Many people in the community development field are conflicted about the police presence where they work. While they often collaborate with law enforcement to respond to concerns about crime in their neighborhoods or their properties, many community development leaders are also aware that the residents they serve are often mistreated by police and are wary of supporting overpolicing or increased incarceration.
We invited a group of practitioners to share their experiences and talk through this tension.
Joining Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute were: Stella Adams, chief of equity and inclusion at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition; Erika Anthony, senior director of advocacy, policy, and research at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress in Ohio; Steve Lockwood, executive director of Frayser Community Development Corporation in Memphis, Tennessee; Avery Martens, an intern at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress; and Julia Ryan, vice president of the Local Initiative Support Corporation’s (LISC) national community health and safety initiative.
Miriam Axel-Lute: What do you think is the relationship between the community development field and law enforcement?
Erika Anthony: The Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) intersects with law enforcement in a couple different ways, one being placemaking where we intersect with general public safety and engaging with our CDCs and residents when it comes to law enforcement. Our city is currently under a consent decree. It’s a work in progress. We also have the community relations board that was assembled after the consent decree came down, as well as the monitoring team, which is sort of like the third party that’s working with the city and law enforcement on this initiative. We’ve had a couple of interactions with all those groups, but I don’t think we have the secret sauce yet as to how best to increase our capacity and/or improve relations when it comes to local law enforcement. This consent decree has moved this conversation to the forefront. Not that we wanted to have a consent decree, but to be frank, I think it was long overdue. In some ways [we] are appreciative that we are in a more thoughtful conversation as it pertains to how our residents engage with law enforcement.
Steve Lockwood: I’m with a large neighborhood-based CDC in a high-crime neighborhood [in Memphis, Tennessee]. We have been going through a process of re-establishing a civilian review board. Our police force in general is probably more progressive and less under scrutiny than a lot of forces. It’s predominantly African-American. The director is African American. They have voluntarily taken a course of reviewing abuse of all kinds of force. This was not a decree. It was them saying let’s get out in front of this.
On a neighborhood level, the largest [police precinct] is called the North Precinct. I chair a monthly meeting of leaders of the North Precinct, other city agencies, and usually about 15 neighborhood activist residents around the convergence of crime, blight, police, residents, and all of the prime topics. The communication between the North Precinct and the neighborhood is above average. The community itself is 80 percent African American. I know there are gang kids and such in the neighborhood who feel disaffected. I also know there’s a pretty strong relationship between the neighborhood and the police department. Our greatest obstacle here is that we have trouble, from a housing standpoint, attracting residents because this is well known as a dangerous neighborhood.
Stella Adams: I’m the chief of equity and inclusion with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and I bring a different perspective to this as I used to work for [a] police department many years ago and assisted our police department in Durham, North Carolina, in becoming the first accredited police department [in the state].
I am very aware, through my fair housing background, that policing is used today in the same way that sundown towns were used in the past. If you’re not perceived to be from the neighborhood, you are inviting extra policing on you that is inappropriate in America.
I am very interested in who the police choose to protect and serve, particularly when in many communities the police force is not from that community. [They’re] from [the] outside suburban ring and actually don’t live in the communities they serve, or near the communities they serve.
Julia Ryan: I’m vice president [of LISC’s] national community health and safety work. LISC has been supporting partnerships between community developers and police since the mid-1990s. The model we’ve developed for supporting those partnerships looks to bring together three elements that we think are essential to help reduce and prevent crime in lower-income communities, but also ensure that there’s a respectful, mutually positive relationship between communities and police.
Those three elements are a mobilized community, where people know their neighbors and their police officers; physical investments to address the crime drivers that have to do with the landscape of economic opportunity and the physical conditions of neighborhoods; and then law enforcement and the policy and practice of how people engage with officers and how officers engage with people. We’ve been bringing those three things together to problem solve, particularly [at] the neighborhood level and often on a micro level in crime hotspots. That work ramped up in 2012 when LISC started serving as the national coach and technical assistance provider for a federal program that also honors that approach. Now [we] support those alliances in 66 cities.
We’re looking for safety in our neighborhoods, but who is currently unsafe, and from whom? How do you define safety in your work?
Adams: It depends on where you stand and what prism you look at in terms of what safety is. As an African-American woman with two sons in their 20s [who] lives in a mixed neighborhood, I’m concerned about my sons’ safety every day. My youngest son actually lived in this neighborhood his entire life, yet he and some of his friends were walking through the neighborhood and a new neighbor of a different race who was unaccustomed to living in a diverse neighborhood called the police and alleged them to have suspicious activity walking down the street. I live in an upper middle-class suburban neighborhood. I should be safe. My son should be safe. And yet he’s at a heightened risk because of where we live rather than the safety and comfort that other neighbors [have].
My husband and my son went fishing at the local pond, and another suspicious neighbor contacted the sheriff to say that there [were] suspicious people at the pond. And the sheriff went out and asked if he could see my son and husband’s ID to prove that we lived in the neighborhood. Right down from my husband and son was a Caucasian fisherman who began to take out his wallet, expecting to be checked as well. He was not asked to show his ID, yet he approached my husband and my son and was perplexed because he was the person [who] did not live in the neighborhood, yet he was not even challenged.
Where safety is depends on who you are and where you live. I have worked with people in [lower-income] neighborhoods that have reputations where they are under constant surveillance by policing, and their fear is [about] police response [rather] than criminal activity. The key here is what type of policing is going on in those neighborhoods and communities. Do you have community policing where the police officer is part of the neighborhood and community? Or do you have policing that is in the framework of storm troopers who come in and are guarding something outside of your community as opposed to honoring your community with service? This is the mindset of policing, but it’s also the mindset of the neighbors in those communities as to whether [they’re] safe or not.
Lockwood: I agree. I’ve been in my office [at] this particular location for 10 years and we’ve had three murders on the corner. Last spring, we had a rash of murders in some apartment complexes close to my office, maybe six blocks away. There were four people killed in a five-week period. In this case, it was mostly young people killing young people. I tried to search my brain as to what my response was supposed to be for that. I’m an older white guy. I’m not going to be going through those complexes counseling people to act differently. We decided that jobs programs were probably the most concrete thing we could do. We started bringing in more job training and referral programs that were particularly designed for 19-year-olds who may have never had a job. I didn’t think it was the answer to that violence, but it was the best answer I could come up with at that moment.
On the other hand, we’re probably a good example of community policing. The Memphis Police Department brought in the COPS [Community-Oriented Police] program and they started out by going door-to-door with clipboards asking residents what [they needed]. They found a park two blocks from my house where the kids were playing basketball in the street, and they said, “Why are you playing basketball in the street? There’s a park here.” And the kids said, “We can’t go there. The gangs won’t let us.” So the cops went into the park and told the gangs that if they were there the next day, they’d get arrested. [The police] set up programs in the park, [which are] ongoing today [and in the summer, and] they feed them lunch during the summer. The police run these programs, and other people [like the neighborhood residents] are involved in it. We consequently got together and asked the city for $800,000 to rebuild the park [and] make it a better place. It still has problems with violence, but I’m a strong proponent of community policing.
Adams: I agree wholeheartedly that community policing, where the police are an active, integrated part of the community, listen to the community, and use that approach, is the best method. As someone who worked in the police department, has worked as an activist, and has lived and worked in various neighborhoods where police are connected to the community in a positive way, that’s where you see change happen. You see crime reduction and you see an opportunity developed to create stronger community development ties and bring in private dollars.
If you went to the community where Tamir Rice was shot and said, “Hey, let’s bring in the police and have them hang out with your kids,” some people might have said, “Not so much.” Erika, what’s the Cleveland angle on this?
Anthony: In the time period in which Tamir was murdered, there was a lot happening in our nation and folks locally were looking to cities like Ferguson and Baltimore and other parts of the nation that were experiencing these type of tragedies. We did not have a large public demonstration similar to the way other cities did, but behind the scenes, groups coalesced mostly to protect the children and residents from these type of tragedies, but also [to] try to understand what safety means for [them and their] neighborhood, and how [they can] be a contributor to the fabric of safety for [the] community.
Our mayor recently put forth this new Healthy Neighborhood Initiative that includes both support and legislation around safe routes to school. We, like other cities across the nation, are still climbing out of the foreclosure crisis of 2008, and we are dealing with a lot of vacant and abandoned properties in our community. There was actually a report that came out from Case Western Reserve, the Poverty Center, that talked about the correlation between the vacant properties here in the city and where the crime hotspots are taking place.
On one front, while we don’t want a tragedy to happen to prompt community engagement, I do think as a result of what happened to Tamir, there has been a larger sense of community building. There was also a documentary that premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival called “Dispatches from Cleveland,” and it was not just focused on Tamir. It paralleled around the same time the same incidents were happening in Baltimore and Ferguson. Because of the events that were transpiring here and other parts of the nation, it ended up focusing a lot on Tamir’s family and the community around Cudell where this took place, because it gives a unique insight to understand what residents and community members are still feeling as a result of that incident.
Do you feel like the folks in CNP’s network have changed their own approaches toward community safety or relationships with police as a result of these series of events?
Anthony: I don’t believe so. In the last four or five years or so, [we] have charged and compelled our CDCs to think beyond the physical side of community development [to] what comprehensive community development looks like. I can’t say that we have a solid answer. We’re still in this exploratory phase. But there has been a spirit of embracing what that means. So, it’s like “Yay” to build all the great apartments, or new homes or rehab, [but] if people are unable to navigate their neighborhood to get to basic necessities because [of a] safety problem, then that’s a problem. Then you’re not achieving what we view as comprehensive community development.
The challenge we’re still wrestling with is communicating not only to our CDCs so they understand that this is a priority, but also to our law enforcement [so they] understand that they are a character within the ecosystem of comprehensive community development. It’s not like either we do it with them, or we do it without them. We have to do it together. The negative side of the consent decree is that any time you’re mandated to do something, there’s a negative connotation. I did work previously in criminal justice reform, and any time a defendant or an individual was mandated to do something versus having the option the outcome was vastly different. So there’s also this over-arching cloud.
Avery Martens: It’ll be interesting to talk with other folks around the country who are involved in community development in cities that have had consent decrees, because it does open up a whole new host of issues. For example, last November, during the consent decree, we had our local police union verbosely endorse Donald Trump. In this political moment, in the context of the consent decree, that could be [a] message to the local residents.
Julia, do you have any perspective on that since you’ve been working in a lot of different areas?
Ryan: Around the country, we’re trying to encourage police to be part of the ecosystem around comprehensive community development, [and] we’re also trying to encourage the community development world to see themselves as extraordinarily powerful actors, which they are, in creating safety. We can’t disconnect [the] conversation about safety and policing from race because race affects people’s experiences with police, and even with their own neighbors.
We also need to recognize that our police officers [and] our law enforcement agencies are operating with an institutional history and within a broader justice system history that’s extraordinarily racially biased, and we’re still untangling that. In fact, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing undertook expert recommendations around how to reform policing to increase trust and the effectiveness of police in communities. The over-arching theme was [that] we need to look at the comprehensive drivers of crime that shape how policing happens and why it happens, and start having a more all-hands-on-deck approach to these things. We need to look at the history of the justice system overall and make reforms that start recognizing that history. There’s the beginning of a roadmap for law enforcement agencies. We need to build that roadmap for the community development world.
Adams: We as a community development system need to look at how we participate in those drivers, and how we can build more sustainable, integrated communities that are free of bias, and how we market our services. Do we market them in a way that reinforces the stereotypes about neighborhoods and communities, or are we marketing in a way that is supportive of stronger communities in general? It’s clearly all related.
Yet this discussion of “drivers of crime” evokes the “broken windows” theory of policing, which many people who focus on criminal justice reform are wary of at this point because it led to a lot of over-policing, stop-and-frisk, over-incarceration, and over-involvement of people in the justice system for small things.
Could you talk about how the CDC world can think about this comprehensively, and yet also be aware of the policy implications? Should we take a stand on policy discussions, like stop-and-frisk and other things that may be hampering good policing?
Ryan: Property owners and housing developers have a real opportunity to be part of the solution for crime conditions [by having] strong property management, using safe- design principles in property development and rehab, supporting organized residents, [and] sharing knowledge of neighborhood dynamics with law enforcement. Those are all things that can be set up before problems occur to create the dynamics for safety and prevent crime, but also [to] build relationships with law enforcement. That’s the key here and it’s been a little bit lost in the broken windows debate.
We lost the conversation about signals of disorder leading to a problem-solving conversation between those who influence that environment and have resources, like residents [and] property management, [about how to] respond to that, and then having a really proactive, positive conversation about how policing should fit into that in a respectful but effective way. That’s the kind of partnership we’ve seen work so well around the country. [We] just did a deep dive in three cities that looked at places where community developers had engaged with police in that approach. And often, the response to the disorder or the crime issues wasn’t so much an enforcement strategy.
It was a development acquisition of problem property, or a neighbor-organizing effort. The study found that crime in communities that took that approach, of course with a willing and engaging law enforcement agency, found crime reduction as much as 41 percent compared to what . . . would have happened if the crime had followed a trend of a similar neighborhood that didn’t have that intentionality of the community development approach. It was a pretty rigorous statistical test that shows this makes communities safer. We’ve also seen, for example in Austin, in a project we supported in the Rundberg neighborhood, that approach can yield marked improvements in people’s perceptions of safety and their confidence in police.
Steve and Erika, can you talk about the sense of disorder and development being related to crime in your cities?
Lockwood: It’s not easy for us to quantify. We wish we could do a better job of showing changes in crime patterns as we acquire blighted houses. We’ve tried to make a better case to the city as to what they save by putting resources into blight instead of brute police force. But, it’s not an easy case to make. Everyone wants us to do that, but the resources aren’t there. We don’t have staff people whose job it is to do that, so all of this gets done in our spare time.
I did want to tell one story. Somebody mentioned the larger systems of policing and prosecutions, and we’ve certainly described this neighborhood as an over-incarcerated neighborhood. Recently [the] North Precinct was given a community prosecutor. We weren’t clear on what that meant, and we had a community meeting with 75 residents and stakeholders, and a whole lot of folks from the prosecutor’s office. For all the differences in a neighborhood like this, there was 100 percent unanimity that this is an over-incarcerated neighborhood and that if this prosecutor’s job was to throw more young black males in jail, we weren’t in.
But, on the other hand, if it was to [be] more sensitive to the community and to find diversionary stuff, particularly for new, young, nonviolent offenders, we were all in and we wanted to be partners. They’ve committed to that. We’ve simply said we’re going to hold [their] feet to the fire. We’re six or eight months into this, so it’s a pretty new experiment, but there’s a fair amount of evidence that shows that they are diverting young people who are new to the criminal justice system [and] putting them into other kinds of services, be it anger management or other kinds of counseling [or] GED services.
Some of the local faith-based reps are heavily involved in this, and it’s actually somewhat encouraging. Everybody doing it on the neighborhood side is doing it as volunteers. The prosecutor said, “We’ll do this as long as there’s resources.” And we said, “We don’t want to hear that as an excuse in terms of finding other kinds of services to help out 19-year-olds. It’s not constructive to throw them into the system.”
Ryan: I’d love to just underscore that point about resources because I think if there’s an area that the philanthropic community or others really need to step in [it’s] recognizing that these collaborations between community developers and police, or with prosecutors as well, [can] solve problems. But that collaboration is hard. It takes time. Somebody has to have that as their day job to sustain it. One of the things we’ve tried to do is support, with grant funding, those community safety positions. We call them different things in different places, but somebody who wakes up thinking about having a dotted line between a report to the community and a report to the police, and they’re going to broker conversation when it gets difficult. They’re also going to see that those problem-solving projects drive forward.
Lockwood: And those people doing the work as volunteers tend to get bitter that they have to do that as such. The work that they’re doing is so critically important in terms of the overall health of the community and in terms of safety and security. It shouldn’t be a volunteer process. There are resources available through the law enforcement block grant program that could be steered away from buying gadgets and steered into funding these positions.
Anthony: I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the power of the people. [As] folks [may] recall, two years ago, around the same time that there was inaction occurring as it related to Tamir Rice and the law enforcement [officers] that were involved in that case, there was also an election for our county prosecutor. There was an amazing grassroots effort to highlight this gentleman and his role in the Tamir Rice case, which ultimately led to him not being re-elected. And it wasn’t just the Tamir Rice case. There [were] multiple [issues] related to this individual’s character and how [it] relates to his role as the county prosecutor. At the end of the day, who suffers from lack of resources to address the vacant and blighted homes? [It’s] children who are walking to school. We’ve had a couple of incidents this year of children being found not alive, even murdered or gone missing, and most have been found in these vacant homes. So, there’s a cyclical sort of challenge that we’re dealing with that’s not insular to law enforcement, CDCs, or public safety.
Adams: That’s such a valuable thing to raise up. A lot of times folks focus on presidential elections or congressional elections, but if you’re having problems with policing in your neighborhoods, or with prosecutions in your community, the way to respond is local elections and putting that on the front burner for local officials. What is your position about community policing? What is your position about making sure we have community liaisons? How often are you working on issues that affect quality of life, safety, and soundness [in the neighborhoods you want to elect you]? Or do you only come in [only] when there’s a tragedy?
Ryan: Many police chiefs are hired and fired by their city council based on whether crime is up or down, and so many things about that are driven by things that are not within their direct control. In fact, there’s an incentive toward very aggressive policing if that’s the way they are encouraged to stay in their role. If we as a community development industry were stronger advocates for this more holistic approach, not just for ourselves, but also for city government overall, we’d be seeing a different pathway forward and different incentives for everybody to be on the same page. Are you able to go to the city level and advocate for reforms that may not be what the police union is asking for?
Lockwood: We do, and it should be noted that it’s not just me. We have a prison re-entry program in the neighborhood, and they tend to advocate more downtown, more on reinstatement of convicted felons’ rights than perhaps police activities. They partner with the police. They can also be adversaries if they need to be. We have the freedom to do both.
Ryan: I agree. We need honest brokers in the middle. Community developers are often well suited to do that, given the resources they’re bringing to the table to offer to help produce safety.
Lockwood: This is a large neighborhood, 45,000 people, so we’ve got a core of pastors [who] have strong relationships with the police, but can go and negotiate with them if they need to.
Adams: There’s a study that says body camera footage reveals officers speak more respectfully to whites than blacks. If this kind of implicit bias exists and is not addressed, and is not reviewed at the community level, we get back to who’s being protected, who’s being served, and who’s being served up. Where [do] you choose to do traffic checks? Do you do them uniformly? Are there some communities that are never checked? Does that mean there are no drunks, drugs, or crime there? Implicit bias is very much reinforced in the structure that police officers work in. But there was a recent study from the Kirwan Institute that said the perception of safety of the general public is also racially skewed.
I wonder how that plays into our concepts of designing for safety. I remember being incredibly struck by hearing about McCormack Baron Salazar’s Harmony Oaks redevelopment in New Orleans and how originally they wanted to put in a rule of no sitting on your front porch. Apparently it came from some of the residents who had been nervous about gatherings and safety.
On the other hand, it flew in the face of not only longstanding New Orleans culture, but also the sense of eyes on the street and creating safety that way. What creates a perception of safety? Is it lots of people outside, or nobody outside? And how do we be careful about our cultural lenses on that?
Ryan: What you just described is a great example of why LISC always says that crime prevention through environmental design, or any sort of community planning approach around safety, is all about the context. It needs to be as inclusive as possible [for] all different types of residents, different demographics, ages, along with police officers, to consider what’s going to get us to a healthy community. And there will be so many different perspectives that have to be navigated.
Adams: I’m from the South and sitting on the front porch is what a neighborhood is. That’s how you build neighborhoods, by hollering, “Hey, neighborhood, how are you,” and having those eyes on the street and knowing who your neighbor is. It’s a cultural shock to me that someone would find that to not be a safe environment.
Lockwood: Back to a previous comment, there’s no question that enforcement is different in different neighborhoods. Drug enforcement is done differently in very low-income African-American communities and in white suburban communities. A neighborhood-based CDC is not in a position really to carry that argument forward. Somebody needs to have that conversation, and I’d be an ally in that conversation, but I’m not the guy who can lead that.