Friday, August 29, 2014

Community Policing

In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, several ideas have been floated to mitigate the chances that more young black men will end up dead as a result of interactions with police. Among those ideas are two that bear some additional explanation because they seem, on the surface, to make good sense, but need to be understood in broader context.

One idea that is gaining popularity is the idea that the police force should reflect the diversity of the community it serves. The theory being that people who are either from that community or reflect its ethnic or racial make-up will be more humane and less confrontational, unlike Ferguson, which quickly devolved after Brown's murder into something resembling a combat zone. I do not disagree with this objective, but would qualify it in several ways. First, there is nothing precluding officers, regardless of race, from becoming better versed in the needs of the community. In impoverished areas, the law abiding folks are every bit as invested in keeping their neighborhoods safe as the cops are. In many areas, if only the cops would take a little more time to walk their beats and get to know those residents, they would be amazed to find out about this convergence of interests. Doing that is not predicated on your skin color or your station in life, but rather, a legitimate interest in understanding the needs of the people you serve. 

Second, and this is an uncomfortable truth, but some areas are simply not going to have enough qualified candidates to fill officer openings (assuming any exist, more on that below). For example, in Camden, New Jersey, less than 7% of residents in that city over the age of 25 have a college degree, a level of education more and more police departments prefer (if not require). In situations such as these, the laudable goal of diversity may not be best served by simply filling spots based on that objective. 

Third, officer training to limit the use of "quality of life" and other nominal offenses that are too often used as a pretext to arrest someone and get them into the "system" is long overdue. Not only does this type of policing exacerbate negative relations between communities and police, it clogs jails and courts, punishes those arrested with fines and levies that are often difficult to pay (and lead to additional penalties, bench warrants, and the rest). 

Finally, and as others have mentioned, better police training in deescalation tactics, improving reporting transparency, and community relations would also go a long way toward improving relationships. Meeting with neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations, visiting schools, and participating in events like the recent "National Night Out" are all ways that bridges can be built between law enforcement and the community. Indeed, the idea of "community policing" is not a novel one; however, at least here in New Jersey, where some of our largest cities, including Newark, Camden, and Trenton (all of whom also have sky high crime rates) laid off hundreds of police officers when the bottom dropped out of the economy, leadership must be exercised to rethink how resources are allocated, improve officer training, and consider how communities view those who wear the uniform. 
The other idea you hear a lot about is the need for officers to be equipped with cameras, either in their cars or on their person. Again, a perfectly sensible idea that has been shown, at least with regard to officer "body cams" to reduce citizen complaints in one city that started using them. That said, no one talks about the cost of these devices. Not to be all green eyeshade, but in many places where one assumes talking heads think this equipment should be used, the coffers are dry. Again, here in New Jersey, many cities can't afford to maintain staffing levels, how do you expect them (really, their city councils and mayors) to pay for this equipment when they can't keep officers employed? If the federal government is willing to pay the upfront costs of these devices and leave the maintenance to local departments, that might be one solution, but to expect a city like Irvington, New Jersey, which is desperately poor, to come up with the money for cameras is not realistic. 

Don't get me wrong, I do think, when possible, a city's police force should look like it and that officers should don cameras or have cameras mounted in their vehicles, but that isn't always possible (and is not a panacea regardless). Getting officers invested in the betterment of the community, knowing the people they protect and serve, and extending a hand in partnership are all things that can be done without cost, just an investment of time and caring. 

It is also important to note that improving community/police interactions needs to go hand-in-hand with longer-term efforts in places that are struggling - that includes in education, after-school programs, job training, and a range of other programs that can gradually help improve the quality of life for people in impoverished areas. 

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