When three men were gunned down inside Orlando's notorious Palms Apartments one day in July 2008, it was a wakeup call for Val Demings, then the city's chief of police.
She was familiar with the public housing complex. In fact, at the time police were responding to incidents at the Palms about nine times a day. Demings recalled, during a conference on Nov. 15 at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, that she realized her department needed to do more than just respond to incidents.
Deming said the first step is establishing a connection with people in high-crime areas.
“We really did not have a relationship with the residents who lived there,” she said.
Demings, other law enforcement officials from around the country and academics were gathered to discuss what New York City could learn from community-based policing initiatives around the country.
New York City has been at the epicenter of a national debate over “stop-and-frisk,” the controversial tactic the city's mayor and police commissioner credit with helping decrease crime during the last decade. Though the city is appealing a court's order that it limit its use of the tactic — due to claims that it targets minorities — Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has indicated he will drop the case.
But how does a police department move on from a policy so ingrained that, according to a report released yesterday by the state's attorney general, its officers made 2.4 million stops in the last four years alone?
When Demings needed a new approach in Orlando, she took the unprecedented step of calling for a public meeting with residents of the problem-complex where the triple-murder took place. Based on their feedback, during the next six months the Orland Police Department adopted a series of unorthodox initiatives.
It sponsored GED classes, counseling for emotionally-scarred kids too used to the sounds of gunfire; police helped residents “spruce up” the buildings with new shrubbery and paint.
Crime at the complex dropped 32 percent, Demings said.
In Philadelphia, a police captain used similar efforts during the last three years to reduce crime in his district.
When Captain Michael Cram arrived in the city's 26th District in 2009, he assigned two officers as the “community outreach team.”
“They went out and found people who police don't usually talk to,” Cram said during the conference. “Typically police only interact with two kinds of people, criminals and victims, but we wanted to know the community.”
Residents helped police identify a local park — the Rainbow de Colores Playground — as a hot spot for drug trafficking and the violence that often accompanies it.
Police cracked down on gangs who used the park as a base of operations, and encouraged neighborhood residents to come to seek out police help for other problems.
“When people complain about a street sign not being up and they see (an officer) on a ladder fixing it…it showed that we cared and we meant business,” Cram said.
In the last two years, the district has seen decreases in homicides, shootings, aggravated assaults and narcotic sales.
But can initiatives like Cram's and Demings', which worked on a neighborhood level in Orlando and Philadelphia, be successful in a city the size of New York?
Maybe, says Candance McCoy, a professor at John Jay College. She's studying the impact of an accord reached between the Cincinnati police union, residents and other stakeholders, after a series of riots in 2001 were set off by the police killing of an unarmed African-American teen.
While police instigated the Orlando and Philadelphia initiatives, McCoy says Cincinnati's issues are more similar to the task in New York City.
Faced with reforming a decade ago, the Cincinnati Police Department's administration “were kicking and screaming and refusing to take part in any of this,” McCoy said.
“It's not all kumbaya coming up from the neighborhoods when you're trying to change the police department itself,” McCoy said.
Ultimately, a federal court ordered the Cincinnati Police Department to adopt a series of changes, including the implementation of a citizen complaint board and clearer rules for police officer discipline.
McCoy said that ultimately the reforms were successful because patrolmen got on board with the plan, and courts gave the administration no choice but to comply.
In a city like New York, she said, that judicial mandate may be necessary to get police to adopt new approaches.
“You probably can't get this done with the courts, you need some force,” McCoy said.
Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter @GrahamKates.