American communities with the deepest mistrust in law enforcement are often the same places that experience high rates of gun violence. Academics refer to a community’s faith in cops to protect them as “police legitimacy.” When police legitimacy is down, street justice prevails and crimes are harder to solve, which in turn fuels more shootings.
Police Chief Eric Jones of Stockton, California, had seen this vicious cycle up close in his earlier days making arrests as an officer. His department’s tough-on-crime style of policing didn’t seem to be improving public safety; the city was one of the most violent in the country. After Jones was promoted to chief, an Urban Institute survey of Stockton and five other American cities confirmed his fears: Just a third of residents across the six cities said they trusted police; a third felt that police treated residents with dignity and respect; and half felt police acted out of personal prejudice or bias.
Jones started to learn about reconciliation, a process of reckoning with past and present harms of law enforcement in order to improve fractured relationships between police and residents. In a 2017 op-ed he co-authored with the city manager, Jones likened the process to “reopening a wound that never healed. It causes pain today but promotes healing tomorrow.”
Seven years into his experiment, homicides and shootings have gone down, while clearance rates have improved.
Jones spoke with The Trace about his department’s evolution in policing, and shared some of the ways he thinks it’s made his community safer.
I started working for the Stockton Police Department in the early 1990s as a beat cop and then I just worked my way up over time. I was one of those officers that was out there making as many arrests as I could. That’s just what we’re supposed to do, what our supervisors and commanders were directing us to do — it was a measurement of success in our department and police departments all over the place. I did often wonder, “Does this really make the most sense?” In my gut, I felt like it wasn’t the best approach.
When I took over as police chief in 2012, we were going through a really difficult time as a city. Stockton had filed for bankruptcy, we had just had major layoffs in the department, morale was down. We had really high crime, the highest homicides we’d ever had; we had a lot of demonstrations and protests; we had issues with trust and lack of confidence. The zero-tolerance policing strategy was actually putting even more of a divide between us and the community, to where the community felt like we were an occupying force. We were doing these community meetings and these town halls where concerns were expressed, but no meaningful changes were coming out of those.
That year, a gentleman named Jerron Jordan called and asked for a meeting. He’d recently been released from prison and he wanted to make some changes so others didn’t go there. He was very shocked that I even returned his call, much less that we actually got together for a sit-down. He was probably the first person who I really listened to as chief, and I began to understand the systems that had let him down along the way, and how racial disparities had come to light through his environment. Even though we came from two totally different backgrounds, we both wanted the same thing for the community: reduced crime and increased trust, better opportunities for our young men of color so they don’t get trapped in the criminal justice system, more mentors. That was one of those moments where something clicked.
I knew we needed to do something differently. We needed to listen to more of our community, and not just the business leaders who are complaining about burglaries. We needed to listen to the formerly incarcerated. We needed to listen to victims and survivors. And we needed to listen to those in the communities that are most impacted by high crime, and that also have the lowest trust in police. That’s when we began to make a shift toward “listening in a new way.”
In 2015, the city manager and I embarked on a listening tour. We said, “We’ll meet with anybody — we’ll go to your church, your school, your living room, your business — and we will hear your thoughts on community-police relations.” We reached well over 100 people doing those.
Around that time, we were one of six pilot sites across the nation chosen to be part of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. The goal was to really get to the root of, how do you improve trust with the police in the communities that most need it?
As part of that, the Urban Institute did a baseline survey of residents in the six cities to gauge community trust in police. The results were difficult to hear. I knew there was mistrust — I did not know it was so significant. But the survey results also showed that the community wanted to work with the police, so that gave me at least some hope and promise.
When you really look at the history of policing in America, you find these undeniable facts of atrocities and abuses. In the summer of 2016, I went to an African-American church on Stockton’s south side and made a public acknowledgement of past harms of law enforcement. I talked about how police played a role in enforcing slave codes and facilitated lynchings, and also about more recent injustices by law enforcement.
I had also started leading listening sessions. We began by inviting the leaders of the groups that had felt disenfranchised — the NAACP Stockton Branch, Black Leadership Council, El Concilio, our pride center, the Southeast Asian community. Then we asked them to recommend other groups or individuals, and we expanded it from there. In those sessions, we got into meaningful dialogue and talked about race relations head-on.
I heard from a lot of members of the community who felt like they were victimized twice: once at a crime scene of a loved one and secondly the way they felt they were treated by law enforcement. At one of the early sessions, a woman came and talked about the night her son was murdered. He’d been killed in a double homicide in 2012, in east Stockton. She recounted how the officers wouldn’t let her cross the crime scene tape to be near her son, how they didn’t seem to understand why she was screaming and emotional, how they wouldn’t answer her questions.
It moved me quite a bit. I didn’t try to interrupt and ask clarifying questions, I just listened. I thought, “Wow, we can do better.”
I ended up doing about 30 listening sessions throughout the city over several years. I now have my commanders and officers attend, because it’s important for them to hear the same things I was hearing. We’re doing them about once a week now.
We have begun to change some of our policies and practices based on the feedback from the sessions. One of the first changes I made was making it routine for us to follow up with victims’ families. It used to be, if a community member has more information, then they had to get a hold of us. Survivors told us, “Let us know you still care and reach back out to us.” Now we are actually intentionally getting back to families. It sounds small, but it’s not. It took recognizing these are impacted humans, and a shooting hits through their whole family. We need to stay connected, whether we have a legal or investigative reason to or not.
We have trained our officers in implicit bias — how biases form and how they can jeopardize good judgment — and procedural justice, which is about being fair, neutral, giving a voice, and respectful communication. Another thing: We’d never acknowledged that our officers experience trauma. We acknowledge that now, and we have a very robust wellness network to deal with that.
Community members say, if we’re not comfortable coming to the police, street justice prevails. More than ever, I see trust in police connected to reducing violent crime. Last year we had a big reduction in both homicides and nonfatal shootings. Anonymous tips are up; more people are providing information to the police. We’re solving more cases. Our homicide clearance rate went from around 40 percent in 2017 to 66 percent last year. And when trust goes up it’s safer for the officers going into neighborhoods, because there’s less animosity and confrontation.
Someone once told me, when you’re making changes and reforms, you should only be one to two steps out ahead of your department. If you’re three to four steps out, you’ll lose them. To other police departments interested in trying similar things: Go see what’s working in other cities. And if you can, get your police union involved from the beginning. It certainly makes the work better if you have the rest of the department with you.