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EXCERPT: Practically Radical

Christina Huh Jan 28, 2011

The following excerpt is from “Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself.” Listen to an interview with author William C. Taylor and learn more about the book.

Chapter One

What You See Shapes How
You Change–The Virtues of
Vuja Dé

Crime is for the most part not about strangers. Most crime is intimate and personal. A lot of criminals rarely travel outside their neighborhood; they certainly don’t travel outside their city. That’s why so much crime goes unreported. You call who you know — and people don’t know the police. Over two generations, we have moved from the “cop on the beat” to anonymous blue soldiers. We are strangers in your midst. That’s why we have to wear a number on our badge and a name on our chest. That’s been the model of policing, and that’s what we are changing.
–Colonel Dean Esserman, chief of police, Providence, Rhode Island

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in downtown Providence, and the only thing colder than the January air is the chill in the economy. On this frosty morning, America’s most compact state can lay claim to a wide range of problems: the country’s second-highest rate of unemployment, the lowest high school graduation rate in the Northeast, a sky-high rate of mortgage foreclosures, and a reputation for corruption that rates among the most notorious anywhere. Who says good things come in small packages? When two reporters from the New York Times took a hard look at the “oversize problems” facing Little Rhody, many of the experts and officials they talked to worried that the state and its capital city were trapped in “parochialism, insecurity and outdated traditions that block change at every turn.”

Yet despite the winter temperatures and frigid social conditions, the atmosphere inside the Providence Public Safety Complex is white hot. A third-floor conference room is bustling with people, some in crisply pressed uniforms, some in expensive suits, some in jeans and T-shirts. There’s small talk and laughter, handshakes and pats on the back, colleagues catching up and busting chops. Once the session comes to order, though, the chatter stops and the intensity level rises. This is one of Chief of Police Dean Esserman’s first weekly command meetings of the New Year, and everyone recognizes that the eroding climate in both the state and its largest city has created the perfect conditions for challenges to law and order. It’s up to the people in this room to demonstrate, no matter the conditions, that crime does not pay.

Computer-generated data, neighborhood maps, and photos of suspects get displayed on a big screen. There’s a rapid-fire, district-by-district review of new incidents, open cases, and worrisome trends, from nightclubs that seem to be on the edge of chaos to troublemakers from out of town. There is a special focus on guns and gangs, twin plagues of a city like Providence. In minutes, it becomes clear that escalating beefs between two gangs on the city’s South Side — C-Block (for Congress Avenue) and M.O.P. (for “Members of Pine”) — are creating big problems. When talk turns to a recent gunshot victim, and officers around the table inquire about his affiliation, Esserman himself weighs in: “I rolled on this. He seems like a decent kid. He lives with his mother. They shot him just because he was there.”

That makes a bad situation worse — innocent victims are getting caught up in the cross fire, as a sergeant reminds his colleagues. “I talked with his mom yesterday,” another participant says. “It’s very busy for January,” adds a worried voice from the back of the room. “I’ve been at the hospital more than I can remember. I agree with Sarge. We have to crush this now.” (The warning would prove to be prophetic. Two months after this command meeting, a seventeen-year-old “known associate” of the M.O.P gang was shot dead at a backyard party. Five days later, a seventeen-year-old associate of C-Block was
shot in retribution for the killing.)

The serious tone gets broken up a few times by funny stories. In his district, a local commander notes, one of the week’s more colorful crimes was “an eighty-five-year-old guy who got assaulted by his fifty-year-old girlfriend.” The other cops, impressed by the man’s apparent romantic prowess, ask about his condition. “She hit him on the head with an ashtray,” the commander says. “His main concern was getting his ashtray back.” The room explodes in laughter.

On the surface, then, the meeting looks much like what you’d expect from an urban police department — the sort of computer-aided strategy session that William Bratton made famous when he ran the NYPD (the legendary CompStat reviews), complete with all the human drama and gallows humor that gets celebrated on TV shows like The District, the melodramatic CBS series that was modeled on the take-charge style of Bratton and his deputy commissioner, the late Jack Maple. “Is this guy known to us? I don’t know him — is he in the system?” asks one frustrated detective about a suspect in one of his cases. “I can’t believe we can’t find this car!” exclaims the chief in frustration as a different detective runs down another case.

Look more closely, though, and what you see represents a sharp challenge to business as usual in this gritty city. One sign that there’s something different going on is who’s in the room. It’s not just police brass. There’s Richard Rose, the federal prosecutor who sent Providence’s disgraced former mayor, the infamous Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, to jail for five years on a racketeering charge. (The undercover FBI investigation went by the made-for-the-movies name Operation Plunder Dome.) There are social workers from Family Service of Rhode Island; Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which trains ex-gang members as “street workers” to intervene in tough neighborhoods; and the Reverend Dr. Jeffrey Williams, founder of the Cathedral of Life Christian Assembly, one of the city’s largest Protestant congregations. There are even half a dozen nervously fascinated students from Brown University, who are getting an up-close-and-personal look at life outside the ivory tower.

Why is this unlikely group of civilians sitting in on the command session of a big-city police department? Because Chief Esserman has opened his mission-critical meetings to anyone who wants to attend: government officials, high-powered community leaders, grassroots activists, ordinary citizens, even members of the press. Virtually anything and everything about crime in this troubled city is open to the public and on the record every Tuesday morning at 8:30 sharp. In return, virtually anyone and everyone who wants to play a role in reducing crime has a seat at the table. Rhode Island may have a reputation, as the Times noted, for “parochialism” and “insecurity”– but there is nothing parochial about these gatherings, and most of the participants are secure enough to speak their mind.

One hard-boiled local reporter, who was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to divulge his sources for a series of all-too-accurate reports on the Cianci investigation, sat in on a command session and was struck by the changes it represented in how most institutions in Providence have worked for most of the city’s history. This was the first time ever that civilians were welcomed “into the inner sanctum” of the police department, he wrote, and the chief presided with “a sometimes combustible mixture of Donald Trump’s candor and the probing questions of Socrates.”

After the meeting adjourns, Esserman returns to his office, whichis filled with books, reports, white papers, framed photos, and mementoes of his years in law enforcement, and explains what just took place and why. “I love John Wayne,” he says with gusto. “I have seen every John Wayne movie. I have been to his birthplace in Iowa, twice. Last summer I drove across country with my son, and we sang ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ together — in John Wayne’s house! I could sing it now and it would bring a tear to my eye.

“But even I have to admit that the lone cowboy is dead,” he continues. “Tough guys say, ‘Cops shouldn’t be social workers.’ We patrol with social workers in the cars! Ministers used to march against us. Now they come to these meetings. Street workers are crucial partners in fighting violence. But the only way to get a job as a street worker is if we have put you away for heavy time. Late one night, I took some cops and some street workers out for lousy coffee and greasy fries. It felt tense, then I realized why. The guys on one side of the table had at some point arrested all the guys on the other side of the table! Now we’re on the same side.”

Esserman has been undeniably creative — indeed, downright unorthodox — in the resources he’s tapped to change the climate in his city. He persuaded high school students to design some truly arresting posters (pun intended) that he displays in the department’s holding cells, reminding their occupants that the city makes it a point to “federalize” weapons charges whenever possible, and that such a gun conviction means serious time in a federal prison (of which there are none in Rhode Island) without the possibility of parole. As I toured the lockup with the chief, he pointed to one poster, created by an eleventh grader, that featured mug shots of Rhode Island young people languishing in federal facilities far from home. The caption: “No Friends. No Family. No Freedom.”

The tough-minded chief also has an unapologetic soft spot for the city’s social workers — who literally have a seat at the table during his weekly command meetings, as well as in patrol cars with his beat cops. Family Service of Rhode Island has social workers who are available to police twenty-four hours a day and get called immediately whenever a child witnesses a crime. Social workers respond to every murder and to all cases of domestic violence. There are designated social workers who roll with the cops to intervene with and follow up on tough family issues. Margaret Holland McDuff, the CEO of Family Service of Rhode Island, explained it this way to Governing magazine, the go-to journal for state and local officials. “The [Providence] police have become brokers of service.
They have their tool kit, and we’re one of the tools in it.”

But it’s the no-nonsense relationship between Dean Esserman’s cops and Teny Gross’s street workers — between law enforcers and former lawbreakers — that is the most vivid example of the unlikely partnerships that have been created in the interest of fighting crime. Jack McConnell, a high-powered Providence lawyer who was nominated by President Obama in March 2010 to become a U.S. District Court judge, put it succinctly in the profile of Esserman for Governing: “The relationship between Teny and the police chief should be a national model.”

Gross, who runs the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, is a truly intriguing character. Born in Israel, he served in the Israeli Army and patrolled the tense streets of the West Bank as a sergeant before he devoted himself to the mean streets of Providence. So he’s studied at the school of hard knocks. But he’s also quite the intellectual. After he moved from Israel to New England, he received a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School, and then found himself in Rhode Island, where his wife teaches photography at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). When I met him at the weekly command meeting (he’s the one who’d brought along the Brown students), he’d just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and was eager to discuss it. He also asked whether I’d ever sat in on Professor Michael Sandel’s famous seminar on “Justice” at Harvard.

Gross’s much-admired organization, which was established by a group of ministers in 2000, isn’t exactly the stuff of the Ivy League. It hires former gang members, convicted felons (including a few convicted of murder), and other recruits with deeply troubled pasts to walk and work the streets, deal with all kinds of tensions and social problems, organize after-school activities, intervene in fights and disagreements, and otherwise try to solve problems before they erupt into violence. In other words, his team of street workers will never be confused with civic-minded do-gooders or public-policy wonks. They are tough, gritty, complicated — which is precisely why they have such credibility among the kids (even the gangs) in the city’s roughest neighborhoods, and why they are of such value to the cops.

This is not to suggest the day-to-day relationship between hardnosed police officers and onetime lawbreakers is always smooth and effortless. Sometimes, cops resent it when street workers show up at the scene of a crime and inject themselves into the situation. They resent it even more when they believe street workers have information that might help to crack a case and choose not to share it right away. But more often than not, cops are quick to call in street workers before a crime takes place, to defuse a tense situation or straighten out a wayward kid. “Not long ago, the police were arresting these guys,” Gross explained to a Rhode Island writer who chronicled his underappreciated work. “Now they’re called peacekeepers. The cops are like, ‘yea, right.’ But street workers are a daily reminder to all those in power that people who have done wrong in the past can be among the most useful members of our society.”

They are also, according to Esserman, his department’s secret weapon in making the streets safer. “Teny is the single most important partnership we have to fight crime and violence,” the chief told a writer from Harvard Magazine who profiled one of the university’s more hard-to-pigeonhole alumni. “Everywhere I go –to every shooting, every ER, in classrooms, to every wake, every funeral — I see Teny, even if it’s two o’clock in the morning. He and the street workers are about building sustained relationships of trust. The kids know that they love them — they don’t get that from many adults.”

Esserman himself does not mince words about the loveless realities of life on the streets in Providence or any other American city. He carries the human and social cost of youth violence on his shoulders with a palpable sense of moral failing and personal loss. You can hear the tragedy in his voice. “I remember so clearly what Osama bin Laden said after September 11,” he told me. “He said, ‘I’m coming back and next time it will be one hundred thousand dead.’ Well, just seven years after those horrible attacks, we had done his job for him. We had lost a hundred thousand Americans to murder. I grew up watching Walter Cronkite and the body count in Vietnam. But the American peacetime body count dwarfs the military body count. We approach fifty murders every day, sixteen thousand every year. And it’s almost always the same story: a young man is dead, another young man is suspected or arrested, the instrument is a gun — all three elements of the crime are made in America. Immigration has nothing to do with this issue. As a father and a patriot, it is hard for me to accept the fact that we have become a land that buries its young, and with no moral outrage.”

In Providence, at least, Chief Esserman’s sweeping transformation in how his organization fights crime has changed the prospects for criminals — and not for the better. He took command of the Providence Police Department in January 2003. In the first five years of his tenure, total crime dropped by a head-spinning 30 percent. Murders were down by 39 percent, rapes by 64 percent, robberies by 30 percent, aggravated assaults by 17 percent. This dramatic progress, it should be noted, came during a period when police chiefs across the country were worried that crime was poised to make comeback in many urban centers after widespread declines in the 1990s–a trend so pronounced that the Police Executive Research Forum issued a dire report on the “gathering storm” of violent crime in America.

In 2009, as a result of a free fall in economic conditions and the always-unpredictable vagaries of human behavior, violent crime in Providence (murder and rape) rose sharply over the year before, even though other crimes (burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft) continued their remarkable downward progression. Domestic violence often turned fatal, gang members shot and stabbed each other more, petty quarrels escalated into more serious confrontations — developments that shook a city that had grown accustomed to steady improvements. Esserman makes it a point to visit the hospital whenever a victim gets admitted with a serious gunshot wound, a sign that he is serious about recognizing the fallout from violence. He made more of those visits in 2009 than he expected. “There are too many shootings and too much violence,” he told a local reporter. “It’s hard to tell what we’ve prevented, but we haven’t prevented enough.”

Whatever the shorter-term flare-ups and statistical fluctuations, though, when it comes to public safety, there’s no denying that Dean Esserman’s crime-fighting strategy has had a dramatic impact on the streets of his city, and on the direction of crime fighting itself. In an exhaustive review of police innovations around the country, the authoritative Governing magazine offered this assessment of what’s happened in Providence since 2003: “Esserman has taken a department that was widely seen as corrupt, only sporadically effective and isolated from the community it ostensibly served, and turned it into a nationally respected force for civil order.” Even among reform-minded chiefs, Governing concluded, “Esserman stands out for an iron-willed determination to explore just how thoroughly a police department can enmesh itself in community life.”

The chief, true to form, makes the point even more radically — and more practically. “My father was an old-time physician,” he remarked at the end of one of our discussions. “If you asked anyone in the neighborhood, ‘Who’s your family doctor?’ they’d say Paul Esserman. Ask most people today, ‘Who’s your family priest or rabbi?’ and you’ll get a name. But ask, ‘Who’s your family cop?’ and you’ll get a blank stare. In the postmodern era, with the technology revolution, policing became two cops in a car with a radio. We became strangers in our own communities. There has to be better way. We have to go back to what we were.”

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