Top Cop: Graduate known Nationally For Police Reform Work
Alumnus leads police reform to prevent wrongful convictions
As a teenager, Darrel Stephens knew he wanted to work in law enforcement. His administration of justice degree from UMKC put him on the track to be a police officer and police chief, and nearly 40 years
later he is leading the nation as one of the country's top law enforcement officials. Known for his implementation of reforms that were proven to decrease mistaken eyewitness identifications, Stephens has been executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association
since 2010 and is a member of the Innocence Project
Board of Directors.
For five years he also led the public safety leadership program at Johns Hopkins University. Before that he was chief of police of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., police department, chief of police and city administrator in St. Petersburg, Fla., police chief in Newport News, Va., Largo, Fla., and assistant police chief in Lawrence, Kan. He also was executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in the late 1980s and early 1990s and a member of the Kansas City Police Department in the 1960s and 70s.
Just last May, Stephens, who lives in North Carolina, was invited by The Innocence Network to deliver the keynote address at the annual Innocence Network Conference held in Charlotte, N.C. As police chief in North Carolina, he helped implement reforms statewide, putting North Carolina at the forefront of a national trend in reforms to eyewitness identification procedures to prevent wrongful convictions.
When did you figure out that law enforcement is what you wanted to do?
I decided I wanted to be a police officer when I was in high school. It seemed like it would be an interesting profession and one where you could make a difference.
How has your degree from UMKC helped you?
The degree from UMKC was very helpful to me in my career. At that time most police officers did not have college degrees, so it gave me an advantage for promotions and assignments. It also helped me in the day-to-day work as a police officer.
It also helped me become involved in the research on policing conducted in the Kansas City Police Department in the early- to mid-1970s. That experience had enormous influence on how I thought about policing and on my career choices.
What has been the most challenging part of your career? Most rewarding?
The most challenging part of my career has been coming in from outside the department and community to help improve the quality of policing. In every police department I led, except Charlotte-Mecklenburg, they were struggling with various problems. Some were mired in conflicts with the unions. Others had lost the confidence of the community. Some had corruption issues. Some were experiencing racial conflict in the department and community. In Charlotte, the greatest challenge was dealing with growth. During the nine years I was police chief, the population we were responsible for policing grew by more than 100,000 people.
The most rewarding aspects of my career came from successfully dealing with the challenges in each of these agencies and improving the way they served the community. Every one of the departments had good people that responded to a vision of policing that involved stakeholders in problem solving partnerships to help create safe communities. I have also had the opportunity to mentor individuals over the years who have made important contributions to policing – some became police chiefs, others are contributing through research in academia or as consultants.
You were honored last spring by the Innocence Network for your work to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. How did you get involved in this work? Please talk a little about the reforms and where you think we are as a country in implementing them.
I was asked by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to serve on the first Innocence Commission that he created in early 2003.The primary purpose of the commission was to bring together representatives from all aspects of the criminal justice system to examine the factors that contributed to wrongful convictions and to recommend procedures that would decrease the potential for them to occur. Although I was familiar with some of the wrongful conviction issues, I had not focused on the problem. Serving on that commission provided me with much greater insight into the problems and was the catalyst for beginning to make changes in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
The key reforms for the police that I believe will help reduce the possibility of wrongful convictions are: eyewitness identification procedures, video taping interrogations, evidence collection, retention and management, informant management and crime lab processes and procedures. Although there is considerable work to be done, a large number of police agencies have made changes to address these issues. Some states have passed legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations and implement eyewitness identification procedures. Change comes slow in policing on a national level because there are about 18,000 agencies in 50 states that must consider the issue and act.
Tell us a bit about your faculty position at Johns Hopkins University.
I served on the faculty in the Division of Public Safety Leadership in the School of Education from June 2008 through June 2013. I taught Case Studies in Leadership in the graduate program and worked on several research projects.
I left the university at the end of June 2013 to focus all of my time on my work as Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA).The MCCA is an organization of the police chiefs from the largest cities in the United States and Canada and two from the United Kingdom.
Anything else we should know about you?
I have been married to my wife Sharon for 44 years. We met at Northeast High School in Kansas City. We have a son who lives in Charlotte and is the director of corporate security with the Bank of America.