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Community Policing Advocates Call for More Transparency and Trust

Some policies meant to crack down on low-level crime can make neighborhood residents feel as if they’re under siege

community policing panel
Credit: Amanda Brown
From left: Todd Clear, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University in Newark; Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson; and Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey

In the wake of police shootings in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City, there have been renewed calls in many New Jersey cities for improving community policing, in which officers get out of their squad cars and familiarize themselves with members of the community.

But is that enough? Some say no.

Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, says for community policing to work, at least in New Jersey, there needs to be statewide policies regarding transparency and accountability. It's not enough to say body cameras are being distributed. The public should have access to what’s filmed with those cameras, and right now they don’t -- not even the victim of a crime that was recorded.

For the time being, however, state law-enforcement officials like Attorney General John Hoffman, who has legal authority over all police departments, have been reluctant to push increased disclosure.

“What we have found is that Attorney General Hoffman has not been supportive of some of the aggressive policy measures we would like, for example, like releasing the names of police officers involved in shootings,” Ofer said at a community policing panel that was part of last week’s NJ Spotlight on Cities conference held in Newark.

When an officer is involved in a shooting in New York City or Philadelphia, for instance, the departments will release the officer’s name within the first day or two. In New Jersey, that’s not the case. A 14-year old man was shot 18 times recently in Trenton, and seven of the bullets hit him; law enforcement at the state and local level refused to release the names of the officers involved.

“The reality is, we are living in a time when there is a crisis of confidence in police/community relations, and rightfully so. We are in a situation where for many years, police departments have acted with little accountability and little transparency,” he said.

Closing the rift

Criminal justice experts say part of the rift between police and the communities they oversee is a legacy from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, where neighborhoods were policed rather than the police and a community working together to achieve public safety.

Lakeesha Eure of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition
Credit: Amanda Brown
Lakeesha Eure

Case in point, the so-called broken-windows theory of policing, in which the police started cracking down on petty crime, and minorities started feeling the brunt of selective enforcement and stop-and-frisk policies. They were arrested for loitering and smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana, while white people largely weren’t. The result is that the community feels not as if it is being protected but as if it’s under siege.

Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson offers another example, Los Angeles -- where there used to be helicopters flying overhead as part of the police presence in certain areas. It doesn’t help that a lot of departments are receiving old military equipment from the federal government and recruitment videos often show officers kicking in doors and repelling down walls like a SWAT team.

“To me, if we’re talking about a culture change, then the last thing I want a local police officer to think is that he or she is part of the military. That is propagating the occupier mentality,” Ofer said.

Most departments will say that they already engage in community policing. Todd Clear, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University in Newark, says there was a survey done about 20 years ago, in which departments were asked about their approach to policing, and 75 percent pointed to community policing.

“I can tell you it’s not true,” Clear said.

For community policing to truly work, there’s a mindset a department must undergo from the leadership to the street level, that the people in uniform are not at odds with the communities they oversee but rather are engaged with them, Clear explained.

And departments cannot allow their only interactions with the public to be in moments of crisis, when the 911 call for service is made, or when police are called in to instill order, Clear said. Departments must create opportunities when officers can interact with people in the community and get to know those people as human beings, and people get to know the police officers as well, he said.

“Otherwise, the critical incidents and moments of enforcement become the lens through which we end up viewing and defining each other,” he said.

Myth and reality

The truth is, while television and recent news reports would have people believe that officers are quick to shoot and ask questions later, the fact is, most officers spend their entire careers never withdrawing their weapon from their holster, Clear said.

“It’s way more than the majority,” Clear said. “It is actually a rare occurrence over an entire career. So one of the things we have to do when we train police, when we recruit them, when we talk about it as a profession, is to say, it’s not a gun profession. It’s a people profession.”

Thomson says community policing reached buzzword status in the nineties, in part because there were tens of millions of dollars in grants to departments that had it. But he believes some departments, such as his, aren’t just talking the talk. He tells his officers to think of themselves not as Special Forces in the military but more like a member of the Peace Corps.

“When you go into challenged neighborhoods, they don’t need law enforcement. They need community builders, conveners and facilitators,” he said. “If we go into our most challenged areas and the sole objective is reducing crime, you may statistically achieve that, but it will not be sustainable if it’s not inclusive of the community.”

He said his department went into the Whitman Park section of Camden, a neighborhood that led in shootings and murders each year, and with help from the federal government, they routed a drug gang that had laid siege to that part of town.

“We removed them, and the community was ecstatic,” he said. “We put officers on walking beats, people started going outside their homes for the first time in 10 to 15 years. We were making great progress,” he said.

And then the power vacuum they created by removing the drug gang resulted in three shootings in one weekend that summer, and immediately, the community retracted. They went back into their homes, Thomson said. Some in the department wanted to get out in front of the problem by increasing the police presence there and cracking down on all levels of crime. But this time, they tried something else, he said. They took $10,000 out of the forfeiture account and hired some ice cream trucks to sit on several corners in the neighborhood, playing music and serving ice cream. Before long, people began to come out again, he said.

“It saved money. And it didn’t revictimize the people who live in that neighborhood. So the person working two jobs to make ends meet isn’t pulled over because we’re doing heavy enforcement,” he said. “There was an ideology shift on how to address problems, and how to do it in a meaningful way and be sustainable.”

Change brings change in attitudes

But Thomson’s department is unique. His old 190-man unit, the Camden Police Department, was disbanded in 2012, and a new county department was created, with 155 of his old officers. The new force is less obstinate and more open to change, he said. He tried to make changes in his old department in his first six months, like telling officers to get out of their squad cars, and he was hit with eight lawsuits and 100 grievances.

Lakeesha Eure of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition believes that police officers should actually live in the community they represent. Their presence might reduce crime on that street, and when crimes are committed, the officers are likely to know the perpetrators and their families and could potentially get them help.

“Once officers move away, the connection becomes different. The approach becomes different. They’re no longer connected to the community,” Eure said.

Eure said her organization now has a relationship with the Newark Police Department. Two days during the summer, they hold meet-and-greet type “community engagement walks,” where residents could meet the police director, the police chief, and the deputy chief, so that people could voice their opinions and grievances.

“They know when they go to internal affairs, those things are not going to be heard. Or they’re afraid of retaliation,” Eure said.

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