Imagine if a municipal utilities department couldn’t deliver clean water, or a garbage department couldn’t pick up trash, or a fire department couldn’t extinguish conflagrations.
Now suppose these departments, confronted by an undeniable failure to successfully perform their core duties, disavowed any further intent to provide potable water, or collect refuse, or put out fires. Instead, they would, through an aggressive public relations campaign funded by taxpayers’ dollars, attempt to convince the public of their indispensability despite their abysmal job performance.
These departments’ leaders would be sacked, their budgets stripped, their infrastructure abolished, and their duties redistributed to other agencies and organizations better equipped to complete their work.
Not, however, when the dysfunctional agency is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which recently confessed: Policing doesn’t work, and only a vigorous public relations campaign can hope to protect CMPD’s reputation, prerogatives, and budget.
That’s the take-away from the department’s recently announced 2021-23 strategic plan and the department’s newly revised mission statement: “CMPD implements solutions and expands collaborative relationships within our organization and community to enhance trust, fairness and respect, and to increase public safety.”
“A lot has changed in policing over the last quarter of a century, and re-examining our department’s vision has been long overdue,” CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings explained in a brief video announcing the changes. (The mission statement was last revised in 1994.)
“It’s the only way to ensure our vision reflects today’s environment, culture, and the expectations of the community we serve.”
One might conclude from Jennings’s remarks that CMPD’s strategic plan constitutes an effort by the department to better align itself with the community’s expectations of law enforcement, an example of democratic responsiveness whereby a powerful institution of local government takes seriously the demands of the people.
Rather, the plan’s outlines tell the story of a department that knows it cannot achieve the results people largely expect of it — namely, preventing and solving crime — and therefore intends to launch an aggressive propaganda blitz to convince the public that law enforcement in Charlotte, despite failing at its core functions, is invaluable. (It should comes as no surprise, then, that the second-highest paid employee in the department is a PR professional, not a law enforcement officer, confirmation that the real business of policing is not preventing or solving crime, but justifying policing’s own continued existence and funding.)
Let’s start with the mushiness of the mission statement. In an era in which institutions of government are obsessed with metrics susceptible to measurement and quantification, the statement’s promise to “implement” unnamed “solutions” and “expand collaborative relationships” to “enhance trust, fairness and respect” so as to “increase public safety” is maddeningly vague, a sort of bureaucratic Rorschach test of corporate HR gobbledygook that says nothing while intending to leave the impression of saying quite a lot. Such a statement’s value is not operational, but propagandistic.
Conspicuously absent from CMPD’s new mission statement is any reference to the two primary tasks that largely justify a police department’s existence in the popular imagination: preventing and solving crime. (“Back the blue! They keep us safe!”)
The mission statement’s silence about preventing or solving crime is a tacit and damning admission by local law enforcement: CMPD is incapable of performing the basic work we expect of it, a confession corroborated by recent data showing that, despite ballooning police budgets, we’ve had more crime — most of it unsolved — in recent years.
CMPD’s self-awareness that it can’t actually do those things expected of it means the department must justify its continued existence, power, and funding independent of its actual job performance. Hence the need for an aggressive public relations campaign.
It’s right there in the department’s stated goal of “community collaboration,” one of its newly announced core priorities: CMPD seeks “a community that trusts and openly supports police.”
In other words, the plan isn’t about reforming the police, but reforming attitudes toward policing, ginning up support for law enforcement and convincing the public through propaganda that a failed model of policing ought to be retained.
“We must be willing to engage and collaborate with community activists, elected officials and anyone else who is willing to come together with reasonable, respectful and responsible dialogue to discuss how to move policing forward,” Jennings said in a statement accompanying the release of the strategic plan. Translation: Critics of policing per se are persona non grata, and fundamental change — like defunding the police — is a non-starter.
The plan further articulates CMPD’s goal to boost its approval rating by “reach[ing]” and “engag[ing]” the “silent majority who support us” so “those who are not activists are comfortable with supporting us openly” and there is “more visible community support of the CMPD, especially during times of crisis.” This will involve “provid[ing] a police perspective … and educat[ing] groups about the work of policing and its role within the community and the criminal justice system.” It’s a plan that’s one part self-pity and two parts self-promotion.
Additionally, CMPD will “build a support system of community leaders … who understand the CMPD’s role in managing crime in our community.” The department thus intends to enlist a coterie of sympathetic ambassadors to run interference in the community for it and its reputational interests.
The department will also focus on “internal and external messaging” so “the community at-large trusts and respects CMPD.” This will involve “increas[ing] methods and frequency via marketing to promote what CMPD is doing.” Spin, spin, spin.
And CMPD will “improve the community’s feelings and perceptions of safety.” This will be done by “increas[ing] the physical presence and visibility of CMPD and becom[ing] more approachable to the community.” What choice does the department have? The data shows it can’t actually prevent or solve crime, so it must instead seek to influence people’s “feelings and perceptions.”
The sum total of these efforts is that while CMPD has said of late that it intends to make small, mostly cosmetic changes to some of its operations, the department’s primary response to recent, compelling criticism of law enforcement is to launch an assault on the minds of community members, using some of its hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money to do so.
This is dangerous to democracy: A department of local government intends not to serve the people, but manipulate them.