Cops on the beat should be the critical players in developing law enforcement partnerships with communities, according to the former head of the country's “community-oriented” policing program.
“The key to this whole thing is the relationships between individual officers and the people they serve,” said Bernard Melekian, who served as director of the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) between 2009 and 2013 .
Melekian spoke against the backdrop of heightened national concern over clashes between police and civilians in several cities, including last month's flareup in Ferguson, Mo, where the police shooting of an unarmed teenager triggered weeks of protests.
Noting that the task of improving police-community relations can be particularly difficult for large police departments, Melekian, a former Pasadena, Cal. police chief, said neighborhood cops need to have input when law enforcement managers are developing policy.
“Are they willing to decentralize and push the decision-making down the chain of command enough to where it can continue to happen at a local level?” asked Melekian, the founder of Paratus Group, a law enforcement consulting firm.
The COPS office, launched in 1994, funds research and training for police departments, and provides technical assistance to departments implementing community policing initiatives.
Melekian led a VIP list of top law enforcement practitioners, criminologists and community leaders invited to a two-day conference this week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The conference, aimed at exploring how community-police partnerships can help reduce crime, was organized long before the events in Ferguson..
But it couldn't have come at a more troubled moment for law enforcement around the country.
Just hours before the conference opened yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice was opening a civil rights investigation into the Ferguson incident.
Conference organizer Preeti Chauhan said the Ferguson shooting, and the police killings this summer of unarmed black men in New York City and Los Angeles, ignited a long-needed national debate about the role of police in society.
“With the tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, the time is now for these conversations,” said Chauhan, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay.
But the picture was not uniformly bleak.
Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice hailed what she called a “180-degree turnaround” in how the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) interacts with residents in crime-ridden communities.
Rice, who helped pioneer Los Angeles' gang interventionist program and other unique approaches to violence reduction, said the LAPD's success was attributable to its efforts to gain community trust by providing services that might not typically be associated with police.
She pointed to programs in which the department provided glasses, assistance to residents suffering from diabetes, and even computers to tenants of public housing projects.
“When we encouraged the LAPD to get out of their squad cars, co-patrol with gang intervention experts, and on foot in the community all day long, what we found … is success even in housing projects — ground zero for cop-public friction,” Rice said.
Still, Rice acknowledged that not all cops in Los Angeles have embraced the new approach to policing. She blamed it on the fact that most officers have come of age in a system that grades and rewards police on arrest quantity, not establishing community partnerships.
“We need to give credit for making those relationships. Right now we give credit for making arrests, but we don't give credit for making good community relationships,” Rice said.
The conference continues today with panels that include NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, Susan Lee, National Director of the Advancement Project, John Jay professor David Kennedy and other criminal justice leaders.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.