#092 Mar/Apr 1997

Partners in Policing

When Nutley, New Jersey, Police Chief Robert DeLitta and Sgt. Steve Rogers saw a letter in the local newspaper from an African-American woman who was having trouble renting an apartment […]

When Nutley, New Jersey, Police Chief Robert DeLitta and Sgt. Steve Rogers saw a letter in the local newspaper from an African-American woman who was having trouble renting an apartment in the small, predominately white suburb, Sgt. Rogers decided to step beyond the traditional police officer’s role. Rogers contacted the woman, Janice Harrison-Aikins, a former Nutley employee and the great-great granddaughter of the first black man to settle in town, and helped her find an apartment.

“As a police department, we do more than just go out and arrest criminals,” said Sgt. Rogers, president of the New Jersey Community Policing Officers Association. He said the deed was part of the department’s obligation to uphold the law. Besides assisting Harrison-Aikins, however, the gesture resulted in an article headlined “Blue Angels” in the Star Ledger, the state’s largest daily newspaper. The incident illustrates the benefits of a community policing approach not only to citizens, but to police departments as well.

At a time when police-community relations are sometimes strained, a shift toward community policing is bringing a willingness among some officers to take on new duties and treat community members as partners in preventing crime and improving their cities.

“Community policing could arguably be called the new orthodoxy of law enforcement in the United States,” Susan Sadd and Randolph M. Grinc wrote in a 1996 report on eight Innovative Neighborhood Oriented Policing (INOP) programs funded by the National Institute of Justice. Forty percent of the nation’s larger police departments have adopted community policing, according to research cited by Sadd and Grinc, but individual department’s programs and interpretations of the philosophy vary widely.

Walking the Beat

The Orange, New Jersey, Police Department’s Community Service Bureau looks for actions police can take – whether concrete or symbolic – to illustrate the connection between themselves and the community. When the community has a problem with abandoned buildings, for example, the police try to work with residents or to close the buildings. The department has worked with residents of housing developed by HANDS, a local CDC, to discourage blatant drug dealing in their neighborhood. On the symbolic side, Orange police helped organize a community anti-crime event on National Night Out (NNO), during which residents lined up in a field holding glow sticks that spelled out NNO.

“The police should be a part of the community, not apart from the community” said Lt. Don Wactor of Orange’s Community Service Bureau. Lt. Wactor encourages the officers he supervises to be open-minded about their role in the community, telling new recruits, “I don’t want you for your body, I want you for your mind.” Assigning officers to foot patrol increases the chance for interaction between officers and residents and helps eliminate some of the fear among residents of being spotted talking to the police, according to Lt. Wactor.

Officers Gerard Tusa and Bill Boggier work with Lt. Wactor and spend much of their time on foot patrol. Tusa said they particularly try to talk to young people while on patrol, to counter any suspicion of police that may be passed down from their parents. But both officers said most residents seem to welcome their presence, and although they are white and patrolling an ethnically mixed but predominately black community, they said these differences do not seem to be an issue in their interactions with most residents. Tusa said comments that have been made to him regarding racial differences, have come from suspected criminals during during altercations with police. “It does play a role,” he said, “but not with decent people.” Boggier concurred, “I would say the only color issue that comes into play for people who don’t like the police is a blue uniform.” He noted that the black officers with whom he works also sometimes face a negative reception. But he added, “Most people come up to you and say, ‘I’m really glad to see you out here.'”

Foot patrols, and now commonly used bike patrols, are just the beginning of any far-reaching community policing strategy. “Many now know there is a new breed of police officer who walks a beat, but true community policing reform does much more, reinventing the old-fashioned beat cop as today’s community officer, who acts as a neighborhood organizer and problem solver, not just a visible deterrent to crime,” wrote Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucquerou in “The Basics of Community Policing,” a 1992 Christian Science Monitor article.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Trojanowicz’s and Bucquerou’s article has been distributed widely among the law enforcement community and on the internet. In fact, searching for “community policing” on the internet yields a plethora of information from the Department of Justice, police departments, and university-based programs, indicating the widespread interest in the concept.

Encouraging Advocacy

A pro-active community policing approach encourages advocacy, by both residents and the police, according to Lt. Wactor. He said community residents should help police set law enforcement policies and promote legislation incorporating crime prevention measures. In 1982, for example, the department successfully pushed for state legislation to allow municipalities to implement security codes for multifamily and commercial buildings. Along with working together on crime issues, Lt. Wactor added, police and residents should set goals for the community. He said he encourages residents to participate in the decisions of other branches of local government, such as the city council and planning board. By working together on community matters, the police and residents both have more leverage in the city’s decision-making process.

To help with community outreach, the Community Service Bureau also employs a Orange resident Elizabeth Jackson as civilian liaison – another element common to community policing program. Jackson said she aims to educate residents on common-sense ways to avoid becoming crime victims , and she helps tenant and neighborhood groups form block associations and crime watches certified by the police department. Jackson works with these groups to prioritize their concerns about the community. She also holds discussion groups with female high school students and works with a local seniors’ program.

Because she represents the police department, Jackson said, she faces a degree of uncertainly from residents, especially new groups, about whether to trust her. So part of her role is to built trust between the police and the community. Lt. Wactor places blame for this lack of trust squarely with police. “A lot of times we’ve made promises that we haven’t kept,” he said.

Linking with Local Agencies

Many community policing programs also help connect residents with social service agencies and other community-based organizations. An Innovative Neighborhood Oriented Policing demonstration program in Portland, Oregon, represents the most extensive linking of police with social service providers, according to Sadd and Grinc’s study. The effort focused on Iris Court, a public housing project with high levels of open air drug dealing, gang violence, and calls for police service. Along with its “enforcement/high visibility” component, the program involved a community policing contact office, a civilian project coordinator, a community health nurse, resident organizing, and partnerships with social service providers. “The emphasis on human service partnerships with other agencies made this project unique among INOP sites,” reported Sadd and Grinc.

A 1995 study of Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) also looked at police collaboration with community-based agencies. Of 253 community organizations included in the report, involvement in CAPS was highest among groups with a crime prevention or economic development focus, and especially among locally oriented, membership-based volunteer groups, according to the report, Community Policing in Chicago: Year Two by Wesley G. Skogan of Northwestern University. Their efforts were important in generating turnout for beat meetings, during which residents and beat officers discuss and prioritize local problems,  and in fostering citizen involvement in problem solving.

Sgt. Rogers of Nutley promotes partnerships with community-based institutions and groups, including schools, civic organizations, and tenants associations. In addition, he and officers from several area police departments recently worked with community-based organizations – including the CDC, HOMECorp, the area United Way chapter, and a local church – to plan “Project Unity” in the neighboring town of Montclair. A group of young people cleaned trash from neighborhood lots in a deteriorated section of this ethnically and economically diverse town, while officers installed crime deterrent devises, such as locks and window pins, and firefighters installed smoke detectors.

Though Rogers and other community policing advocates promote such partnerships as a benefit to the community, police departments clearly also see the public relations value to such programs. Sgt. Rogers told a group of officers at a New Jersey Community Policing Officers Association meeting earlier this year that community policing “helps break down the wall between the police and the people.” Then he added, “It devastates the ability of the press to criticize the police department.”

Yet the “positive press” motivation behind some community policing activities may also contribute to an internal lack of support for such programs in some police departments. Some adopt elements of community policing – bike patrols or youth programs, for example – without fully buying into the approach. Lt. Wactor and Sgt. Rogers said they see a few individuals who are committed to the philosophy, but a slow and gradual change in terms if the whole system. “Unfortunately, some officers view it as soft policing,” Wactor said. “It has to be made acceptable to the police and law enforcement subculture.”

Police attitudes toward Chicago’s CAPS program  were included in Wesley Skogan’s study of the initiative. The study compared the views of “veteran” CAPS police with the opinions of those who had served in non-CAPS districts in 1993. CAPS supervisors were much more optimistic than their counterparts about the impact of the strategy on reducing opportunities for corruption, resolving neighborhood problems, and addressing traditional policing concerns, such as increased arrests, police responsiveness, balanced officer deployment.

CAPS supervisors were no more optimistic than their counterparts, however, about the program’s impact on police-community relations, relations with minorities, the effective use of crime information, or police autonomy. They were equally skeptical of the impact of CAPS on the rate of citizen complaints about police and as wary about the blurring of boundaries between police and citizen authority. They were also as likely as non-CAPS supervisors to fear being burdened with too many problems and unreasonable demands.

This is a common objection to community policing – that it places an additional burden on the police by asking officers to take on  roles perhaps more appropriate to social service organizations. Community policing advocates argue that it does just the opposite, helping police in the long-term by reducing social disorder.

A Community Policing State

Whether or not community policing has been fully accepted by many police departments, federal officials from President Clinton to the HUD Secretary to the Attorney General, along with governors and state agencies, have favored adoption of community policing strategies.

In November 1995, Maryland became the first “community policing state” when Governor Parris N. Glendening, State Police Superintendent Colonel David B. Mitchell, and United States Attorney General Janet Reno announced a new statewide community policing academy.

“The crime problem in our state will not be eased by arresting our way out,” Governor Glendening was quoted by the academy. “Maryland’s Community Policing Academy will equip law enforcement and community leaders with the ability to work together to tackle root causes of crime and foster the partnerships necessary to improve [the] quality of life.”

The community policing academy is a collaboration between U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Maryland Governor’s Office, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland State Police, and other police agencies. While much of the training is centralized at state police training headquarters, the academy has also worked with the U. S. Attorney’s office to offer regional training in outlying areas.

Prior to the academy’s opening, more than 70 police departments in Maryland received federal funding for community policing activities, yet, as in many states, Maryland had no standard training for officers involved in those programs. The academy offers separate training for police department administrators, mid-managers, basic patrol officers, and citizens.

Sgt. Rogers of Nutley and Lt. Wactor of Orange both said training in community policing strategies should be standard, not just for those involved in such programs but for all law enforcement officers. Community policing, they maintain, should not be implemented through a special unit, but should be permeated throughout departments.

“I would like to see eventually the term community policing eliminated,” Lt. Wactor said. “Right now it seems to be sort of a fad… But it [acceptance of community policing within departments] has to start from the top down.”

A Long-Range Philosophy

Because many community policing programs are new and their impact can be difficult to measure, the ability of community policing to meet its goals remains largely untested, Sadd and Grinc report.

Anecdotal evidence and some in-depth research indicates that community policing programs have had positive results. In New Orleans, Police Superintendent Richard Pennington said community policing has had a dramatic impact on the city’s murder rate, which  dropped significantly in 1995. And since Chicago’s CAPS program began, reported crime figures and resident victimization surveys show that perceived crime problems have decreased significantly in all included districts. Skogan’s Chicago study found evidence of declines in robbery and auto theft in three districts.

In terms of broader community improvement, the Chicago study found that  residents perceived a significant decline in at least some of the most frequently identified problems, such as gang violence, drug dealing, building abandonment, and litter. Perceived physical decay declined significantly in three districts. Citizen and police effectiveness in mobilizing city services corresponded clearly to improvements in the physical environment. And Sadd and Grinc’s study of Innovative Neighborhood Oriented Policing found that, while average citizens had less knowledge than community leaders about the programs in their cities, the residents surveyed believed their relationship with the police had improved, even where the effect on drugs, crime, and fear was believed to be minimal.

But even the staunchest community policing advocates say it will take time to build a true partnership between police, citizens, and community-based organizations to strengthen the overall community fabric. “Community policing is a long-range philosophy,” Sgt. Rogers said. “It isn’t going to change any situation overnight.”


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