The 'Crisis of Confidence' in Police-Community Relations


Criminologists and activists yesterday challenged law enforcement leaders from some of the nation's largest cities to make major changes in how cops interact with the public, or risk being viewed as illegitimate by the people they serve.

Susan Lee, a national director at the non-profit Advancement Project, told senior law enforcement executives who gathered yesterday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York for a two-day conference that police have not done a good enough job communicating with residents and neighborhood organizations.

“Communities often have a tough time coming to the table and sitting with the commissioner and sitting with the mayor and talking about the things they need,” Lee said.

In a pivot from the usual tenor of interactions between law enforcement and activist groups, the conference struck a collaborative, and at times repentant, tone, as some high-ranking police executives acknowledged that urban police forces face a crisis of confidence in minority neighborhoods.

“In order to have legitimacy, you have to have trust and respect with the community,” said Phillip C. Tingirides, a commanding officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

The top cops, including the chiefs of police from New York, Chicago, New Haven and Providence, were joined by criminologists, advocates and community leaders for frank discussions of the fragile state of police-community relations following a number of controversial examples of police use of force.

Over the past summer, there have been emotion-charged protests over the deaths of young black men in encounters with law enforcement, including shooting deaths in Los Angeles and Ferguson, Mo., and the death of another young male in Staten Island, NY after he was caught in a “chokehold” by officers questioning him about the alleged sale of illegal cigarettes.

And the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been besieged for years with calls for reform of policies such as stop-question-and-frisk, that subjected the city's black and latino youth to police intervention at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the population.

Police who don't understand “the appropriate level of interruption” for non-violent incidents can harm police outreach in minority communities, conceded NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

“In dealing with these issues, we need to focus on police practices that alienate young black men,” added Bratton, who participated in a question-and-answer sessions with Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney from Los Angeles where Bratton served as chief from 2002 to 2009.

Bratton did not specifically refer to the “chokehold” incident.

While the series of deaths around the country set a troubled tone, the conference was intended to look at innovative ways that police and community leaders could collaborate to create a more peaceful and equitable climate in urban neighborhoods where mutual distrust is at high levels.

Researchers at the session noted that despite the two-decade decline in crime rates, arrest rates – particularly in minority communities—continue to be high.

“We have laws in this land that are not explicitly racist, but in many ways end up doing racist things,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Garry McCarthy, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, observed that police sometimes misunderstood the new statistical tools now widely used to influence law enforcement strategy in many parts of the country.

McCarthy is a longtime proponent of CompStat — the policing accountability process pioneered by the NYPD in 1994, and since replicated in many other police departments — but he acknowledged that many agencies use the system incorrectly.

“CompStat is about outcomes not outputs; it's about having reduced crimes, not producing more enforcement,” McCarthy said. “It's about getting those gains without increasing arrests.”

In high-crime neighborhoods, both patrol officers and residents are often skeptical that police can operate without engendering the mutual hostility associated with their jobs.

Pastor Michael McBride, director of urban strategies with PICO, a national network of faith-based organizations, said civilians in primarily black and Hispanic neighborhoods are often too afraid to call police when they've experienced a crime.

“There's this fear that police will not be able to tell which one is the criminal, and will treat us all that way,” McBride said.

Advocates and cops at the conference said police departments don't train enough people to work as “translators” — not polyglots, but people who can explain police systems and behaviors to residents, and in turn explain civilian concerns and queries to cops.

Criminologist David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay, said finding new ways to communicate with residents can reaffirm the legitimacy of local police agencies and help deter what's known as “implicit bias,” the unconscious distrust that clouds many police-community interactions.

He said “zero-tolerance” policies that call on the justice system to crack down on minor law violators have contributed to “implicit bias.” Such laws, he said, have little effect on crime rates, but a major impact on public perceptions about police.

“If there's one phrase that should never be spoken again in law enforcement it’s 'zero tolerance,'” said Kennedy. “Heavy enforcement doesn't solve crime.”

“You cannot police a community that hates you.”

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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