A chat with the chief
Chris Davis reflects on first year as Green Bay police chief
By Kevin Damask
Chris Davis feels he’s accomplished a great deal in his first year as Green Bay police chief, but many goals and challenges lie ahead as he jumps into his second year.
Davis was sworn in as police chief on Sept. 16, 2021.
Since his wife is from Kaukauna and he’s a native of central Ohio, Davis was excited to return to the Midwest after spending much of his career in Portland, Oregon.
Davis recently sat down for a lengthy phone interview with the Press Times.
He discussed his first year as chief, getting to know the Green Bay community, addressing the city’s troubling rise in gun violence, mental health professionals working with police and several other key topics.
Press Times: You began your career in policing at your alma mater, Arizona State University (ASU).
What was it like to police a large college campus?
Chris Davis: It’s a very different kind of police work.
Actually, as time has gone on, I’ve valued the experience I got there at the beginning of my career.
You’re dealing with college students, and college students like to argue, so you learn to talk to people and you learn to negotiate and to use your words more.
That actually showed up for me later on in my career.
Sometimes, when I was in Portland, I would drive my co-workers crazy because I would not be finished talking to people when they would be ready to just grab them and bring them into custody.
I’ve always been more comfortable spending time talking to people, de-escalating things — you learn a lot about relating to people.
I think that serves you pretty well, especially these days.
It was really busy there.
Back then, ASU, all by itself, would have been the ninth largest city in Arizona.
And, it’s right in the middle of the valley, so there’s all kinds of stuff that spills into the campus from outside.
PT: It’s a great school, but I know it has a bit of a reputation as a party school.
Davis: (Laughs) I started going to school there in 1989, and it got to the point where I could only afford to go part time.
I was working as a student-worker at the police department and that’s how I became a police officer.
I never had time for any of the party school stuff because I had to work.
In the mid-1990s, the university was really trying to change that image.
They were really pushing the police to take action on drug and alcohol issues.
PT: After ASU, you spent almost 23 years with the Portland Police Bureau out in Oregon.
You spent time in several different roles there, including as deputy chief of police.
How did your time in Portland prepare you for your current role?
Davis: I was lucky enough to do a lot of different things.
Until I got promoted to lieutenant, I was mostly in operational assignments, either in patrol or the narcotics unit.
Most of my time was spent working in the precincts.
In 2011, the chief promoted me to lieutenant and moved me to internal affairs, which nobody usually asks to go to.
But that experience was really good for me because I learned a lot about how to do police accountability the right way, and how to make it effective.
We make a lot of mistakes in how we hold police officers accountable.
It was a good inside look at the accountability system and the first chance I really had to interact with people outside the police bureau who had an interest in police accountability.
I also got to see the community perspective on how they wanted to see us hold people accountable.
That’s one of the things that helped me the most — understanding that and getting that right — which is not always what your instinct would tell you.
One of the things we’re seeing across the country is the defensiveness from police officers when we point out something they could have done better.
That gets us in a lot of trouble as a profession because it’s not helpful to community trust.
One of the reasons why that defensiveness shows up so much is because officers very often don’t perceive police investigation or discipline processes as fair.
When you can get them to buy into those processes and believe they’re fair, they’re a lot less likely to be defensive.
If you can get people to commit to do something better, that’s great.
One of my mentors was a chief we had there, Rosie Sizer, who told me if you ever have a chance to work on the business side of the police bureau to understand the budget, hiring process, personnel issues and all the administrative stuff that it takes to run a police department, you’ll be so far ahead of a lot of people who spent their whole careers doing operations or investigative assignments.
I spent a couple years as the assistant chief of the services branch in Portland.
I got some really good experience in understanding how to run the business of a police department and how it fits into city government.
Those experiences have been helpful to me here.
PT: You’ve been on the job for about 13 months.
Overall, how has the experience been for you?
Davis: It’s been great.
It’s a great group of people to work with inside the organization.
I just continue to be really impressed with the quality of officers and professional staff we have here.
Really hard workers, really talented people.
The community has been really good.
They’re so supportive of us.
It’s not like that everywhere in the country.
There’s a sense that while we don’t agree on everything all the time, we all want the same things; we’re all in it together, rolling in the same direction.
That’s not like that in every city in the country. We have a lot to work with here and an opportunity to do some things to set the example for everybody else for how to do public safety the right way.
It’s a lot easier to get things done here.
PT: What surprised you the most when you became chief in Green Bay?
Davis: Just the sentiment inside the department.
Coming from Portland, our bureau had a rough couple of years, and I always assumed cops in other places outside of that were happier.
It was interesting to see how with all of the stuff going on this time a year ago and how the couple years leading up to that had impacted people here who, on balance, have it pretty good.
We have a very supportive community, a pretty well-resourced department.
We don’t have everything that we need, but we’re above average with resources.
But morale was not as great as I thought it would be.
I do feel like we’ve turned some of that around.
People feel pretty good about working here.
They like some of the things we’re doing, especially with employee wellness.
We’re trying to be a lot more intentional about the health of our organization.
Some of those efforts are starting to pay off.
PT: Were you able to meet some of the short-term goals you had when you became chief?
Davis: One of the first things that I wanted to do when I got here was improve the work environment and improve the sentiment in the organization.
If you have people who are happy coming to work, you’re going to provide better police service.
I feel like we’ve done that.
I also wanted to address our staffing shortage; we had a number of vacant positions when I got here.
I don’t want to jinx it, but we are close to full strength filling all of our budgeted positions, and not a lot of police departments are saying that right now.
We had a pretty big problem with gun violence when I got here and we’ve been able to at least put some strategies in place that I think will address that.
That’s a work in progress.
It hasn’t gone up but it’s still at the same level it was a year ago and that’s too high.
We’ve been able to establish a full-time patrol-based unit to deal with that problem.
We’ve been able to get a community stakeholders group together to help inform that work and make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s consistent with the community’s expectations.
It’s just been a lot easier to get things like that done fairly quickly here.
In the medium term, we’re in the process of doing a complete overhaul of all the accountability practices because they need some work.
They are widely perceived inside the organization as not being fair, and I want to make sure we implement best practices for police accountability that people both inside and outside the organization believe are fair.
Long-term, I would like us to maintain full-staffing, or as close as possible.
Reduce employee turnover.
We were losing more people when I got here, prior to retirement eligibility, and that seems to be getting better.
I also want to see us evolve in terms of how we deploy our resources and how we do policing in our community.
I want us to be more focused on solving root causes.
Then, making sure we’re keeping people healthier, focused on employee wellness so when someone finishes a career in police work they’re in good shape and they’re mentally healthy.
PT: What is the most prevalent crime in the city? What steps is the department taking to address it?
Davis: We’re seeing a pretty dramatic increase in property crime, driven mostly by thefts from vehicles, especially catalytic converter theft, and then a fairly significant increase in retail theft.
Our investigators and patrol folks have worked on a plan to try to prevent and also catch some of the people responsible for catalytic converter theft.
I can’t go into too much detail, but we know that’s not a huge number of people that are involved, and eventually all of that stolen stuff winds up in a few different places, so it’s just getting into the organization of those crimes and bringing them down.
We still have a problem with gun violence.
Overall, violent crime is down.
That includes not only gun violence, but robberies and sex offenses, so that’s good news, but we still have more gun crime than we should for a city this size.
PT: Speaking of gun violence, a five-year-old girl was shot and killed last week in Green Bay. Gun violence has become a problem across the country, but it’s especially frustrating when little kids are caught in the crossfire.
Davis: Yeah, it’s completely unacceptable.
PT: There’s been a push nationally in recent years to involve mental health professionals in police work, maybe even responding to calls with officers. What’s your take on that?
Davis: I think it’s a really good approach.
It’s something we pioneered in Portland several years ago where we partnered clinicians with police officers.
We have a similar program here — a behavioral health unit that we would like to expand.
The only thing that’s gotten in our way is just a huge number of vacancies that we’ve had.
As our staffing improves, I anticipate expanding our behavioral health unit.
We have one clinician now and we’re exploring the possibility of getting a second one.
I like the model of pairing an officer with a clinician and that team goes out and does follow-up.
Maybe they don’t respond — that’s kind of a misconception about the behavioral health unit approach is that it’s the clinician and the officer who respond to all of the emergency mental health crisis calls.
That’s not realistic because it’s very hard to staff a clinician 24/7.
I’m also a big believer in crisis intervention team training for officers, and we have a number of officers here trained in those skills.
It’s a class that officers take that talks about different manifestations of mental illness and different treatment, resources, ways to talk to people experiencing mental health crises, different approaches than traditional police work.
I don’t see officers reacting to people with mental health crises the same way I did 10 or 15 years ago.
There’s a much better understanding of it.
I don’t believe it will ever be possible to get the police out of dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis and mental illness and addictions.
There are just too many places where those issues interact with public safety.
A police officer is not always the appropriate person to go and work with somebody in mental health crisis, but very often those people will find themselves where police are going to be there.
We have to give officers better tools than they had in the past.
I think you’re seeing that evolution with the CIT program and behavioral health units.
PT: What is the biggest challenge for the department?
Davis: It continues to be staffing and resources.
I hear from our patrol officers all the time how they’re just going from call to call and not having time to eat lunch or go to the bathroom sometimes in an eight and a half-hour shift.
The solution to that is complicated, but I think there’s more demand for our service than we have the capacity to meet as well as we’d like to.
When you have officers going from call to call, you know they don’t have time for that proactive work that reduces crime and disorder and solves problems in the neighborhood, gets to root causes.
When I get to the day where I come to the mayor and the council with what I think is the right size for the Green Bay Police Department, I want to make sure it is really well-informed by data and reflects the most efficient use of resources.
It’s not always going to be more cops – some of it’s going to be more professional staff resources, more crime analysis capability, administrative support, maybe non-sworn people who can take some of the call load that’s bogging down patrol officers.
PT: The Green Bay PD formed a Diversity & Inclusion Pride Team in 2019.
Is that something many larger departments across the country are doing or is Green Bay a trendsetter?
Davis: It is a growing trend.
We had a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team in Portland.
It’s critical to police work these days, and it’s especially important to a community like this.
We’re becoming more diverse in Green Bay, and this is much more diverse than we have been historically.
For us as a police department to be able to evolve along with the community and make sure we’re providing services in culturally-competent ways in diverse communities, that’s only going to become more important.
That’s easy to lose sight of when it’s budget season and you’re wondering, is this something we need?
A lot of the diversity and inclusion efforts have been led by city government and not just contained within the police department.
As a profession, we have some room to grow, but I think we’re on the right track.
PT: Police officers do great work everyday that often isn’t covered by the media, but there’s no denying there have been ugly incidents in recent years, especially interacting with people of color. How do officers work to ease those tensions?
Davis: The first thing we have to do is recognize and sit with the fact those concerns exist and that you’re going to encounter people who have those concerns in police interactions.
You have to recognize the perspective of whomever you are interacting with in the community.
That means maybe not being so defensive about it, but just accepting that’s just how people feel.
Another thing I would like officers to do is figure out, “how do I communicate with this person in this particular set of circumstances to work through that?”
Sometimes it’s just as simple as acknowledging that it’s there.
“Hey, I realize you’re nervous right now, but we’re going to do what we need to do in this interaction and then we’re all going to be OK.”
As a department, there’s a lot we can do in terms of educating our employees about that.
One of the things I’ve really seen that is powerful is community engagement and in-service training for officers.
Hearing that community perspective of how we’re perceived in public helps a lot because a lot of times officers don’t even realize it’s there because they’re just going about their business, they understand what the law is, they’re within the law and policies and they don’t realize how they’re perceived.
Finally, we need to have some frank and difficult conversations in the community about it and how we can do things differently to help people see us as a resource and not something that is just there to impose our will upon them.
Some of it is going to require acknowledging our own history in our profession, and that’s not to say any of us working here is interested in perpetuating that history.
Nobody in the Green Bay Police Department wants to go out and have dispirited outcomes and discriminate against people, but the past is what it is and we just have to acknowledge that it takes a while for people to get past it.
People remember when police officers in some parts of the country turned fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators.
I like to think I would never do something like that but it did happen and we have to sit with it.
Learn from it.