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Deep divides in ways to fix community police relations

Activists, experts and rights advocates fail to see eye to eye on ways to implement community policing

Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the police officer Darren Wilson this summer has amplified calls for better police relations with the communities they serve. But recommendations for improved community policing methods can be as numerous as the complaints levied against current law enforcement tactics.

Some civil rights advocates say that states and cities should partially defund police agencies. Transfer the money to jobs and schools, they say, to decrease incentives for crime. But criminal justice analysts contend that communities must take responsibility for the social ills that law enforcement cannot mend. Most, however, agree on one point: the relationship between police and residents is broken and needs repair.

“There are many ways to address the social problems around crime, and police need to think more broadly than arrests and tickets and stops,” said Darius Charney, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represented some of the plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit against the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy.

Charney pointed to a 2009 Justice Department study that highlighted three principles of community policing. Principally, police officers must try to solve problems without using arrest or force as a first resort. Officers must also engage community members as active participants in the policing of their neighborhoods. Police departments, according to the DOJ study, should democratize their command structures and give officers more flexibility in the field.

But these measures don’t go far enough, according to Joe Giacalone, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD detective sergeant. “You should have another job before you’re allowed to become a police officer,” said Giacalone.

Complaints against police departments will decrease along with crime rates if police recruiters set higher standards like requiring a college degree and several years of work experience, says Giacalone. Many police agencies across the country, for example, only require that cadets have a high school diploma or GED certificate. Longer work histories, argues Giacalone, will give officers experience in dealing with the public and alongside people who might not look or speak like them.

Most importantly, though, Giacalone believes police forces should reflect the communities they serve. “The number one thing that a police department must do is they must make an effort to recruit minority officers,” said Giacalone. “The department must look at the demographics of the society they’re policing.” Giacalone pointed to a successful model in Manhattan, where Chinese-speaking police officers work in the precinct encompassing Chinatown. Other cities, such as San Francisco, do this as well.

Giacalone speaks from experience as police officer, but he is not alone in saying departments should bolster the number of minorities in their ranks.

The NAACP in September started offering a scholarship to help fund police training courses for African Americans who want to become cops in Grand Rapids, Mich. Departments across the country rarely reflect the demographics of the communities they serve, a Washington Post survey found, especially in small towns.

For Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the activist group #blacklivesmatter, a solution to the discord between officers and the communities they police lies in giving less money to police departments.

“Police departments need to be significantly defunded,” said Cullors. “We can’t keep pouring money into our police departments as our only way for public safety. Public safety means people having good jobs, people having a place to live, people having access to healthy food.”

Cullors’ group is pushing for a civilian oversight review board for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — similar to the one established by the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of deadly riots that followed the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

“Law enforcement doesn’t keep communities safe,” said Cullors. “It subjugates and represses and locks people up.”

Brendan Kolding, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Argosy University near Seattle, believes that the crux of good police work is fairness to citizens.  Officers, he says, need to take the time to explain what they’re doing and why. “People react well to having things explained them to them,” said Kolding.

Police officers, says Kolding, could cite case law or Supreme Court precedent in justifying a traffic stop or the restraining of a suspect. In this way, interactions between police and residents mirror a “customer service” relationship. An individual whose taxes pay an officer’s salary should receive respect from cops, making it more likely they won’t hesitate to call a police department if they witness to a crime.

But there are limits to how gentle police work can be, warned Kolding. Some people living in communities that see police violence on a regular basis question why cops pull their guns instead of using less lethal tasers.

“Tasers only work about half the time,” Kolding said, adding that the media don’t present a fair picture of what cops do every day. “For every ugly video or questionable use of force, you have 25, 30 or 50 heartwarming stories of positive interactions that are there. But there’s not that media sex appeal.”

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