After beginning his career as a public defender in Southern California, Walter Katz spent the next three decades in public service, serving as an independent police auditor in San Jose, California, and as deputy inspector general for the County of Los Angeles Office of Inspector General (OIG) before returning to his hometown of Chicago in 2017 to serve as deputy chief of staff for public safety in the administration of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. In that role, Katz oversaw one of the most complex police reform efforts in the United States and served as a co-negotiator of a consent decree enacted in 2019 that resulted in the design and development of the city's Office of Violence Prevention.
PND recently spoke with Katz about the summer of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, what calls for defunding the police mean, and the role of philanthropy in driving change.
Philanthropy News Digest: There have been a number of high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers over the last few years. What was different about George Floyd's death? And what do you make of the fact that protests across the nation sparked by his death were multi-racial and multi-generational?
Walter Katz: I think many people not involved in criminal justice reform had moved on from those earlier killings. There are so many other issues competing for our attention, from climate change, to political uncertainty, to the pandemic. But seeing video of that officer use his knee to choke the life out of George Floyd, with impunity and seemingly without any concern for George Floyd's humanity, really focused people on what is happening in this country. It was such a shocking thing that people across the country were forced to acknowledge that this kind of activity on the part of the police cannot be tolerated, that the reforms of the past several years have not had the anticipated effect, and that more urgent action is needed.
As for the protests, I think they're a reflection of the America in which we live. In the past, advocates and activists for change were maybe more siloed off into their own particular issues, but young people today are much more connected intersectionally. The connections between, say, housing policy and policing and underinvestment in communities of color are apparent and readily made; there's a broader understanding of how things connect to and influence each other.
Here at the foundation, we're encouraged by how well the public seems to understand the cross-cutting relationships between, say, police reform and public safety and what we need to do to reduce violent crime. And once you look at the connections between those kinds of issues, it immediately raises questions. How should we respond to people in real time who are in crisis? When someone calls 911 with a tip or problem, should the response always be to send a police officer to the scene? Might it be more effective, depending on the situation, to send a mental health worker or a social worker or a community intervention specialist? Does every single call to the police require an armed response? All of this calls for really thoughtful conversations and for good-faith efforts to dig into data about what works and what doesn't and seeing where that data leads us.
Our Data Driven Justice Project is expressly trying to ask those kinds of questions: What does an effective co-responder model look like? Law enforcement and other first-responders are sent to all sorts of calls, including people who are unhoused or people living with mental illness. First-responders, through no fault of their own, tend to only see the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, however, the person may have a long history with a variety of social services. Being able to have that information is critical, and that requires that we break down silos — not only operational silos, but data silos. First-responders should have access to as much of the data that is out there as possible. Local governments may already have it, but it's often hidden away in a completely different data warehouse. The role of data in all this and how we help jurisdictions that are trying to make it more accessible is something the foundation is thinking carefully about.
PND: The signature demand of protests this summer was a call for the police to be "defunded." Is that something that could happen over the next couple of years?
WK: One of the challenges of the call to defund has been the lack of clarity as to what the term actually means. Some say "abolition" is the goal, but when asked what "abolition" means, some people will say "no police," while others will say "a transformation of public safety that's not necessarily exclusive to policing." The distinction depends on the messenger, and it's the cause of a lot of confusion. City councils that are grappling with these issues have been approving police budgets for years, and I'm concerned that some of the cuts we're hearing about are not being done with a lot of rigorous analysis. In the weeks after George Floyd's death, there was a sort of reflexive "respond in the moment" quality to some of the actions taken. But I believe the rhetoric around "defunding" will evolve into something more thoughtful with respect to what communities want, what they expect, and what the budgeting process should look like. I would say that, in general, we need to have better-informed policy making and budget making. Collective bargaining by our elected officials, for example, needs to be more transparent and we need more accountability from our law enforcement leadership.
PND: What else can policy makers do to make police departments more accountable to their communities?
WK: Elected officials need to be more engaged. They need to ask tougher questions of police departments about budgets and policies and union contracts, and tougher questions about legal settlements that are brought to city council for approval. I've had a lot of exposure to county boards and supervisors and city councils, and there's significant variation in the level of interest and engagement in those kinds of critical public policy issues. Our elected municipal leaders have to be just as accountable with respect to the current crisis as law enforcement officials. To those elected officials I would say, Get out and talk to people in the community. Get out and talk to street cops. Take a few ride-alongs and see for yourself what is going on in your community. I'm calling on politicians not only to be more engaged but to ask a lot of tough questions and to hold themselves, and their police departments, accountable.
PND: In the context of policing, what is qualified immunity? And are police unions a barrier to meaningful police reform?
WK: I'll give you the short answer: An officer is not liable for violating the civil rights of an individual when the court finds that the purported violation was not well-settled law. In essence, a qualified immunity hearing is a motion brought by a defendant officer in a civil rights action in federal court. And the defense is "the thing I'm accused of doing was either a) not a violation of civil rights, or b) even if it was, it was not well-settled law, so I, the officer, was not on proper notice that this would be a civil rights violation if I engaged in whatever conduct I'm accused of."
Traditionally, the qualified immunity decision by a judge would rest on that two-part formulation. But a lot of the courts have skipped to the second part — on whether or not it was well-settled law. The problem is that by ignoring the first part, the courts have not established good jurisprudence for the police as to what conduct is or is not constitutional. And that has become a grave difficulty for plaintiffs, who say there are plenty of cases where, for example, a police shooting has occurred at the end of a foot pursuit. We need to have clarity in cases like that, but instead the courts say, it's not well-settled law. Our argument is that the courts must provide guidance on what the law is. That is where some of the challenges have come from regarding qualified immunity.
With regard to the police unions, I would say that the academic evidence on their impact on reform is scanty. But the research published to date appears to demonstrate that collective bargaining leads to reduced accountability, more frequent use of force, and, from what I have heard about a soon-to-be published paper, more deadly force being brought to bear against Black people. All that is very concerning. When a union says it will fight a consent decree tooth and nail in court or mount an effort to recall a city council member — as a police union in Orange County, California, recently did successfully — I think the answer to your question is pretty clear: police unions are a barrier to policing reform. There are places where police unions have been partners in progress, but not nearly enough, and in general their focus is on pay and benefits and to make sure that the due process rights of their membership are protected.
PND: What is the role of philanthropy in this discussion? Can it actually do anything to move the needle on the reforms that African Americans and others around the country are demanding?
WK: In this moment, I think there are remarkable opportunities for philanthropy at all levels. Advocates and activists have been showing the way on reform for a number of years now, and philanthropy needs to follow. And as it supports calls for more accountability and transparency in policing — and criminal justice more generally — it should insist on having as much as information as it can about interventions and policies that work, and those that don't. It should insist on knowing as much as it can about various structural barriers to reform, about the impact of sunshine laws, about the so-called Law Enforcement Officers' Bills of Rights. Those are all things where we can help deepen the knowledge base, highlight what works, and support advocates pushing much-needed, thoughtful reform.
— Matt Sinclair