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Changing Cop Culture with Neil Gross: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with sociology professor, author and former cop Neil Gross about police department reform.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would’ve addressed racial profiling and use of deadly force, among other things. But the bill, which was crafted in 2020, still hasn’t passed and it’s unclear if it ever will. Progress has often been stymied by conflicting ideas, on all sides of the political spectrum, about the role of police in maintaining law and order. So, what can be done to fix so many of the problems plaguing the profession? Our guest this week points out that when he became a police officer, he had “idealistic intentions, but right away was confronted with a really different set of norms and values.” Neil Gross is a former cop turned sociology professor and is the author of “Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture.” The book tells story how leaders in three police departments sought to change aggressive police culture and how their efforts could be in instructive for broader reform. Gross joins WITHpod to discuss his experience as a former cop, the us vs. them mentality in some police circles, the need for more officer accountability and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Neil Gross: Certainly, there are well-known examples of police who don't go into it for the right reasons. But I think my experience has been, and certainly the data to back this up, that most young police officers go in for good intentions. They want to fight crime. They want to make their community safer. They want to be heroes.

I think it's a pretty common trajectory that over the first few years of their careers, they become cynical. You know, that idealism begins to fade as they're faced with the reality of what they can and can't accomplish on the street, but going in, that's a very common idea. And I will say going in, I was really surprised, in a sense, to figure out what the culture of policing looked like.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me your host, Chris Hayes.

You may have been following this fight over the D.C. crime bill, which was passed by the D.C. City Council, overrode the mayor's veto, changing some of the criminal code. It's a very outdated criminal code. Critics say that it would, you know, reduce crimes for carjacking, therefore incentivizing for the carjacking and violence in the district. Defenders, I would say, that’s actually just sort of rationalizing an outdated code, and that it would still have very harsh penalties for carjacking. And also that, you know, the five years after, however, the new max are the thing that disincentivize carjacking.

All this to say it was one of these sort of dust-ups we've seen over the politics of law, order and crime over the last several years, particularly in the wake of the George Floyd protests where we had, you know, by some empirical metrics, the largest civil rights protests in American history, followed by the incredible dislocation of the pandemic and a concomitant rise in some of the most serious violent crime. And then after that rises in other categories of crime that weren't just homicide, which is the big thing that rose in 2020.

This year, there's some really encouraging data suggesting that those trends are reversing themselves, that particularly are in New York City. First, we saw homicides come down. Now, we're seeing other stuff come down as well. I have long been of the thesis, if you've heard on this program that the trauma of the pandemic, both the actual first order of trauma of people's lives being at risk, losing people they loved. And then the second order of trauma of dislocation, disruption or regular routines, including things like psychiatric, mental health care, substance abuse, treatment. All those things account for a huge chunk of it.

But there's a story that has been told on the right about this, which basically goes like this, huge protests after George Floyd's murder, the kind of like woke avant garde of policymakers defunded the police, which basically didn't happen anywhere. And if not that, if they didn't cut the budgets of the police, they scared them, they handcuffed them, they told them they can't do their jobs. They browbeat them. They brought down the morale. The cops stopped doing their jobs. When the cops stop doing their jobs, crime goes up, and this is what you get.

So that's one story that's been told on the right. A story that I think you get in certain parts of the left, particularly what I think I will call itself the abolitionist left is no matter how much money you spend on cops, no matter how policing is deployed, no matter how “humane” in quotations, putatively, the approach might be, it's fundamentally always an oppressive activity. It fundamentally will rain down violence upon the most marginalized, and particularly black and brown people, and therefore cannot be reformed in any meaningful way.

And sometimes I think these two parts of the debate end up in a kind of weird collaboration with each other, because one of the tacit threats of the police union is if you try to reform us, we just won't do our job and you will get more crime, so good luck. Try it. It almost feels sometimes like police in certain cities aren't actually under democratic control because they exercise this sort of veto, right, this kind of we're going to go on a sort of soft strike. We're going to stop doing our job if you reform us.

And then you have some people on the left who say, I think they're saying this in good faith. I'm not saying this to mock or even disagree with them. But there is no reform that can be done. And I do think that over the course of the last two years, amidst this surge in interpersonal violence in the United States, the surge in obvious disorder in many areas that, you know, again, I think largely was due to COVID.

There was a kind of hollowing out of the space in between, the space of reformist space. Like, what would it look like to imagine and actually implement better policing? And there were lots of stuff done in many localities around the country. And now in the aftermath of 2020, much of that has been lost. In the record, there's pilot programs in lots of places.

So I was thrilled and intrigued when I saw that a professor of Sociology at Colby College in Maine has a new book out on precisely this question, and it's a reported out account of what it looks like to try to reform the police, what would better, more humane policing actually looks like on the ground. It's called Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture. The author is Neil Gross, who is a sociologist and the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at, as I said, Colby College in Maine, but who also himself is a former police officer in California. And it's a fascinating book. And it's a great pleasure to have Neil on the program. Welcome, Neil.

Neil Gross: Chris, thanks so much for having me.

Chris Hayes: You were quite young when you became a police officer. How and why did that happen?

Neil Gross: Yeah. So I served a very short time for the police department in Berkeley, California. This was in the early ‘90s. And I'd grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and didn't have any family in law enforcement. But it was a time when crime was really high, certainly much higher than it is now. And you know, I think like most police officers, I had this idealistic notion that I could make the community safer by my efforts. And then I had a sort of secondary idea, which I was very concerned about, racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. This was not long after the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trials.

And so I had the idea, it wasn't exactly clear about what this would look like, that I could somehow improve the system by working from the inside. So after I graduated from Berkeley, I joined the police force, worked for the city of Berkeley, was sent off to the police academy in Sacramento and came back and served about 11 months on the streets of Berkeley. So it was motivated by a variety of things. But my experiences there were certainly interesting.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It's interesting, you know, you actually note that you're white, and you went into it, you said, like most police officers idealistically. Talk a little bit more about that because I think there's some people that would be skeptical of that notion.

Neil Gross: Yeah. Well, certainly, there are well-known examples of police who don't go into it for the right reasons. But I think my experience has been, and certainly the data back this up, that most young police officers go in for good intentions. They want to fight crime. They want to make their community safer. They want to be heroes.

I think it's a pretty common trajectory that over the first few years of their careers, they become cynical. You know, that idealism begins to fade as they're faced with the reality of what they can and can't accomplish on the street. But going in, that's a very common idea. And I will say going in, I was really surprised, in a sense, to figure out what the culture of policing looked like when I got to the academy.

Like I said, I went to the academy in Sacramento. The way it works in smaller departments for police, about 150 cops, is that they don't have enough officers that they're hiring at any one time to run their own police academy. So they'll send officers out, young officers out to other academies. So I was sent to the one run by the city of Sacramento, was held in the grounds of the California Highway Patrol Academy.

And you know, there, it was a highly militarized academy and the culture of policing that was taught to me there was one of emphasizing tactical safety threats to officer safety, emphasizing the dangers of police work. And I remember really clearly a sign that hung on the walls of the gymnasium where we practice defensive tactics, and it said, don't let them kill you on some dirty freeway, and that's what was impressed upon us over and over again. So right away, I got in with these idealistic intentions, but right away, I was confronted with a really different set of norms and values than I expected to find.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, don't let them kill you on some dirty freeway. And what were your politics? Would you describe yourself as a liberal, basically? I mean, when you say you're interested in issues of racial equity, I mean, tell me a little bit about your mindset in politics at that age, as you're graduating from Berkeley as an undergrad and going into the academy.

Neil Gross: Yeah. I mean, I wish I could say that my politics were fully formed at that point, but I don't think they were. I mean, I think certainly very liberal when it comes to social matters, I think certainly somewhat more centrist on criminal justice matters. But you know, general East Bay Berkeley sensibilities, I mean, I'd grown up just north of Berkeley, like my dad worked for the university. That was my politics.

Chris Hayes: So when you talk about this sort of trajectory, which I think one of the points you make in the book that I think is interesting is that this trajectory is actually quite common. It's not just you, right, that sort of people signing up to be an officer for idealistic reasons. And then in some ways, almost the point of the academy, it's almost sort of like bar mitzvah, like where you now become a man and it's like get rid of that idealism and replace it with this really intense kind of cynicism, dark expectations about human nature, and kind of defend yourself above all cost ethos.

Neil Gross: I think that's right, and that idea comes through even more when cops hit the ground and go through field training, which is usually three or four months riding with more senior officers. And if the academy is a place where it's impressed upon you to really look out for the dark sides of human nature, field training is especially so, because there, it's pretty common for filtering officers to say, forget most of what you learned at the academy. We're going to teach you really how to police, and here's how you do it.

So, I mean, I had some experience in law enforcement before I joined the force. I wasn't a complete newbie to it. But it was still quite a disconnect between the goals I had and what I found when I got there.

Chris Hayes: And how would you describe that? And then we'll sort of get into the book. What was your own personal trajectory over those 11 months?

Neil Gross: The police culture that I found in Berkeley was certainly better than what was found in surrounding cities. I mean, Oakland had a notoriously racist police department, and so did smaller cities just north of Berkeley. So Berkeley was a department with a long history of sort of progressive values. It wasn't as bad in Berkeley as it was elsewhere.

But the experience that I found was that there were certainly cops in the Berkeley force who felt that, you know, any stop was justified. If it produced a crack rock, that was great. If you found a gun, all the better. If the community didn't like it, then, you know, too bad for them. And ultimately, they thank you for it. On the street, there was sort of aggressive us versus them culture that prioritized, you know, officer safety, tactical safety, above all else. Again, not every Berkeley cop, a lot of cops I hung out with --

Chris Hayes: Sure.

Neil Gross: -- weren't like that. And it registered in me. You know, I remember one of my good friends back then was getting a PhD in Clinical Psychology and she watched over the course of these 11 months, I became more aggressive, less inquisitive, a little bit more paranoid. And it even changed my gait and how I walk. Originally, when I entered the law enforcement, I was a student at Berkeley. And as I was in the academy, I stood ramrod straight. And then over the course of my time in the force, I think I began to register the weight of the job in my body.

Chris Hayes: Well, let's stay on this because it's something that plays through the book in a lot of ways. Obviously, I haven't done the level of reporting you have, but I've done a fair amount of reporting on this topic and a fair amount of talking to cops.

And one of the things that always struck me is that it's a really upsetting job. It's a really traumatizing job often, and a lot of the day-to-day is being exposed to people, you know, having the worst day of their life, like in severe distress, people lying a lot, or in the midst of violent confrontation, or very confrontational or very much in a mindset where they're totally dysregulated, a lot of like trying to sort of gauge the story between two people who are at conflict and you're there to adjudicate on the street, but have no bearing.

So all of these, it just seems like even if you're the best and best intention, the actual work of it is going to take some emotional toll if you're doing it all the time.

Neil Gross: I think that's right. And there are, I think, multiple layers to that. The one that you hit on at the beginning of your comment I think is really important, the idea of officers exposed to people in the worst day of their lives. I remember having a conversation with a police officer here in the community that I live in, which is a nice college town. And this officer didn't live in the community and only came in at night and only responded to really difficult situations. And he was aghast that we lived here in this community and really loved it because he only saw the worst sides of it.

And that's the way that policing is set up, by and large. Officers don't get to spend enough time just hanging out with people, interacting with people when they're not involved with dealings with the police. And certainly, the more we can do to change that, I think the better we'll do at keeping some of that important idealism.

Chris Hayes: What was the gestation of this book because it represents a really interesting term for you? So you go and get your PhD in sociology, and you study a lot of things. You studied the sociology of the academy and knowledge formation, and you have a book that you wrote about Richard Rorty or edited for Richard Rorty.

Neil Gross: Yeah. It's a biography of Rorty.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, it's a biography. And he's one of my absolute favorite thinkers ever. So how did you sort of make this turn into this work?

Neil Gross: You know, I've always wanted to come back to it. I went into graduate school because I realized at some point in the course of my time on the force, that I could probably do more to improve policing by studying it as a scholar than I could from changing it from the inside. And then when I got to graduate school, you know, this is the way that intellectual lives work. I got fascinated with other things, and those other things occupied me for a while.

But I've always wanted to come back and work on policing. And you know, the impetus for this book was when I went to move to Colby, I started teaching a seminar about the police. This was back in 2015. And we read books about all the problems with policing, you know, the degree of racial inequalities and violence, police brutality, over-policing at protests, all those sorts of things.

And my students at the end of the class would always be very depressed and fatalistic, and very pessimistic. And they say, you know, well, what can we do? Is there any realistic possibility for change? Are there any departments that are actually doing things differently? And I didn't know the answer to that question, and I set out to find out. That's really what this book is about.

Chris Hayes: So there's three chiefs that are profiled here, maybe just take me through these three chiefs and their cities and how you sort of matched up with them as the people that you wanted to spend some time with?

Neil Gross: Yeah. Well, the book’s focus is police culture, right? There's a tremendous amount of work that's being done now around police reform or forming policies, trying to get more accountability for policing. That stuff is crucially important.

My experience on the job at Berkeley, and certainly all that I've read about policing in the year since has been that you can make those policy changes. In the absence of a change in police culture. You're going to get officers on the street who find ways to get around whatever policy changes you implement. So the book is about departments that not only made reforms around policy, tightening up loose use of force and so on, but also tried to significantly shift the direction of their culture.

So there's three cities that I studied. Stockton, California, is the largest city, about 320,000, about an hour east of the San Francisco Bay Area, blue collar community, pretty serious gang violence problem. Longmont, Colorado is the second community of about 100,000, near Boulder, and there chief named Mike Butler worked for decades to bring about, I think, probably what was one of the most progressive police department in the nation long before many of the current calls were being made for those kinds of reforms.

And then the final community is LaGrange, Georgia, very different town of about 30,000, an hour from Atlanta and near the Alabama state line. Their chief with very different political sensibilities, a conservative guy named Lou Dekmar, utterly transformed the department that was once manifestly racist and ended up apologizing in the course of doing so for a lynching that his department had been involved with back in 1940.

So three very different departments and I came to them through kind of scouring the existing data, looking for places where the numbers looked different than they had elsewhere, and talking to lots and lots of folks. I'll tell you, Mike Butler, this is how I got connected to Longmont, the chief there. I remember having a conversation with him. I was sitting in my backyard. And during these early interviews, and he said, you know, Neil, one thing I'm trying to do in Longmont is disassociate policing from the criminal justice system. And I thought, what on earth is he talking about? I have to get out there and figure it out.

Chris Hayes: Well, let's stay with that one because in some ways, the Longmont is the most radical reimagining of the three, I think it's fair to say. Why was this chief trying to do that? Where is he coming from at this job? And what does that actually look like?

Neil Gross: Yeah. So Butler’s a fascinating guy. You know, he's tall and lanky, and has gray hair, and looks and sounds very much like a professor. I think it'd be great to take a class from him. You know, he worked his way up. He initially rose to the ranks at Boulder PD, and then eventually took the chief's job at Longmont, which is this kind of classic High Plains town. Now, it's becoming a suburb of Boulder and Denver.

And his motivations were both philosophical and even to some extent, spiritual. I mean, he was very much upset at the rise of mass incarceration, which he saw happening in Colorado and nationally, thought that the police shouldn't do much to contribute to that mass incarceration, and looked for alternatives. He was very concerned that the police pay as much attention to issues of domestic violence as they did to other forms of violence. One of his favorite sayings was when people call him to ask, is Longmont a safe community to move to, he'd say it depends who you live with.

Chris Hayes: That’s great line.

Neil Gross: It's also true. And the other thing he would do is he was very committed to the idea of an active democratic citizenship. So he was a close reader of Robert Putnam, actually, the political scientist, and thought that part of the job of the police should be. as he put it, to activate social capital. So we made a whole series of changes in Longmont that pushed on all these fronts, and also fundamentally changed the ethos of the department. So it was much more about social responsibility and humaneness certainly than it had been previously.

Chris Hayes: How do you do that?

Neil Gross: Well, it looks differently, I think, in different places. For Butler, one of the big things was to lean into restorative justice. And that's an idea that's increasingly popular. A lot of schools are talking about restorative justice now, and there are lots of efforts in the prison system also to move toward restorative justice. And the idea of restorative justice is you bring a criminal offender together with the person that they've victimized, and you essentially ask them to apologize, and you try to bring some closure to that connection.

Now there's many other facets of it. In Longmont, unlike in other places, the police instead of making arrests, especially for less serious offenses, they can simply refer a case to restorative justice. So they've done this many times with juvenile offenders, for example, but even with adult offenders where they think, you know, somebody can be steered in a better direction. And so they're only steered if the victim is willing. The whole thing is coordinated by a volunteer community organization. They bring the victim and the offender together. The offender is asked to take part in a long educational process. There's usually some degree of restitution.

What's interesting about restorative justice is that there's some strong experimental data out of the U.K., especially showing that when offenders are put through restorative justice process, instead of being sent to prison, that they have lower rates of recidivism. They commit fewer crimes, and victims experience lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

So in Longmont, Mike Butler knew that not everybody was suitable for restorative justice. There were some people that, you know, had to be locked away, at least for some time, for the safety of the community. But that was something that he that he pushed on. So that's one example of a kind of policy change that that Butler urged.

Chris Hayes: You know, one of the things when you get to this one, the complaints about policing that I encounter a lot is, you know, I think I've even paraphrased this on the show before, but the opening joke of Annie Hall about, you know, the food is terrible and the portions are too small, right? Like, people look at videos of cops roughing up a protester, or read stories of cop’s misconduct. And then if something happens to them, an item of theirs gets stolen, or something, and the police come, they maybe sort of like gruffly nod at you and then they leave.

So people have this sense, I think, sometimes like they're doing a lot of stuff that we don't want to do. And then the stuff that you would want in a situation when you're in distress, it doesn't feel like you're getting what you want out of it, and it's not helpful and protective. When I'm talking about that, this is a complaint, I think, you sometimes get from relatively affluent sort of, you know, comfortably situated people. That's times a thousand I think in communities, particularly urban communities of color, and any community with lower means, where the power differential is huge. That's exacerbated tremendous amount, right?

Like when you actually are like, oh, my God, something terrible happened to me, please help me, you feel like a lot of times you don't get that. When you talk about restorative justice, part of that seems to me the mode of cop culture, which is like if you're in the us versus them mindset, if you're in like we are protecting ourselves from them, the public, who are all of whom are threat, it's very hard to be open, listening, empathetic, caring, all those things, in that interaction with someone who's just had something horrible happen to them.

Neil Gross: You know, I think you're right about that. And certainly, the cops that I spent time with in Longmont and that I observed interacting with the public, even in settings where, you know, there was no kind of observer effect where I was watching in a body cam footage, for example, I saw cops behaving really differently than certainly I was expecting, based on my time on the force in Berkeley with a really surprisingly large degree of empathy. Now, that's not to say that there weren't cops who didn't feel that way.

But, you know, I think that it's possible, certainly, that the restorative justice portion of what Mike Butler did encouraged that kind of empathy. And I'll just say, Chris, to come back to your point about cynicism earlier, you know, I think cops can become cynical. I think what you're describing both in affluent communities and in less affluent communities is tremendous cynicism about the police.

And in contrast to the theory that what happens as a result of protests against police brutality is that the cops are handcuffed and crime rises, you know, I think there's really good evidence to suggest that if there is a rise in crime as a result of these protests, it has as much to do as many thing with citizens losing faith, losing confidence in the police.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Neil Gross: And when that confidence is shattered, people don't report as much. They don't report crimes as much. They don't come forward with as much information. Cases don't get solved as quickly. And so restoring the kind of idealism of cops is important. But it's equally important that cops work really hard to restore the trust of the community because, certainly, people should come away from experiences with policing, with some sense that these are municipal employees who are there to help us, not to be indifferent to us or certainly not to hurt us.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: The sort of ideological 180 in this book is LaGrange even though it's also a kind of reform project, but talk us through a little bit about LaGrange.

Neil Gross: Yeah. So LaGrange was a really fascinating community for me to spend time in. It's roughly half black and half white. It's a former mill town, and the mills and the mill owners and the foundations that they represent are still large presences in the community. And it's a community where there was a lot of distrust between black and white citizens, and certainly a lot of distrust between the police and the black community.

And it's also a site of real racism within the police force. I talked to one former officer, a Black officer who was a cop in the ‘70s and he told me, you know, at that time, he wasn't allowed to make traffic stops on white people, which was remarkable. I mean, this was a community where --

Chris Hayes: Literally banned from it as a Black cop?

Neil Gross: Exactly. This was community where until the early ‘90s there were de facto segregated swimming pools, so a community with a history of really intense racism. So I got fascinated because this cop named Lou Dekmar came in, not from the South, was originally from Oregon, spent a lot of time in Wyoming. And he came in, as I said, quite a conservative guy and his first order was to restore a kind of professionalism to the department and to kind of bring it up to speed with your current modern-day policing practices.

But over time there, something happened to him, which was that the community was undergoing a fundamental change. The community leaders, civic leaders had gotten involved in a project of racial trust building. They realized that these ties were not as strong as they could be. So they brought in a nonprofit organization to work on doing workshops to try to restore that trust, engage in deep, difficult conversations.

You know, Dekmar was asked to participate. His initial reaction was, I'm not interested. You know, he's a very gruff, kind of no nonsense cop. And as those conversations progressed, he started thinking about things in a somewhat different fashion and that's what led him down the road of this remarkable and unprecedented apology for his department's role in this atrocity that took place in 1940. So it's a community with very different politics, certainly, than Longmont but one that was able to really turn itself around.

Chris Hayes: So you know, the apology is obviously a huge part of this. Tell me first of all about what happened there and what the sort of reaction apology was. But then I want you going a little further about, like, okay, well, that's all very abstract. Like, what does it mean when you get pulled over as a Black man in LaGrange by a white cop on the side of the road?

Neil Gross: Yeah. Well, you know, I'll just say that there's always the question of what does all this stuff look like in practice? What does the data look like? And you know, this is a book of stories and narratives, but it's also a book of statistics. And I will tell you, I've looked at traffic stop data on lots of different cities and the racial disparities are always there. They are significantly less in LaGrange than they are in many other communities. So you know, when the rubber meets the road, so to speak, they are stopping people in a much more equitable fashion than other communities are.

So the apology, well, there was this young man named Austin Callaway, who was arrested by the LaGrange police in 1940. I won't give away all the details, but he ended up being killed and it was basically through the complicity of the police department. And people in the community had known about it, but not in great detail. It was always there under the surface and contributed to this lack of trust between black and white residents.

And a community group in LaGrange had started digging up information about this young man and Lou Dekmar also started trying to find more information about him. And it all coalesced in this remarkable public apology, which didn't in itself change police culture, but really helped to solidify a culture that emphasized the preservation of life as really a central goal of the police department.

Chris Hayes: Was Lou Dekmar culture-focused as well? It seems like all three of these chiefs understand quite intensely how important that is.

Neil Gross: Yes. I mean, also very policy-focused, but both. I think Lou correctly recognized that, you know, changing policy is important. And he did a lot, he's involved with an organization that tries to get police departments to change their policy so that they're in accord with national and international best practices. So the policy part was important to him. But I think he recognized as everyone else did, that in the absence of that culture change, those policies will be pushed back upon again and again,

Chris Hayes: And then Stockton is the biggest one and the one that feels the most, I don't know, I wouldn't say broadly apical, but it's a pretty big town. It's a city. It's got the kinds of issues that cities have. There's huge amounts of inequality. There's some pretty serious gun violence, you said gang violence. There's a pretty big force. It seems of the three, it's the most scaled and plausible to map on other places. So talk us through the Stockton example.

Neil Gross: Yeah. So Stockton is a city that has a long history of gang violence, you know, centered in its most marginalized communities. And there, I tell the story of a really interesting chief named Eric Jones, who grew up just outside of Stockton. Stockton was sort of the big city for him when he was a young person, and entered into policing with motivations that were pretty similar to the ones that I had. He actually started in the police academy a year after me.

And when he eventually rose to become chief, his first goal wasn't to fix the police department or to reform it. His first goal was to tamp down levels of violence. He took the helm there in 2012. Stockton had a unique kind of situation in that it was hit really hard by the financial crisis.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Neil Gross: Tons of homes there were underwater, and the city ended up having to declare bankruptcy. It’s the first large city in the country or medium sized city in the country to declare bankruptcy. So the department’s quarter of its force were laid off or asked to go into early retirement. And not everywhere did the Great Recession lead to an increase in crime, but it absolutely did in Stockton. There was a huge surge in shootings and homicides.

And so Jones’s first goal was to bring down that violence. And he quickly realized that he couldn't do it unless he worked to restore some of the trust between Stockton residents and the police. This was a department that had a long history of brutality as well, and so he realized that restoring trust and doing those reform things was really central to the goal of increasing public safety.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. One of the things you emphasize in the book and I think, you know, is an important one about this sort of choice, right? I mean, police unions talk this way. It's like you let us out there onto the streets to deal with the uncivilized animalistic frontier of your cities and that we are the thin blue line that protects civilization. You let us do what we need to do out there or they're going to run wild. Like, that's it. Like, that's the ideology of thin blue lineism, right?

And that it's a choice between basically brutality on the part of the cops, or increased interpersonal violence in the community. That's what you're choosing between. Police unions don't quite say it that explicitly, although sometimes they kind of do. And you're trying to basically make the opposite point based on the examples particularly in Stockton.

Neil Gross: Yeah. I think that's a false choice. I mean, I think the data suggests that when you do good policing, which means policing that's effective, humane, you know, sensitive to democratic concerns, you have more public safety. I think that's there's a good deal of data to back that up.

That was certainly the case in Stockton. You know, as they worked to increase trust between the police and the community through a whole variety of measures, which I can talk about, crime went down. Clearance rates for homicides went up. It was a force that wasn't handcuffed. You know, these things enabled them to do a better job.

Chris Hayes: With all this, I'm sort of cognizant in the back of my head, though. Like, let's take the New York City Police Department, for example. So on one level, I think the New York City Police Department improved over time and I think it was the worse department in some ways, and a more brutal department 25 years ago, you know, very notorious cases of police violence. But then, of course, there's still Eric Garner just a few years back.

I think also the New York City Police Department, if you were to rank police departments across the country, is probably one of the better big city departments in terms of brutality. And yet, this is all relative. Like I could go out of my house for right now and it wouldn't take me that long to go find particularly I think a person of color, but not necessarily that someone who's had like a truly horrifying experience the NYPD.

So you know, as I'm hearing this, I guess part of the nub of this reform issue is how reformable is it? What is the ultimate goal? And how do you grade in a way that isn't just on a curve? Like, yes, some departments are better than others. But, you know, convince me that this isn't just gradations of bad, I guess is my question to you about --

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- the enterprise of American policing.

Neil Gross: Yeah. Well, look, I mean, I think at the end of the day, you know, the police are an instrument of state violence. That's kind of what defines them, ultimately, right, who gets called when force needs to be used to take people into custody and bring them before a judge? So you know, it's never going to be the case that the police are going to be anyone's favorite institution. You know, one of the classic scholars of policing that I talk about a little bit in the book said, you know, one of the challenges of policing is that the police serve citizens, but they're employed to discipline the citizens that they serve.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Neil Gross: You know, I think that that being said, you know, police departments can be better. They can be seen as the forces for relative good in the community. I was really struck in LaGrange, for example, after George Floyd's murder, there was a protest on Lafayette Square there, which is this beautiful square in downtown LaGrange. And people got together as they did elsewhere, to talk about how incredibly angered and upset they were by George Floyd's murder, to rally for the cause of Black Lives Matter. And almost none of their ire was directed at the LaGrange Police Department.

In fact, one speaker rose, a community leader, to say that she knew that police elsewhere were horrific, but that had not been her experience with LaGrange. So you can have a police department that treats people, you know, in a more or less equitable fashion. And certainly that is a goal we should be aiming for.

Chris Hayes: What is the obstacle to it? You talk a lot about police culture and about these chiefs’ approach to it. So why is it so often the case that police culture is, you know, when you said don't let them kill you on a dirty highway. I've got an example in my last book, this is one of my favorite examples, which was from the Department of Justice investigation of the Cleveland Police Department, where they had a consent decree. There were numerous consent decrees, of course, during the DOJ and the Obama years.

You know, it was in a vehicle bay of a precinct where it's called itself like Forward Operating Base, whatever, and forward operating bases like the term for small units outside the wire in, say, Afghanistan, right? And to me, that just really embodied this certain kind of way of thinking, which is super common. Like, we are a barricaded militarized unit in enemy territory, and we go outside, like, that's the way we're going to approach it. Why is that so common in American police culture?

Neil Gross: I mean, I think that it's common in American police culture. It's common in police culture, actually, throughout the world. You know, policing in France has elements of this that are very similar. You know, policing in parts of Canada has elements that look like this. And I think that it has something to do with the way that the job is structured.

You know, one of the interesting things about policing is that the police, as we were saying earlier, don't have a tremendous amount of contact with the public that doesn't involve you getting called to difficult cases and difficult situations. And that means both they think that all of the public is, you know, reflected in the people that they deal with, having the worst times of their lives, but also it means that there's often very little social interaction between the police and others.

You know, the police have always been a sort of stigmatized occupation. You know, not that many people want to be friends with cops because they think that the cops will ultimately arrest them if they drink too much or if they get into fights or whatever. So the police have always sort of banded together, and that's produced this us versus them attitude, which, you know, unchecked, unsupervised, can all too often lead to the kinds of really horrific and dehumanizing forms of talk that you've described.

You asked me, what does it take to solve this problem? You know, I think if there's one thing, it's constant, constant vigilance and work on the part of police leadership. Like, this culture doesn't change overnight, it doesn't change easily, and it changes when you've got not just a chief, but also folks in the slightly lower ranks who are willing again and again, to emphasize the importance of an alternative perspective. And only then do you begin to shift that culture.

Chris Hayes: There's a quote in there, I forget what chief it is, where he talks about not being three steps ahead of his force but only one step ahead.

Neil Gross: Yeah, that was Eric Jones in Stockton.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's in Stockton. Right. Yeah. And the point there, explain what he means by that because I thought that was a really interesting point because there's a real tangible sense in which in the same way that when you pass policy measures in these big cities or have big protests, you feel the cops get their backup and the policing basically go into open rebellion sometimes.

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But he was aware that he's managing that amongst the people that work for him.

Neil Gross: Yeah. I think there's this tension. You know, you mentioned earlier, the police are supposed to be a democratic institution, like the schools are supposed to respond to what the public wants via the requests, via the things that politicians enact. But in practice, you know, the police are a complex occupation and there are things that get passed, the voters don't necessarily work out into practices and behavior on the street.

So Jones's idea was that if he lost the trust of his officers, if he pushed too far too quickly, that they would rebel and that he would lose any gains that he made in terms of police culture, but then also, potentially, officers would begin to withdraw from behavior on the street, and then public safety would be compromised. So his idea, I think this was a very conscious calculation on his part, was that it was better to be slow and steady and make real progress than to come out front with a whole slew of changes that he knew would immediately turn off his officers, and then he'd lost them right away.

I think one challenge in policing is in many cities we don't give chiefs the chance to make those changes, right? Especially for big cities, chiefs often have relatively short tenures. They're under tremendous pressure to turn things around quickly, especially from reform-minded mayors and city council folks, city managers. And Jones had time, he had 10 years on the job. Dekmar and Butler in the other two cities, they had much longer than that.

You know, policing is a very big ship and it's slow to turn, and it's tremendously frustrating for people who have to suffer from bad policing in the meantime. But Jones's idea was that, ultimately, the gains would be achievable only that way.

Chris Hayes: You just mentioned other places. I know you're not a comparativist per se, but it does strike me how much American discussions of policing really tend to be America focused. And obviously, policing is a global phenomenon. And you know, one of the things that was interesting, actually, about the George Floyd protests is they went global, partly because I think a lot of folks in a lot of places have a lot of experiences.

And I think, you know, even if you're not like that particularly well read on the comparativist literature on this topic, and I've read a bit of it, you've probably seen enough foreign films to know that, like, the folks in the favelas in Rio don't like generally feel super enthused about the Brazilian cops.

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Same in Mumbai. Like, there's some commonality here amongst marginalized communities and places that are, you know, very poor and very violence stricken about the way they feel about the cops and the way the cops feel about them. That transcends America. So I guess the question is, like, where are we compared to other places, better or worse? Where do we rank? And how can we even begin to sort of answer that question in an actual empirical fashion?

Neil Gross: Yeah. I think that's currently an impossible question to answer because we don't have any clear metrics for what good looks like. You know, I will say even within the U.S., one thing that I think would be super helpful would be to have much better ways of grading how police departments are doing so that citizens could have access to that data. You know, there have been some activist groups that have produced report cards about policing and that's better than nothing. But oftentimes, those measures aren't as meaningful as they could be.

It would be great to know, you know, how are the police doing exactly on measures of racial inequality, how exactly are the police doing on measures of, you know, solving serious crimes. We don't have that. You know, one way I'll just say that policing is really different than U.S. than it is elsewhere is it’s super decentralized here, right? Like, all of our government systems --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Neil Gross: -- thousands and thousands of police departments, you know, compare that to France, compare that to the U.K. And it's a double-edged sword, right? On the one hand, it means that it's really hard to bring about uniform change. But at the same time, it means that there's thousands of police departments that could be experimenting, and are experimenting, and they're trying to do things differently. And we need to find some way to figure out what those departments are, amplify those findings, and help them get disseminated so that other departments can emulate them and proceed along those lines. And I think we're not doing nearly enough in that regard.

Chris Hayes: It strikes me, too, like compared to other OECD countries, particularly European democracies as opposed to comparing Western Hemisphere countries, where in North and South America, particularly in South America and Central America, where rates of gun violence are very high and rates of interpersonal violence are very high.

Compared to our peers in, say, you know, France or England, the U.S. is just a far, far more violent place, basically, has been for the duration of existence, as far as we have homicides statistics going back. It has always been a more violent place than those places and is a more violent place now. And also the presence of guns, I mean, how much do you think that matters in shaping American policing?

Neil Gross: Hugely. You know, I think it's not as though the absence of guns would make everything perfect in policing, but it's on everybody's mind. You know, when you stop a car, is there a gun? When you stop a pedestrian, do they have a hidden weapon? You know, in the absence of that, interactions can go much more smoothly.

One thing I'll just note, Chris, that's interesting is that in all the calls for gun reform here and for tightening up restrictions on who can own a firearm, you know, one thing that often gets forgotten is that it's the police that we use to enforce those laws, right? If we're making laws --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Neil Gross: -- that say people with domestic violence convictions can't have firearms, if guns are sold and it turns out that they shouldn't have been, it's the police that we call on to go in and seize those weapons. So, you know, the police are constantly dealing with guns, and it's just a part of their day-to-day.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And there's really interesting, you know, ideological fracture over this. The Bronx defenders and some public defenders running amicus briefs in the in the Bruen case, which is a Supreme Court case that looked into New York gun law, in which the public defenders were on the same side as the NRA, and you know, maximalist Second Amendment advocates precisely because these gun laws they felt, you know, hurt their clients and infringe on their rights to fully be citizens and participate in their Second Amendment rights.

And there was a lot of, I would say, intracoalitional beef about that amongst in left circles and there always is, because the means of enforcing what we call sort of gun safety is going to be the police ultimately. And it's also true that anyone who spent a lot of time around urban criminal justice systems know that like gun possession, gun violence is a huge part of what is cranking through the system of young men of color, you know, being run through the system.

Neil Gross: You know, I think that's right. And the politics of this gets super messy when you think about the politics of the police themselves, right? It's historically a quite conservative occupation. As you can imagine, there's a lot of strong support for the Second Amendment among cops. You know, if you look at places where there are laws in the books, like in Colorado, that say people who have domestic violence restraining orders against them can't own guns.

You know, in some conservative counties, you'll find sheriffs, they're refusing to really proceed with those orders, enforcing those orders on the grounds of, you know, wanting to defend Second Amendment freedoms. So it starts to get complicated on the ground for cops themselves, you know, when they're asked to confiscate weapons, but they are. And actually, that's a crucial part of the effort at tamping down gun violence.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: One of the things you write about in the book and we talk about what police do, and I think there's a bunch of things, right? So the homicide cop and the police procedural is very clear, right? There's a dead body, the detective is called they're going to try to find who did it and make an arrest and then ultimately make a case. That's a tiny percentage of what policing is. I mean, almost to a rounding error, you can always just bracket it, right?

Neil Gross: That’s right.

Chris Hayes: A lot of policing is civil service bureaucracy, so there's like a lot of stuff that’s just like keeping the machinery of the bureaucracy going and doing a lot of paperwork. A lot of it is patrol, which is, like, you're out there, eyes and ears, and it's kind of your job to poke your nose in people's business because you're trying to identify problems before they can develop.

But a huge part of what policing is, and I'd like you to talk about this particularly in the context of what we broadly call de-escalation and you write about it at some length, is, you know, I had Jamal Greene, who’s a constitutional scholar, on the show, and he was talking about judging as dispute resolution, right? So, you know, what does the judge do? Well, you know, the two women each claim that the baby is theirs, and they have a disagreement on whose it is, so they go to Solomon, they’d be like, whose is it? Right? The judge is there to dispute resolution.

Well, a lot of what cops are doing is street-side dispute resolution. You know, a huge amount of what they're doing is there's conflict or someone who complain, people are beefing with each other, yelling at each other, or there's some chaos or something that has brought someone's attention. And it's the police officer’s job in that moment. And the guidance for that, the training for that just strikes me as like woefully underprovided. But also the job itself is massively difficult.

And you write a little bit in the book about what it would look like to train for that, to train towards de-escalation, to take that as a more central focus of what policing do, because when you look at the hours spent, that actually is an enormous part of the actual job of a police officer.

Neil Gross: Yeah, a couple things. First, Chris, when police officers don't do that job well, when they can't resolve disputes, that's when a lot of crime happens, right? So there's a –

Chris Hayes: Right.

Neil Gross: -- very interesting theory, which I think has a lot of accuracy that says that many homicides occur, many assaults occur when people have conflicts with one another. But they don't feel that they can invoke the law. They don't feel that they’re --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Neil Gross: -- comfortable invoking the law, to come help them resolve those conflicts, and so they resort to violence themselves. So when the police don't do the job well or when they're not present, you know, things can quickly escalate. It is very difficult to do. I remember when I was a young police officer, 22-years-old, you know, getting called to domestic violence situations, with people in their 40s, you know, what do you say?

Chris Hayes: I mean, it's almost a comical image to think of like the 23-year-old Berkeley grad at the door in uniform, with the badge and, like, two people in the midst of intense --

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- layers of conflict and trauma and facts that you have no access to, you know, and you being like the one to say what's going to happen.

Neil Gross: Right. One thing that was true in several of these departments, but Longmont especially, was that the chief there, really to deal with this problem and cognizant of just how much of the police role is dealing with conflict resolution, really insisted on hiring older officers. You know, typically, we'll hire officers who are 21, 22, 23. Sometimes it's their first real job. There's lots of evidence to suggest that, you know, people's brains don't fully mature until they're in their mid-20s. And I think it's terrible that we're hiring officers who are so young.

So you know, hiring cops with a bit more maturity, a bit more real life experience is great. And, you know, looking in background investigations to make sure that they don't have themselves, histories of violence, that's important. But I think there are also things that you can do as far as de-escalation goes. There's a lot of talk now about bringing in mental health workers to respond to difficult situations, and that's great. Actually, most cops want that because they don't like to responding to these kind of calls. They feel underprepared for them.

But sometimes an unacknowledged benefit of that is that when cops can see how mental health professionals do deescalate situations or try to deescalate situations, they can learn from that because those mental health professionals aren't always around. There's too few of them. They're not always on duty 24/7 like the police are. So the police can gain real experience that way.

Certainly, the officers I studied, though, and write about for this book, they had learned more than anything from the ethos of their department. They were in departments where you're trying to keep things as peaceful as possible, trying to use as little as force as possible. But it wasn't just a stated goal. It was kind of worked through the whole range of the department. That was especially true in Longmont and LaGrange. And so there, you know, I saw officers just engaged in efforts at de-escalation that went on far, far longer than they would elsewhere. And that's a model that we should all encourage.

Chris Hayes: You have an example of an hour-long interaction. I think it's in Longmont.

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And what's striking to me is there's a guy named Patrick Skinner who used to work at CIA and now he's a police officer in Georgia and there's a profile from the New Yorker years back. And I sort of followed him, he's a really interesting guy. I've had him in the program. He always talks about like not rushing as a key to good policing, like slow, slow, slow, slow, slow.

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Patience, patience, patience. Like, when you rush and when you hurry, and when you try to get to resolutions when things escalate, it's when violence happens. And I was so struck by that example in the book, you talk about it, there for an hour. I'm a very impatient person. I would be terrible at that. Like, I just am the worst on that front. I'm trying to, like, get better at that, trying to teach my own kids to be patient.

But that does seem to be a big part of the job because I feel like so many interactions, and again, I'm incredibly privileged, straight white male, who has not had the worst aspects of American policing pointed on me. But even me, when I run through my interactions with cops, a lot of it is a kind of, like, brusque impatience with me, like a lot of, hey, move it along. Hey, what are you doing? Like, this kind of feeling of a push to move through the interaction. And it's interesting to think about where that comes from and trying to remove that as a means of doing better policing in these very fraught moments.

Neil Gross: Yeah. You know, there's different aspects. There's the personality piece which you just mentioned. There's the culture of the department, right? Do your peers encourage you to take your time? But there's also the bureaucratic part of it, right? In many departments --

Chris Hayes: Of course. Yeah.

Neil Gross: -- officers are responding call to call to call to call. And they're under tremendous pressure to get into those calls, clear them off --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yes.

Neil Gross: -- in one way or another, and get on to the next call.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Neil Gross: So, you know, building out a department where you're allowed, as an officer, to take the time and distance you need to really resolve situations peacefully and to really actually try to help folks who are in desperate straits, it requires a real commitment on the part of the organization to a different model. And it also requires that the organization prioritize different things for cops, right?

If you've got a department where the metrics of success are the number of arrests you make, you know, you're going to get officers who are quick to deal with situations that don't involve serious criminal activity because they want to move on to those calls where they can rack up arrest stats. If you've got a department where the cops are rewarded for de-escalation, where that scene is the thing that gets you the advancement, gets you the respect of your peers, gets you the respect of the organization, you know, everything is geared in a different direction.

Chris Hayes: I mean, it's interesting because you sort of submerge past the national level. You go to this these three different localities. Where do you sort of gauge things right now? Because I've been really worried about both the first order of the rise in interpersonal violence in the U.S. in the last few years because it's just bad at a human level. It's bad for people. It's bad for neighborhoods. It's bad for families and societies. And there's all sorts of bad things about higher levels of interpersonal violence. I think that's almost obvious on its face.

And then the second order of issue is kind of, you know, return a very reactionary politics around crime and policing, kind of like throw the bucket, extend sentences, take the regulators off the cops, you know, that I think can be really ugly and make things worse. And then, you know, lose this sort of project of decarceration, broadly, which still has to continue for another, like 25 years at current trends to get us anywhere within comparable to other peer countries. So I guess just at a 30,000-foot view, having written this book, where do you think we are in the very front politics of policing and justice right now?

Neil Gross: You know, I think there's the national part of it and I think we're in a difficult place there. It seems like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act doesn't stand much of a chance. You know, I've heard Senator Booker say the other day that, you know, he thinks that there's some prospect for some across the aisle consensus on small pieces of legislation, so perhaps something would happen there.

But, you know, most policing happens at the state and local levels. And there, I would say, it's a completely mixed bag. On the one hand, you've got some departments that are absolutely recalcitrant, where, you know, embattled police unions are pushing back against any kinds of changes and making exactly the kinds of claims that you've described. And on the other hand, you've got a lot of departments where both leadership and cops realize that something has to change, that things can't proceed along as they are.

So I think you're actually seeing a fair bit of experimentation happening in a number of different communities. You know, the question is really what are those experiments going to amount to? And you know, will they lead somewhere positive? One thing that really drew me to Longmont, LaGrange, and Stockton was that these were places where the experiments had produced real results. They weren't just pilot projects, as you've mentioned. So I'm somewhat hopeful.

You know, the one thing I'll just add about the decarceration piece that certainly people who push back against that don't talk about nearly enough is that, you know, well, it does seem important that people who've committed violent crimes spent some time in prison, more important than the length of their prison sentence is the fact that they are arrested.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Neil Gross: And one thing that we don't talk about nearly enough in this country, that the police certainly don't want to talk about is that, you know, clearance rates for homicide are often pathetically low. They're much lower when the victims are Black. And that reflects not just a lack of police resources directed at detectives, but it also reflects exactly this lack of trust that we've been talking about. So the more that you can build up that trust, the better detectives will be at solving cases, the better they'll be able to bring people into custody.

You know, deterrence doesn't work to have an enormously long sentence for a crime if the person who's thinking about committing it knows that they will never get caught.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Neil Gross: So, you know, I'm hopeful that there's a median, a middle ground here to be found, and that at the local level particularly where folks have to work together sometimes across the aisle to solve problems that, you know, pragmatism will prevail ultimately.

Chris Hayes: Who’s it? Is it Beccaria who talks about certainty not severity? Like, one of the big enlightenment, foundational criminologists all the way back in the 18th century, right?

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Just talking about certainty, not severity as a --

Neil Gross: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- as a disincentive. And you see that, you know, violence all the time in the U.S. and this is actually what the D.C. debate was, right? Like, does the extra five years make a difference in, like, whether someone is going to do carjacking? Probably not. Are they confident they'll get away with it is really the question that matters a lot in terms of at the behavioral level.

Neil Gross is the author of Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defy the Odds and Changed Cop Culture. He's a sociologist at Colby College, Maine. He was a police officer in Berkeley, California, where he was right out of undergrad. Neil, it's great to have you in the program. Thank you so much.

Neil Gross: Chris, thanks so much for having me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Neil Gross. We'd love to hear your feedback as always. You can tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Also, be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.

Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to