Community Policing in America: Is it Possible in 2017 and Beyond?

Photo Credit:  Lebanon (TN) Police Department

Over the past several years’ police officers have been under scrutiny for shootings and use of force toward minorities in America. In 2014 after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, grew a movement where law enforcement has been under the microscope from both the media and the public. Serious violent crime has been on the rise in America, and many believe it is in direct relation to a slowdown in law enforcement tactics in high-crime areas.  For serious violent crime to be reduced there needs to be an equilibrium of effort put forth by the community and the police. It cannot be a one-sided effort.

As violent crime and murder peaked in the late 1980’s, and early 1990’s the public demanded a change from American law enforcement and demanded that law enforcement is more proactive than reactive. Minimum mandatory sentencing made sure offenders stayed in prison for a long time, and violent crime fell in the late 1990’s and throughout the 21st century. However, American law enforcement never adjusted to the crime trends and proactive policing continued at 100% as crime fell into the 21st century. These practices led to an abundance of minorities being incarcerated for longer periods of time. Which caused damage between the community and police, along with economic and social hardships in inner-city communities due to separated families.

Proactive police work is a needed tactic for law enforcement to prevent crime, there is no denying that. However, law enforcement needs the community to identify suspects, to report crimes, to be witnesses, etc. Without the assistance of the community, crime reduction is impossible. Each community must have the social capital to assist their community in fighting crime.  Social Capital can be described, in relation to law enforcement, as a community with networks, neighbors, foundations, and the ability to trust the police, fire, other officials and can improve the efficiency of that community. A community that looks out for one another and socializes when there are problems.

When it comes to communities that lack this social capital, unfortunately, most are inner-city communities that consist of minorities. Most inner-city communities suffer from economic and social climates that are precursors for crime trends. Having the confidence and ability to be proactive in these communities, as well as all communities, is vital to law enforcement operations as they tend to lead to law enforcement actions like capturing fugitives or seizing contraband. However, when mistrust arises in a community or the social capital of a community is weak, it makes being proactive more difficult.

Many people argue proactivity only targets minorities, however, law enforcement is like any other business and acts on efficiency. The largest division of any agency is its patrol division. The upper and mid-level supervisors assign officers to an area based on the historical need in that geographical area of crime trends. If a zone is a high crime area, it will tend to have more officers assigned to it than a zone that is not as crime-ridden. Unfortunately, many inner-city neighborhoods are high crime areas due to their social and economic struggles. Therefore, being proficient, there are naturally more officers patrolling the inner-cities than there are patrolling other areas. On the one hand, this is a good thing; it means faster response times to in-progress calls. However, on the other hand, it means looking at the statistical data on a sheet of paper it is going to show an unbalance of citizen interactions that statistically misrepresent one side. It is also going to enhance the chance of a tragic event happening i.e. a shooting, police brutality case, etc. because there are far more interactions in that community than others in the same jurisdiction.

There certainly are challenges when it comes to policing in America. It is said that when police officers feel that a community lacks social capital, they feel a responsibility to step up and be the one that protects that community. Police Officers took an oath to protect the citizens they serve, and most police officers are great public servants. However, when trying to balance preventing crime and still building a relationship with that very same community, it is a struggle. The former Dallas Police Chief, David Brown once said “Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve”, meaning schools, economic, social, etc. With all of this, you throw in being proactive and trying to prevent crime in communities that distrust the police but require the police, it seems impossible. One must ask themselves, how did the state of law enforcement get here? And can police and community relations every improve without social and economic improvements? Things that are out of the control of law enforcement and more in control of politicians who have somehow escaped all blame for the quality of life in inner-city communities.

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