Smart Policing. It can be done.

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As the Obama administration embraces a smart power foreign policy, they must also consider applying similar techniques to our domestic policy and support smart power policing strategies that reduce youth violence, offer alternatives to incarceration, help prisoners re-enter the community, and prevent domestic violence.

During the last decade, many police departments have moved away from “soft power” (community) policing strategies, and relied on coercive or “hard power” strategies to combat crime. Tactical enforcement teams, “stop and frisk” initiatives, neighborhood sweeps, civil injunctions, and public housing “bar outs” have been used to reduce violence. In times of crisis, police and political leaders have declared crime emergencies, increasing patrols in hard-hit neighborhoods, establishing curfews, and cordoning off neighborhoods to create “safe zones.” Many would argue that these and other hard power strategies have led to significant and sustained crime reductions.

However, there is another side to the story. More than 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated in jails and prisons, and about 5 million citizens are on probation or parole. While 1 in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars, for black males in that age group, the number is 1 in 9. The emphasis on incarceration has torn a hole in the social fabric of our cities, especially in our poorest neighborhoods. And despite aggressive law enforcement tactics, the number of homicides involving young black males rose by 31% between 2002 and 2007.

Moving forward, police leaders must embrace a “smart power” paradigm. Smart power policing skillfully sequences and integrates traditional and non-traditional strategies with broader social programs to prevent crime, build police legitimacy, and engage the community in the “war on crime.” When the City of White Plains was confronted by a surge in youth violence, the police department targeted high rate offenders, their illegal activities, and neighborhood hot spots. At the same time, the police department partnered with the City's youth bureau, community, faith-based and other organizations to provide an array of services to at-risk youth. The “youth-police initiative” brought young African American men together with police officers to end the violence and build effective communication strategies. The police department established the first prisoner re-entry program in Westchester County, expanded its domestic violence program, and partnered with community mental health workers to de-escalate street confrontations. As a result, serious crime has dropped by more than 30% in White Plains since 2002.

As the Obama administration embraces a smart power foreign policy, they must also consider applying similar techniques to our domestic policy and support smart power policing strategies that reduce youth violence, offer alternatives to incarceration, help prisoners re-enter the community, and prevent domestic violence.

Frank Straub, Ph.D. is the Commissioner of Public Safety, City of White Plains, New York and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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