"Hands up, don’t shoot!” “No justice, no peace!”—even “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!”—have been on the lips of protestors in the wake of civilian deaths at the hands of police in recent years.
But what exactly would better policing and greater accountability look like? “A one-word answer would not really do it justice,” says Mark Smith, a board member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and Police Auditor for San Francisco’s rapid transit system. “There’s a lot of success in community-based policing for law enforcement across the country.
“I think we’re moving more in that direction, and I think with good reason. It’s been successful. Now, to say all problems people have with it are solved is a little bit naïve, [but] more police departments have seen fit to pick up the role of guardian/protector as opposed to enforcer.”
For more than 30 years, “community-based policing” has been in vogue, with researchers finding that virtually 100 percent of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States now use at least some elements of the community-based philosophy.
Initially called “broken windows policing,” it emerged in the 1980s from a criminology hypothesis that small crimes, like minor vandalism, give a community the appearance of lawlessness, leading to more serious crimes and reducing quality of life for neighborhood residents.
The stricter enforcement of petty crime—a fundamental part of broken windows policing—gave birth to “stop-and-frisk,” a controversial New York City policy of detaining pedestrians and patting them down for weapons.
Elsewhere called a “Terry stop,” the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio (1968) that it is not a Fourth Amendment violation to detain pedestrians if police have “a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.” New York City took it a step further by routinely including a pat-down. Though Terry v. Ohio requires “articulable facts,” stop-and-frisk has been criticized as targeting people of color and as too low a standard of evidence that, in practice, is rarely tested for its true reasonableness.
In addition, the broken windows hypothesis failed to withstand peer-reviewed research. The seminal debunking, published in 1999 in the American Journal of Sociology, found no significant correlation between “physical signs of disorder” (most of which are violations of city ordinances) and more serious crimes (which are usually violations of the state criminal code). “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods” concluded that visible signs of social disorder—the eponymous “broken windows”—were highly correlated with poverty, but violent crime tended to be confined to individual city blocks or even to just one problem household. “[I]t does not seem to us persuasive to argue that graffiti causes robbery.”
In 2009, the Department of Justice renounced broken windows policing as “narrow in scope” and said it should be replaced with “community-oriented policing,” which still includes a high police presence and a focus on quality of life concerns, but expanded the idea to include:
•Increased civilian oversight, such as review boards, independent auditors, and community listening sessions.
•Expanding officer focus beyond crime to incorporate conflict resolution and victim assistance.
•Officer accessibility measures like business cards, pagers or voice mail, and procedures for enabling citizens to directly contact the officer who handled their case.
•Emphasis on face-to-face interaction, such as foot, bike, horse, and motorcycle patrols, or requiring that officers spend time between calls on random foot patrol.
•Geographic focus (sometimes called “place-based policing”), such as permanent beat assignments, neighborhood substations, or requiring that officers live within their beats (or within the department’s jurisdiction).
•Fostering positive interactions outside an investigative context, such as sending uniformed officers to community events, sponsoring public events (like cook-outs or ball games), and making it easier for officers to spend time on routine calls, rather than feeling pressured to clear the call as fast as possible.
•Partnership with citizen patrols, school anti-drug and anti-bullying programs, landlord-tenant associations, etc.
•Implementing the “SARA Method” for handling and documenting calls. SARA stands for Scanning the situation, Assessing what needs to be done, Responding, and then Analyzing whether the response worked.
•Replacing the traditional similarities to military command structures with a more civilian-style employer-employee relationship. This might include dropping titles like “sergeant” and “lieutenant,” replacing line-up and line-down with staff meetings, and hiring non-sworn (i.e., non-uniformed, non-armed) professionals like social workers.
Although race has become the flashpoint in recent officer-involved civilian deaths—often of unarmed young black men—race is not explicitly addressed by community policing. “Racial profiling is a concern,” says Smith. “We give our officers a great responsibility and authority. We charge them with depriving certain members of our society of their liberty and freedom by putting them in jail, detaining them in the commission of a crime.
“When you give them that high range of authority that we don’t ask of other people who go to work on a daily basis, they need to take up that authority in the most professional, constitutional manner as possible. There are officers...engaged in ‘bias-based policing.’ It really is not just a detriment to the people being victimized, but it’s a detriment to the entire community. It affects trust in the police department.”
Community policing also doesn’t explicitly address use-of-force policies, the inability to secure criminal charges (let alone convictions) in even the most egregious excessive force cases, or the practice of letting disgraced cops start over fresh in a new department rather than removing them from law enforcement altogether.
In a Washington Post editorial last year, Terrell Jermaine Starr argued that, “Community policing is not the solution to police brutality. It makes it worse.”
Community policing is a feel-good term, one so broad and nebulous that it seems difficult to oppose....But at its foundation, community policing demands more police on the streets...
[I]n communities like mine, the predominately black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, putting more officers on patrol doesn’t lessen the chance of police brutality—it worsens it...[W]e don’t need more encounters with them; we need fewer.
[L]ack of law enforcement accountability is at the root of police brutality, and community policing doesn’t address it. It doesn’t assure me that a cop will be punished if he chokes my neighbor to death.
The practice puts police officers in positions where they aren’t needed...heightening tension in situations that could be resolved civilly...My cozy relationship with a beat officer wouldn’t prevent a cop like Eric Casebolt from throwing a 15-year-old girl to the ground after a neighborhood pool party [as happened in McKinney, Texas, in 2015].
And even though Ben Fields was fired as a school resource officer...after he was captured on cell phone video throwing a high school student out of her desk [as happened in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2015], another law enforcement agency could give him a badge.
In 2012, the Department of Justice updated its elements of community policing to include transparency, but stopped short of endorsing any specific “mechanisms for sharing relevant information.” (The DOJ’s idea of “partnering with the media” has a distinctly PR bent, describing it as “a powerful mechanism by which to communicate with the community”—but not a word about open records laws or the watchdog role of the press.)
Widespread use of body cameras has become one form of transparency, but as their use has increased, so have state laws and department policies curtailing the public’s access to the footage. This year, the Minnesota legislature passed, and Governor Mark Dayton signed, the body-cam bill supported by law enforcement, which makes virtually all body-cam footage non-public, rejecting proposals intended to address concerns about civilian privacy and to reduce the redaction burden on clerical personnel.
Ironically, there seems to be a strong likelihood that any given footage will actually vindicate the officer. An April 2015 analysis by Popular Mechanics, found that, on average, disputed body-cam footage “overwhelmingly supports” the police officer’s version of events.
Despite community policing’s emphasis on “face-to-face” and “positive” interactions between officers and the communities they serve, that hasn’t stopped most departments from accepting more than $4.3 billion in military equipment from the Pentagon, including head-to-toe body armor, AR-15 assault rifles, drones, and “MRAPs”—mine-resistant armor-protected vehicles.
Rashad Turner, a former leader of Black Lives Matter in Minnesota (he stepped down last September) points to these fancy toys as contributing to a siege mentality in black neighborhoods. “If they’re out there in that type of gear...it speaks to their desire to escalate things...[By contrast, the bicycle officers] were out there with us.”
A 2009 study by John Hopkins University found that most civilians, regardless of race, class, gender, or political affiliation, prefer police in traditional blues and non-military equipment, and believe that “battle-dress uniform” is too intimidating and usually unnecessary.
Key word: Usually. The fact that even the most anodyne police calls can turn deadly gives police a ready-made excuse to serve every warrant in an MRAP, leading police to behave like soldiers and the public to feel like their neighborhood cops are an occupying army, according to a position paper by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Although police and civilians alike tend to praise community-oriented policing, there’s been little peer-reviewed research on its effectiveness, in large part because it eludes quantifiable metrics of success. How would we ever know if having the cops take a turn in the elementary school’s dunk-tank will later prevent any of the children from turning to a life of crime? How do you measure whether it inspires officers to feel more invested in the communities they patrol? Does such investment prevent excessive force? What exactly does it mean for community-oriented policing to “work”?
Such questions have prompted an even more recent shift towards “evidence-based policing,” which expands on the community-based philosophy, aiming to make its elements measurable. Lawrence Sherman of the University of Chicago published the pioneering definition of evidence-based policing in 2013’s “The Rise of Evidence Based Policing: Targeting, Testing, and Tracking”:
•Subjecting police practices to peer-reviewed research and cost-benefit analysis.
•Replacing crime rate data with a “crime harm index,” which attempts to quantify the damage caused by different types of crimes. Sherman uses the example that, if shoplifting (a common crime) goes down, but the murder rate (comparatively much less common) goes up, the crime rate has “gone down,” but that doesn’t reflect the community’s sense of safety or the real harm done.
•Mandating departments to release a variety of types of data—and enforcing it. The Death in Custody Act requires that departments release the number of civilian fatalities during interactions with police. But, in practice, this is done purely on the honor system and few departments comply. Press reports of such fatalities are about three times higher than those reported to the FBI.
•Partnering with universities to crunch the numbers collected as it pertains to each unique police department.
•Using data to rule out alternative explanations before needlessly gobbling law enforcement resources. For example, if one particular bar generates a lot of calls, rather than tying up patrol, the department might first look at whether the bar hires adequate security, whether it serves underage or intoxicated patrons, or whether something as simple as a cramped parking lot is causing brawls.
•Identifying and incorporating “solvability factors.” For example, if data indicate that interviewing neighbors as quickly as possible after a burglary is correlated with higher suspect identification and arrest, this might be a cost-effective protocol to apply to all burglary calls.
And, in a throwback to the broken windows method:
•Increasing response to petty crimes like graffiti, public intoxication, and littering.
Although few departments are yet implementing evidence-based methods, Jim Bueermann, the retired police chief of Redlands, California, endorsed it in the 2012 National Institute of Justice Journal:
One factor that contributes to the lack of agreement about how to design policing strategies is the disconnect between the evidence researchers uncover and the approaches taken by many police departments...Conducting social science research is time-consuming, which runs counter to community demands for a quick response and to political realities facing police chiefs. And sometimes, even after months or years of study, researchers simply do not know why certain crime phenomena occur and their call for further inquiry is common...We have proven we know how to be tough on crime. Now it’s time to prove we can be smart about crime, too.