Officers should “Treat people with respect,” says retired police chief

September 04, 2018

Just Solutions
8 min readJun 29, 2019

The following is an interview with one of LEAP’s newest representatives, Chief Darrel Stephens (Ret.). He retired in 2008 from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina after an illustrious career marked by a commitment to using evidence-based approaches to problem solving and building relationships with his community.

Mikayla Hellwich: The first time we spoke you told me you decided in high school that you thought policing would be a good career for you. Back then, your department was on the forefront of research. The Ford Foundation was providing money for groundbreaking research, some of which you were involved in. You said that’s what made you want to change policing — and that the best way to do it was to become a police chief. What did you want to change about policing then? And did that evolve over time?

Chief Darrel Stephens (Ret.): We learned through the Ford Foundation that some of the assumptions we’ve had about the way we approach policing were not supported by the research. Back then, there were three major approaches: preventive patrol; rapid response to calls for service; then, if those two didn’t work, we did retrospective investigations. Cases went to detectives and they would investigate leads. The research basically said preventive patrol didn’t have any impact on crime. Response time actually mattered in only about 3% of the Part I crime cases (FBI calls murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, theft, burglary, larceny, arson “Part I”). Citizens weren’t as concerned about response time as they were about what police officers did once they arrived; how they were treated, and how they handled whatever it was they called the police for.

What was really important was for us to be more evidence-based and to learn what we could from the research. We had to try new ideas that didn’t rely exclusively on the basic framework that we operated with for 150 years. So, as I became assistant chief and chief, I tried to promote an approach to policing that was different than our traditional responses.

What kind of programs and policies did you implement as police chief that reflect that your desire to be evidence-based?

This evolved over time. Initially, we focused on crime analysis to understand what, where, and when crimes were occurring. We tried to use that analysis to develop preventive responses. One thing we learned and what really made a difference in whether the crime was going to be solved had to do with the initial information the officer was able to record in their report. If he or she was able to do an initial investigation that identified witnesses or provided evidence that might lead to an identification of the person and resolution of the case — that was the most important predictor of whether or not crime would be solved. So we focused on providing training for officers and more flexibility in the way that they handled these preliminary investigations.

Over time, problem-oriented policing was introduced. That became an approach that I really felt enhanced our overall effectiveness. At the same time, community-oriented policing was being introduced, and those two methods basically merged. In fact, in Newport News, Virginia, the first real test of problem-oriented policing with police officers on the street was conducted while I was the police chief there. There’s a problem analysis approach, it’s called SARA — Scanning Analysis Response and Assessment — that was developed in Newport News, and is actually used throughout the world today by a lot of police departments in training police officers in how to be problem solvers.

What’s the difference between problem-oriented policing and community-oriented policing?

In most places they have combined, but initially community-oriented policing was all about getting police officers and community members to engage with each other. Problem-oriented policing focuses the police on the problems. So what was really missing from community-policing was that once you had a good relationship — that’s nice, but what people really wanted the police to do was to help make their neighborhood safe and solve problems.

I often hear from officers that so much of the change that’s possible within a department comes from the top down. Were your officers receptive, or did it take some time for them to come around to your evidence-based approach?

It does take time and some never do come around to it, but I think I would agree that the top-down perspective is one where the chief and the higher-level command structure has a vision for what policing should be. The challenge is to have that vision shared with folks on the street actually delivering the services and interacting with folks. I always tried to engage officers in our strategy. For example, in Charlotte they were already engaged in problem-solving, but there were a number of issues that civilians were still concerned about. We created working groups and looked at every aspect of our organization, our training, and our structure. Each of those working groups had police officers in them — officers who worked the street and understood how those issues were playing out. When officers have that level of involvement, they’re helping define what the department is doing and how we approach policing. It’s not as hard of a sell if they are actually coming up with ideas and implementing and championing them with their peers. So you do have to have a commitment of the chief and the upper command, but the approach I always thought was most effective in bringing about lasting change is a process that engaged as many people in the department as possible.

So do you think that system is common or was yours an exception to the rule? The rule being that officers in other departments may be more likely to pull the rank card and say, well, this is how it’s done, this is how it has to be.

I think departments have evolved. I think when I first started, the focus was primarily on top-down management. I think more and more agencies and leaders understand now that you have to have buy-in at every level. You can’t just have a chief who has all these ideas because those ideas have to be implemented somehow. This used to be called participatory management, but you don’t hear that term much anymore, but that’s what it used to be called. Officers adapt to change more easily when they are seen as stakeholders and have the opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas.

That makes sense. I like what you said about people adapting to change more readily when they’re seen as stakeholders — it’s really good leadership advice.

It’s the same way with the community. If police departments don’t engage with the community and understand their perspectives and concerns, then their relationship is not going to be as solid. Years ago, when police really started meeting with neighborhood leaders and creating neighborhood watches, they would come to these local meetings prepared with crime statistics and be able to talk about whether crime was up or down. Their focus was primarily on serious crime problems, only to discover when they actually began talking to people that it’s not that the community wasn’t concerned about crime — it’s that they were also concerned about traffic problems like people driving too fast and running stop signs. They were concerned about the kids that would hang out on the corner and be loud way into the night or block the sidewalk, making them feel unsafe. It was the abandoned house two doors down or the abandoned car that’s been sitting on their block for six months rusting. A lot of issues contribute to people feeling good and safe about their neighborhood. If all we focused on were the burglaries or car thefts and didn’t think about those other things, we were not as effective at helping people create, or have the sense that they lived in, a safe neighborhood.

That reminds me of a conversation I had with my uncle who’s a police officer in a big city. He said he gets frustrated arresting the same people over and over and seeing them doing the same thing when they get out of jail. But he said his department is understaffed and underfunded. Did you find that to be a challenge in your department? Is it harder for a police department like my uncle’s who doesn’t have as many resources, or should departments like his focus on problem solving even moreso because they have fewer resources?

It is a challenge. Once they create a little bit of time to think about solutions, it can end up saving time in the long run. Sometimes what’s needed is an environmental change that reduces workload, which then in turn gives them more time to be able to work on other problems.

A quick example: In Newport News, the department that I mentioned where we started doing the SARA model, we had a convenience store the police had been to over 600 times in 12 months, mostly for larceny and issues in the parking lot. Once officers started looking at the root of the problems, they realized there were a lot of thefts of beer and cigarettes, specifically. The beer was right by the front door, which made it easy for people to pick up and take off. The cigarette displays were right by the cash register and easily accessible to people. They decided to relocate the cigarettes to a case that allowed only the store staff into it. They relocated the beer to the back of the store, so people couldn’t just grab it and run. Thefts for both beer and cigarettes went down considerably. They also had a lot of calls because of people gathering in the parking lot. They would buy beer and wine, if they didn’t steal it, and then go out in the lot and drink it, and when the police would come, they would all run back through this lot back into the housing complex. Officers got the store to put up a fence so it enclosed that area, so you couldn’t hang out there and then run from the police when they responded. Over the next year, calls for service dropped from 600 down to about 200. Still, that’s way too many calls, and they continue to work on it, but that was 400 calls for service that the police didn’t have to make. Each of those calls averaged probably about 30–45 minutes at least, so you’re talking about hundreds of hours of time saved.

If you could walk into any police academy today and talk to the cadets to give them advice — what would your top advice be?

Treat people with respect. Treat them how you’d like to be treated. If police officers always did that, you’d see a substantial improvement in our relationships.

Chief Darrel Stephens (Ret.) is a decorated police veteran from North Carolina with more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement. He’s now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other criminal justice professionals working on public safety solutions. He’s an expert in transparency and accountability in policing, crime prevention strategies, procedural justice training, officer mental health/PTSD, and the use of body-worn cameras.

Mikayla Hellwich is the Media Relations & Speakers Bureau Director for LEAP.



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