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Chief Koval's Blog

Questions Directed to the Chief

December 11, 2015 3:02 PM

In the past several weeks, my office has received some letters from various groups that have raised questions or demanded explanations on a host of topics.  I thought that this blog may provide some insight that could be shared citywide as several of these issues also surface at various community and neighborhood forums that I have attended.

Now that our annual assignment process for 2016 is completed, there have been inquiries as to where Police Officer Matt Kenny will be reporting.  Officer Kenny will be dividing his time in assisting two important units; Training and the Mounted Horse Patrol (MHP).  This reflects a one year extension of the responsibilities that he first assumed in mid-year of 2015.  Officer Kenny has a myriad of skill sets as a trainer and first began as an "adjunct" to our Department as far back as 2004, when he began teaching in the area of CPR and First Aid Responder.  Over the years, Kenny has acquired instructor-level certifications in a variety of domains specific to Patrol Services and is also an accomplished equestrian, providing us with additional subject matter expertise as we "grow" our MHP into a marquee program that will serve as a model for other agencies. 

Given the nature of the rigors and stresses of what policing can mean to wellness issues of officers, there are groups that have urged the Department to adopt mandatory annual mental health screening.   While I can certainly appreciate the well-meaning intentions of providing services to practitioners who are frequently exposed to trauma, I must also respect the laws of privacy that govern employer-employee relationships.  For example, it is illegal under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to implement mandatory mental health screening without any observable incidents or evidence and it must be job-related and consistent with business necessity when we do. There are also strict guidelines that must be articulated and defended by the employer before a "fitness for duty" assessment can be ordered.  Fortunately, we ARE committed to health and wellness issues at MPD and point with pride to an excellent, protective-services driven, employee assistance program (EAP) administered through the City.  For a number of years now, we also have built a Peer Support program that can be accessed by our commissioned personnel whenever they want to, with complete confidentiality.  Furthermore, after each "critical incident" that officers are exposed to, it is routine practice for us to convene a facilitated debriefing event directed by specialized trainers within 24-72 hours. . .this provides officers a safe environment to talk openly about the experience and their feelings; and these discussions are encouraged in a non-evaluative, supportive environment.  In the future, we will continue to explore options/techniques that can be taught and practiced to reduce chronic and critical stress through emerging strategies  (i.e., mindfulness practices - including meditation and yoga).

There have been a few vocal critics that have made some attributions about the way that MPD trains (or fails to train) our officers in tactical situations.  Suffice to say, our pre-service academy and annual in-service training are among the nation's most comprehensive.  MPD attended a seminar on use of force procedures hosted nationally in Washington, D.C. by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) last May.  We are always researching those insights/methods/practices that could be implemented to keep our community (and cops) as safe as we can, using only that amount of force that is minimally necessary (if at all).  Topics of disengagement, diffusing, creating distance, and searching for cover were among the trending techniques discussed and debriefed; MPD trains in all of these and will continue to amplify our efforts in the years to come.  While it is fitting to constantly evaluate use of force and decision making, there must also be an acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of contacts between officers and citizens are resolved with our mere "presence" and savvy professional communication(s), in which no one is even touched by an officer!  (By way of example, from April-June of 2015, MPD responded to over 47,155 calls for service.  Out of this total, there were 113 instances where force of some type was used; or roughly .0024% of our encounters).

To those who request/demand two-officer squads as a matter of standard procedure, while at first blush the idea of having a "team" to field calls has a certain attraction, our data suggests some significant drawbacks: (The most recent figures are from 2014 patrol incidents)

a) 49% of the incidents were single-officer calls.

b) The CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) workload for these calls was 24,580 hours (so that is the total CAD time officers spent on those calls.  For perspective, the overall CAD workload in 2014 was 144,614 hours* (*note that this is not TOTAL patrol workload; only that reflected on the CAD).

c)  So if we operated with two-officer patrol squads, that would be about 24,580 work hours that the second officer would be tied up but generally not needed.  This reflects not only a significant lack of efficiency; it would also result in reduced visibility and increased wait times for citizens.

Whenever there is an incident that has any real or potential volatility, multiple subjects, crimes in progress, AODA issues, mental illness concerns, domestic disputes, etc., the standard protocol is to ensure that at least two officers be dispatched to the call.  Some have opined that an officer should never make first contact with the subject(s) at the scene unless or until they have the benefit of a back-up officer present.  While this is certainly desirable, there are those instances which fall into the area of "exigent circumstances" (i.e., there is a need to take immediate action) that necessitates the first responding officer to evaluate the totality of the circumstances to determine if there is a sense of urgency compelling intervention.  I would not want an administrative policy that states, unequivocally, that an officer "shall" always wait for back-up before attempting to render assistance or stop a threat.  What if officers are dispatched to an emergency 9-1-1 call where the female complainant is heard screaming, "My husband's trying to kill me!"  The phone signal drops.  Attempts to reconnect by the dispatcher are to no avail.  The first responding officer jumps out of the car, runs to the front door and hears a female voice from the other side of the door begging someone to "stop!"  Does anyone really want the officer to "stand down" and await the arrival of a back-up?  Heck no!  I want that officer empowered to make an appropriate threat assessment based on the totality of the circumstances and render aid just as soon as it can occur.  Calculable risks are a part of this job and the selfless servants who wear a badge and bullet-resistant vests know this before assuming the challenges of this profession.  Who is honestly going to say that if seconds mattered and a loved one was in peril on the other side of the door, that we wouldn't urge---no, "beg"---the officer to go in as soon as possible to save their loved one!

Yet another dimension of MPD practice that has raised some concerns is on the topic of public disclosures of information.  Access to information, particularly those instances of police action that rise to the level of media and public attention, is understood as an important component to both transparency as well as accountability.  However, there are privacy interests to balance, or it may be an ongoing (open) case that requires additional investigation, or the prosecuting authority has not yet issued a decision on the matter. While this frustrates the media or members of the public at times, we ensure that these open records requests are reviewed by us pursuant to established legal parameters and routinely confer with the City's Attorney's Office for items which may have conflicted interpretations.  Whenever there are legal issues of sensitivity or privacy, our office will always defer to the expertise of the City Attorney's Office before unilaterally releasing records.  Our ability to share records or information in real time is also impacted by the sheer largesse of the volume of records requests this small office has to process---over 28,000 open records requests last year alone!  We try to bridge this "gap" in the public's thirst for information on current events by carefully vetting what can be released, pursuant to law, through our Public Information Office.

Some neighborhoods have requested that there be more listening sessions and meetings.  They cite that these provide MPD with more feedback on police practices and concerns.  I agree.  I concur with the fact that constructive engagement is an important component to effective community policing, which is why I have been conducting sessions in each of the Districts---routinely---since becoming Chief in 2014.  It is also why our Command staff and neighborhood officers are constantly originating and responding to listening sessions throughout the year.  In addition, we commit ourselves to communication and collaboration with a host of individuals/groups/not-for-profits, the Mayor's Office, Common Council requests, as well as answering web site inquiries, correspondence and phone calls.  Each District also has mechanisms in place for timely discussion on issues and concerns directly through contact with them via neighborhood watch and association requests, list serves, phone inquiries, emailing and electronic newsletters.  All of these efforts require a great deal of time, effort and personnel.  Unfortunately, we simply do not have adequate staffing to do more and fielding priority calls must come first . . so we will do the best we can with our available resources.

Finally, some of the inquiries I have received want to know that MPD policies and procedures are transparent and continually being reviewed to ensure that "best practices" are in place and sensitive to moral, legal, and ethical review. We want the same thing.  Not only are policies/procedures readily available for public consumption on our web site, they are constantly being updated by our own subject matter experts or legal advisors when substantive changes need to occur.  Additionally, we are currently being reviewed by the City's ad hoc committee---comprised of a diverse group of our citizenry---who have been charged with the task of conducting a complete analysis of MPD's policies, procedures, training and culture to create a comprehensive template, noting where we are proficient and where we could benefit from some changes.   From the very first discussions that were held concerning the possibilities of such a committee, MPD has welcomed the scrutiny as I view this as an opportunity to get some constructive feedback while also providing committee members (and those constituent groups that will be watching) an affirmation that MPD--though certainly not without our flaws--- is still a progressive, professional department that this community can trust and be proud of!

Posted by: Chief Koval

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