Community Policing in a Time of Crisis

(Photo: Sipa USA via AP/Max Herman)

Protesters march through Chicago on August 7, 2016, in response to the shooting of teenager Paul O'Neal.

Two years ago on August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off months of unrest that brought into full view the longstanding tensions between police departments and communities of color in the United States. Since Brown’s death, police conduct and racial injustice have remained in the headlines, while the national conversation has shifted to community policing, accountability, and transparency.

But in some communities across the country, little has changed. The Guardian estimates that police have shot and killed more than 600 people so far this year, including Philando Castile in Saint Paul, Minnesota; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Paul O’Neal in Chicago.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and law enforcement officials discussed police departments’ responses to this ongoing crisis at the recent National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Washington, D.C.

They offered encouraging comments about the state of policing. But despite the turmoil of the past two years, they largely echoed what law enforcement officials around the country have been saying since Michael Brown’s death: Law enforcement agencies must strive to build better relationships with the communities they work in.

Lynch came onto the job at a particularly tense moment in the national policing debate. “I was sworn into office the day Freddie Gray was ‘funeralized’ and violence broke out later that day,” she said. At the beginning of her tenure, Lynch launched what she called “a community policing tour,” visiting police departments that were reportedly doing good police work.

Cincinnati was one of the stops on Lynch’s tour. As The American Prospect reported in 2015, the Queen City demonstrated how police officers can work with community leaders and residents to fight crime without heavy-handed tactics. But while the news media has held up the department as a national model, some local residents still mistrust Cincinnati cops.

Lynch acknowledged the successes in Cincinnati but noted that the national atmosphere after the shootings of five Baton Rouge police officers shortly after Sterling’s death in July has been “challenging.” Those shootings, said Lynch, “illustrate both sides of this terrible, tragic situation.”

However, civil-rights and community activists have been quick to point out that “both sides” rhetoric is a false equivalence. The Louisiana state legislature recently passed a “Blue Lives Matter” bill that makes killing a police officer a hate crime in the state: Police officers are now a protected group like racial or religious minorities. But while the numbers of police deaths in the line of duty (and the numbers of police prosecuted for shootings) has increased this year compared with 2015, the number of people who have died after being shot by police officers has also increased.

During the discussion, Detroit Police Chief James Craig pointed out that his city’s police force is another model for urban departments. Craig, who headed up the Cincinnati police force from 2011 to 2013, implemented a “Neighborhood Police Officer” program in Detroit, which aims connect individual officers with different neighborhoods in order to build relationships with local residents. The Detroit program is similar to the Cincinnati effort.

Craig described a 2013 incident where 150 Detroit police officers raided an apartment building riddled with crime and subsequently received applause from residents. “They would see police going into neighborhoods besieged with crime and they would cheer,” said Craig. He added, “When you look at the relationship between and police and community, Detroit has written the playbook. Does that mean it’s perfect? Absolutely not.”

Craig and Kevin Bethel, a former deputy Philadelphia police commissioner, stressed that transparency and accountability were key tools in gaining trust in communities. They noted that new technologies like body cameras help establish an oversight regime that police officers and residents can support. Recording the police is legal in all 50 states. “It was a group of [Detroit] police officers that approached the mayor and said, ‘We want body cams,’” Craig said.

While some law enforcement officials tout the benefits of police body cameras, there is plenty of controversy surrounding the technology. The Baton Rouge police officers who shot and killed Alton Sterling claim that their body cameras fell off during the altercation. Boston officials will have to force their police officers to wear body cameras for the pilot program since no volunteers stepped forward.

Some police unions have even gone so far as to accept body cameras but have prevented the public from gaining access the recordings, which is problematic for residents as well as civil-rights and transparency advocates.

Protests by residents in communities of color and civil-rights activists show no signs of abating as police departments scramble to find solutions to incidents of police brutality, especially ones involving unarmed citizens. Lynch said that local law enforcement officials frequently tell her that they don’t accept bad police officers and fire those that cross the line. “I say, ‘That’s great,’” Lynch said. “‘But the public doesn’t see that.’”

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