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Questions to Ask Police Chiefs
Police are rarely forced to talk about what they actually do. This is a failure of journalism and of governance. I put together a short list of questions that any journalist or any public official could ask any police chief in any city at any time in any public oversight hearing or any media interview:
Why do you choose not to arrest bosses for wage theft but you choose to arrest poor people for shoplifting?
Who are the Top 10 highest paid cops in the city, including overtime? Do you think this overtime pay is a good use of taxpayer money? What internal protocols and investigations have you initiated to prevent against the epidemic of overtime and sick-leave fraud by police?
Why do you think that about 90% of the people arrested by your department are too poor to afford an attorney? Do you think this fact says anything about the kinds of crimes that you choose to investigate and the kinds of crimes you choose to ignore?
Why do you think, and based on what evidence, that armed police officers are the most cost-effective way to deal with vehicular traffic code enforcement? What percentage of your police budget is devoted to traffic enforcement, including overtime for writing tickets?
Why do you think, and based on what evidence, that armed police officers are the socially optimal first responder to mental health incidents?
Why do you choose to devote almost all of your undercover resources to drug busts and not to undercover investigations of police corruption or white-collar crime?
Why do you choose to arrest people for drug possession as the plurality of your arrests?
Do you have any reason to believe that, unlike the national empirical evidence, usage of illegal drugs is higher in poor neighborhoods than in wealthier neighborhoods or higher among Black people than white people in this city? If this city is not different than the data available nationally, why do you focus your narcotics operations, undercover narcotics operations, and arrests on poor people almost exclusively?
Why do you choose not to investigate and arrest people who own polluting businesses for illegal dumping of chemicals in violation of state law? When was the last time you chose to conduct an illegal dumping undercover operation? What surveillance operations do you have devoted to monitor pollution violations? How many informants do you currently have working with officers to investigate illegal dumping of chemicals?
Please provide a list of each officer who has been investigated for having lied, in any of the following contexts, in the past 10 years: in a police report, in an application for a warrant, on any department paperwork, in video footage, in testimony, to a prosecutor, or to a superior concerning any employment incident.
If state law criminalizes abortion and then criminalizes contraception and then criminalizes sodomy, do you intend to have your officers cage people for any of these offenses?
Which surveillance technology are you employing that has not been publicly disclosed to the city council? How much are you spending, and how frequently are you deploying, Stingray or similar devices to capture cellular phone information of unsuspecting residents?
Can you provide a list of each of your predictive policing programs, as well as the procurement contracts and any private grants that pay for any program employing any form of artificial intelligence, predictive policing, or algorithmic prediction?
How many officers are paid either full-time or part-time to do any form of public relations, including but not limited to: direct contact with reporters, social media, video production, participation in neighborhood message boards or listserves, tracking and researching public opinion, collecting information on favorable or unfavorable journalists, conducting or contracting for focus groups on police messaging, any form of lobbying, and intervention with victims families to control press access to them.
Do you agree that you should be terminated from your job if you knowingly provided the public any false, incomplete, or misleading information to any of these questions?
City council members with oversight authority are entitled to ask these questions, and to persist until they get comprehensive, truthful answers. Major media outlets in each city are entitled to ask these questions of public officials, and to persist until they get comprehensive, truthful answers.
Building a culture and an archive of adversarial questioning of police officials on important topics should be seen as an essential component of both democratic public service and ethical media coverage. And there are many other questions to ask. Perhaps you can add your own to the list.
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**This post was adapted and expanded from a twitter thread on July 1, 2022.