Can Community Focused Policing Techniques Prevent More Fergusons?

Being a police officer involves work that is physically demanding, often stressful, and can be very dangerous. These features of the occupation mean that officers traditionally have one of the highest rates for illnesses and injuries among all jobs in the United States. At any moment they may have to react to life-or-death scenarios, including interactions with violent persons, high-speed pursuits, or witnessing death and situations of suffering. The ability to stay alert and make quick and judicious decisions is paramount. Combining these attributes with the unusual, round-the-clock shifts required to keep the public safe at all hours means that officers may also have difficulty maintaining good relationships with loved ones. Generally, those who take up police work do so because they find the work has intangible benefits in terms of giving back to the community or they find it rewarding to assist others.
The highly public nature of police work opens the door to members of the public having the ability to “second guess” the performance of officers in ways that other occupations aren’t subjected to. Then again, police officers can be involved in scenarios in which they may use force against members of the community that can lead to the serious injury or death of those citizens. In what is becoming a serious national issue, in too many municipalities across the nation, there appears to be a serious disagreement between how local law enforcement agencies handle tense situations with the public – especially in minority neighborhoods. Are police too quickly resorting to potentially lethal remedies to diffuse interactions with persons of interest? Are police officers and the departments they represent increasingly perceived as something like an occupying, secretive military force, with tenuous ties and knowledge of the communities they are assigned to? Or are they trusted and seen as transparent agencies that work on behalf of the best interests of all citizens?
Ferguson, Missouri, located in St. Louis County, had a population of 21,203 in the 2010 U.S. Census. Of that population, approximately two-thirds of the population was black. [1] However, according to a Washington Post article, only three of the fifty-three members of the city’s police force are black. While it is not clear what type of community outreach the Ferguson police may have been committed to, if any, the relationship between the police and the majority of citizens has been markedly poor. [2]  Black residents charge that the police routinely and unfairly target black motorists for traffic stops, and engage in questionable arrests. The St. Louis County police force has also been accused of a racially-biased approach. Last year the state chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint in Federal court over the issue. These concerns aren’t new or only being expressed in the African-American community. In 2003, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigated police forces in the area and determined that many of them lacked funding for adequate training, and used force arbitrarily. Too many of these forces engage in what David Couper (retired police chief of Madison, Wisconsin and Burnsville, Minnesota) refers to as “domination policing.” [3]  Chief Couper describes “domination policing” as a tendency to put the priorities or culture of the agency above service, which promotes an “us vs. them” attitude toward the public. In its worst instances individual officers, or the chain-of-command, may seem to be interested primarily in clamping down, or in the intimidation of particular groups or neighborhoods, rather than using problem-solving techniques, or in building a rapport with as many citizens as possible. In the now infamous incident, Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, was shot and killed by a police officer who said that Brown attempted to take his gun away from him during a confrontation. Witnesses dispute the facts of the struggle. What is clear, though, is that the Ferguson police force was slow to release details of the incident or investigation, which contributed to a view that the force was aloof and not responsive to community concerns. In the days and weeks that followed, the Chief of Police, Thomas Jackson, appeared to desire the assistance of the Department of Justice’s COPS initiative (Community Oriented Policing Services), that advocates for, and helps train, local law enforcement agencies on the benefits of community policing. [4]  In September, Ferguson city officials, as well as the city of St. Louis, began exploring the creation of a civilian review board which would provide citizen oversight over the police departments in their municipalities. [5]  Review board authority varies by city and state. Some boards contain volunteers, political appointees, elected officials, or a combination. Boards in some places may review the handling of police internal affairs’ investigations, others might be empowered to conduct their own investigations. Having a board of some sort, however, provides a vital method for citizens to have oversight over the police force in their communities. Boards are also an excellent resource for proactively addressing complaints from residents in a forum that can bring light instead of heat.

The philosophy behind community, or neighborhood, policing is that local law enforcement is more effective and builds trust among members of the community when officers build ties by better interaction with members of the municipality. When police officers walk the neighborhood beat, sponsor local outreach events, and do an effective job explaining policing strategies, they can build invaluable networks of support, build up their knowledge, and can count on assistance from members of the public. Many people dislike the impersonal nature of bureaucratic government. Whether it is due to the seeming devotion to rules that appear pointless, or “one size that fits all” methods of operation, public agencies often appear to stifle innovation and fear change. The greatest casualty of bureaucracy can often be that government lacks enough information to make informed decisions about policy, and works too slowly to amend practices when they become ineffective. Local police forces employ many people who have in-depth professional training and experience. But without a good understanding of their communities they may not be successful in serving the places they work in, or in apprehending perpetrators of crime.

One of the philosophical grounds on which community policing efforts have been based is the “Broken Windows” theory introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling writing in The Atlantic in 1982. [6]  They posited the idea that while a member of a community might not report a broken window to the police, and the local force might not see a minor act of vandalism as a priority action-item, quality-of-life issues can be the starting point for the community to address and communicate about deterring more serious crimes.The opportunity here for police is to respond to these scenarios (and others) by assigning par-ticular officers to a “beat” so that they can note problem areas in a community and develop strategies to prevent them. When an officer is assigned to a particular neighborhood, rather than dispatching random officers as incidents arise, he or she can develop knowledge of a lo-cale and can call on contacts and community organizations that they make in order to gain in-formation and trust. If residents get to know a particular officer, particularly in areas with above average rates of crime, they may feel more empowered to disclose what they know, since they could have a belief that the officer has a vested interest in the neighborhood’s quality of life. Developing local contacts also allows the police department’s chain-of-command to re-ceive more and better knowledge of crime patterns and persons of interest, which can lead to a better utilization of resources and staffing. Finally, having officers who work a particular beat means that they are more accountable to the citizens, since they become embedded in the community fabric, rather than only appearing in a neighborhood on a random basis when a call arises. Traditional policing has a feel of fire-fighting in the sense that, especially where budgets or staffing are tight, the main mission was to respond to “911” or other critical situations. But simply resolving issues as they arise is not enough. Addressing problems in the community that can lead to crime, by keeping an ongoing communication with the public, is the goal of com-munity policing. It means that law enforcement is charged with a more holistic approach to en-suring a safe community than simply trying to apprehend criminals when the need arises. Or as Wilson and Kelling put it, “Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”

Camden, New Jersey has provided an interesting example of a successful experience with community policing. Consistently one of the most violent cities in America, the annual murder rate has been cut in half from 2012 to September of this year. While the rate is still high for a city of its size, progress is being made. Camden has had the situation in which the municipal police force which, like Ferguson’s and many other communities across the U.S., was held in poor regard by residents. But Camden did something unexpected to effect change. They disbanded the local force and replaced it with a county-based agency. Given the opportunity to build from scratch, Chief Scott Thomson (who had previously led the old city police) said, “We had the luxury when we stood up the organization of being able to create culture rather than having the challenge of changing culture. The community was inclusive of what we were doing from day one. We did focus groups with people in the neighborhoods. ... We asked them the traits and the characteristics they wanted to see in their officers. We are guardian figures in our neighborhoods and our job is to facilitate, convene and to help people to police their neighborhoods. [7]  The chief expects to more closely audit his officers’ performance. The current force roughly doubled minority representation on the force, and officers collectively speak 11 languages. The strategy Camden tried was controversial, and seen by some as a union-busting move. Most localities won’t find themselves in a position in which they can essentially blow up the local force and start over. But all citizens across America can and should work toward more civilian oversight and more communication between civilian and law enforcement to have a better working relationship that is more respectful.

In Connecticut municipalities can create Juvenile Review Boards (JRBs) that studies potential court proceedings against youths. [8] The goal of JRBs is to have members of the community deal with the law-breaking matter at the local level so that the accused can avoid becoming part of the criminal justice system if possible. JRBs are an example of the restorative justice approach to treatment in which the objective is to rehabilitate, rather than punish, the perpetrators, and achieve reconciliation between the perpetrators and those hurt by their actions. JRBs can operate without attorneys, and can decide matters quicker than a court and without a suspect languishing in a juvenile detention center where additional anti-social behaviors can be passed on. Depending on the crime, a JRB may require the youth to attend substance abuse or anger management training, pay restitution, perform a fair amount of community service, apologize to victims, or some combination of these. The JRB can also assess the accused’s support network to see if he or she requires more social services or familial or educational support. The focus on intervention with youth is to prevent them from becoming tied up in the criminal justice system because recidivism rates are so high once someone has developed a record. Later educational and occupational outcomes can be severely compromised if one gets involved with criminality.

Restorative justice programs at the adult level can help take some of the stress off law enforcement and be another means to reintegrate offenders back to their communities. Local restorative justice organizations can empower residents to develop effective means to show wrongdoers the consequences of their actions and its impact on their neighbors. Greg Ruprecht, a police officer in Longmont, Colorado, and former Army Captain, became an ambassador for restorative justice after seeing its benefits after a case he was involved in was handled by a local organization. [9]  Some large communities like Oakland and Baltimore are lobbying for more public involvement through restorative boards. It will probably take a great deal of communication for police to recalibrate what has become a traditional role in apprehending wrongdoers and packing them off to prison as the main solution to fighting crime. However, working with the public to restore offenders back to their places of residence is just the sort of community-building initiative that instills trust and can be a contributor in reducing the number of Ferguson-style flashpoints against the police.

Another measure that should have a community-building aspect is requiring police officers to reside in the city they serve. It only stands to reason that an officer will have a vested interest in the relationship of his department to the community if he lives in the community he serves. Unfortunately, police officers have never seemed to like these requirements and they’ve been flouted or watered down in many locations. [10]  But making a better effort at having the police force reflect the population it serves is critical for community relations. Do we want police officers who think of their place of work as just a job that they leave as soon as their shift is over, or as members of the community who feel a calling to protect and serve their neighbors?

In the period after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress and the White House tried to make it easier for local law enforcement agencies to secure some military-grade equipment and arms due to concerns that these agencies may need to combat additional attacks in their areas, or face other criminal elements that might have significant weaponry. These transactions took place through armed services transfers to local governments, federal grants, and procurement with funds paid for by asset forfeitures claimed in their areas. However, in the case of Ferguson, the protests that erupted after the killing of Brown were met with a response that was indistinguishable from that of an army. Having the majority of the local citizens already feeling disrespected by the police, and then kept in the dark about the incident, was then finally set off the edge by the heavy-handed deployment of armed vehicles and machine guns. The U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing in which Missouri’s own Claire McCaskill described the images she saw from Ferguson as a “war zone” and protestors (and some members of the media) treated like “enemy combatants.” Outgoing Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn asked, “Tell me what the difference is between an increasingly militarized police force and a standing army.” [11] The Senators blasted the giveaways and programs run by the Pentagon. In the House of Representatives, Hank Johnson of Georgia drafted a bill called the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.” Police forces must deescalate the usage of military armaments if they want to build a close working relationship with the public and trust within the community.          

Body cameras have garnered widespread public support in the aftermath of Ferguson and other widely reported incidents in Cleveland and other locales in which residents believed police used unnecessarily excessive force, which images may have caught. There will be a debate if or when police cameras become employed in police departments due to the litigious nature of our society, as well as issues of privacy. But it has great promise as a tool of accountability. Rialto, California, a town in San Bernardino County, was the first department in the nation to outfit its 54 officers with wearable cameras. While officers were skeptical at first that the cameras would be an aid to them rather than serve to punish and second-guess them, they have been completely sold on them in the 2 years they have been in use. The police experienced an 88% drop in complaints from the public, and use-of-force incidents dropped by 60%. [12] The Orlando Sentinel also noted in an editorial in favor of fast-tracking cameras in their state that “[o]ne of the stronger arguments against body cameras — their cost — gets weaker as the devices get cheaper. And cameras can save departments money by leading to fewer lawsuits and lower insurance costs.” [13]  
Earlier this month the White House released a statement intending to pass measures that will strengthen community policing initiatives. [14] First, President Obama ordered a review of the local law enforcement acquisition of military equipment program. The objective is to create policies and standards that make certain that there is an appropriate local use of the acquired items, a proper training regimen in the use of such equipment, and a civilian oversight process. Second, the President issued an executive order creating a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a law enforcement and public panel that will issue a report in the next 90 days on ways to reduce crime while building public trust. Third, Obama proposed a three-year $263 million Community Policing Initiative which would greatly increase the usage of body-worn cameras by police, provide additional training for local officers, and increase the number of communities in which the Department of Justice leads intensive programs that create better communication and collaboration between law enforcement agencies and members of the community.

Police officers will always have to make quick decisions that can have life or death consequences for persons of interest, bystanders, and the officers themselves. Occasionally mistakes will be made. But police departments across the country can mitigate some of these tragic situations from occurring by adopting more community-centered practices and solutions so that they can respond to an emergency equipped with more local knowledge, supporters, and trust.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.