviews, you referred to a “siege mentality”— where the community distrusts the police and the police distrust the community, and you’ve also defined two types of officers: “the social justice promoters” and “the crime enforcers”. Do you think the paramilitary structure of modern law enforcement plays a role in establishing this “siege mentality” and encourages officers to act more like “the crime enforcers” rather than “the social justice promoters”? 

I think you’re on to something there. We frequently say that we prefer and/or are adopting a guardian mindset over a warrior mentality, but we continue to hire folks that are crime fighters then try to teach them how to be social justice agents, instead of bringing on board social justice agents and teaching them how to be crime fighters. There’s certainly room for adjustment with how we do things and what values we promote. Going all the way back to the training academy, procedural justice needs to be a dominant theme during our indoctrination process. I think we need to beat it into our recruited officers so that when they become police officers, that’s their standard. We can do a better job of that as a profession, rolling that procedural justice into our officers. We should start on Day One!

What is the most effective way to get a real commitment to procedural justice training from the top? 

Just like with the rank and file, it helps to explain to them the benefits of taking a certain course of action and your vision for the department. If your agency provides you the opportunity to appoint your support team and your executives, then I suggest you select individuals who have long shown the characteristics that you desire and not those who may just be acting out a persona based on the fact that they researched the incoming chief’s viewpoints and personality. You find folks that have already been demonstrating these characteristics and you elevate them, and that sends a message of your vision for your agency. I also think that, if it’s important to you, you show that it’s important to you. If I have a meeting quarterly to discuss the issues related to procedural justice and complaints against police and racial profiling, well then, folks are only going to think about it quarterly, but if I have that same meeting weekly, then it’s going to be a constant thought. So, you can show the importance of it by engaging in that rigorous follow-up.

~ Stay tuned for Part II ~

Commissioner Branville Bard serves the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts and has spent the last 25 years in law enforcement. He's an expert in crime prevention programs, juvenile justice, transparency and accountability in policing, civil asset forfeiture, police training, community relations, and procedural justice - to name a few. He's now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other justice professionals working on public safety solutions. 

Monica Westfall is LEAP's program associate and has spent her entire professional career working with law enforcement professionals in different capacities.