Calls resume for community policing. What does that actually mean?

Together Baton Rouge is just one of the many organizations across the country seeking more ties between police and citizens. But can it work? 

Max Becherer/AP
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Eddie Guidry is hugged by Terri Carney during a prayer vigil for the officers killed and wounded by a gunman in Zachary, La. The shooting has renewed calls for community policing.

A familiar refrain has emerged from Baton Rouge, La., as residents struggle to process a spate of police related violence – first the high-profile and fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5, then the killings of three police officers in an ambush on Sunday.

There, as in numerous cities around the country struggling with fraught relations between police and black communities, local leaders and residents are calling for investment in community policing to help bridge the racial divide.

One organization that aims to spearhead this effort is Together Baton Rouge – a coalition of dozens of religious institutions and leaders, black and white, from the Louisiana city.

“How do you remove the fear? How do you remove the mistrust? By building relationships?” the Rev. Lee Wesley, of the Community Bible Baptist Church in Baton Rouge tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday, speaking on behalf of the coalition. “People have to get to know each other if trust is going to be established.”

Community policing is one proposed solution to alleviate the growing mistrust between police and the black community in Baton Rouge and across the country. But law enforcement and others familiar with the strategy stress that in order for it to be effective, both police and citizens must buy into it and agree on how it will materialize.

“It’s not that community policing can’t work. It’s just what is it?” Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and a former police officer and prosecutor, tells the Monitor Wednesday. “It’s the emergency footing that agencies go on and communities go when there’s a crisis. But what’s much, much harder is to even define what you’re talking about. What does that mean actually? Who’s going to do it? Is the community interested in it?”

To Rev. Wesley, community policing is about getting officers into the neighborhoods as a matter of course and not just in response to emergencies.

“Policemen are going to have to get out of their cars, walk the street, and have a conversation with the black guy on the corner – the black guy who has his pants hanging down – and get to know him as an individual, not as a stereotype,” says Wesley, who is African American. “Until we get those types of relationships going, we’re never going to get our community moving forward.”

The Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) defines community policing as a strategy to build trust between police and the community through cooperative efforts among law enforcement, community members, nonprofits, businesses, and others. Historically, it involved mini-police stations in neighborhoods, more officers on foot patrol, and other efforts to build rapport with the public. Body cameras and data sharing have been recommended too.

Community policing first became popular following the Los Angeles riots, with Chicago becoming a marquee city to implement it throughout its police department. But, as Wesley Skogan, a political science professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, said in his testimony to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015, community policing became lost a decade later among other strategies, with names like “problem-oriented policing, procedural-justice policing, predictive policing, intelligence-oriented policing,” and even anti-terror policing.

In the aftermath of police shootings and the deaths of black men in police custody, political leaders and police officials are being urged to refocus on community policing to establish trust in their communities, as the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius wrote in May 2015.

Together Baton Rouge is one such organization mounting pressure. When asked how he envisions community policing there, Wesley said it should start with police attending meetings in the community to understand why the public is frustrated and angry.

“This has to happen not just at the top level with the police captain,” he adds, “but also with the police officer on the street.”  

Together Baton Rouge has started to look to other cities for direction, including New Orleans and Oklahoma City.

President Obama has hailed Camden, N.J., as another model for community policing. Once one of the most dangerous cities in America, Camden turned its police force around, hiring more officers to walk and bike the streets, as well as engage the community with reading programs and similar initiatives, as the Monitor's Harry Bruinius detailed last year.

Successful community policing efforts require more than police engagement, Professor O'Donnell says, citizens must also get on board with the program.

One skeptic is Terrell Jermaine Starr a political correspondent for Fusion. In an op-ed The Washington Post published in November, Mr. Starr voiced concern about the implementation of community policing in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he lives.

“As sincere as the philosophy of community policing might be, it’s not the solution to police brutality,” he writes. “The bad relationship between police and residents is not the cause of excessive force, it’s the result. The real cause is the fact that police officers are rarely, if ever, charged in connection to the people they kill.”

Dr. Skogen, of Northwestern University, referred to growing mistrust between police and the public in his testimony to the presidential task force. He said a National Academy of Sciences report a decade ago found police are more effective at fighting crime, less corrupt, and less likely to unlawfully shoot people. But, a Gallup poll showed public respect for police is down 17 percent from the 1960s.

Although recent killings in Baton Rouge; St. Paul, Minn.; and Dallas, have likely increased the mistrust Starr wrote about in November, police and activists continue to find unique ways to improve relations together. One police chief even organized a cookout with Black Lives Matter activists in Wichita, Kansas, to build dialogue and open trust.

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