Can a Big Dose of Community Policing Fix ‘Stop-and-Frisk’?


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The controversial “stop, question and frisk” strategy should be reviewed and refined with the principles of community policing in mind, a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute suggests.

Supported by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, the report was assembled to help guide “law enforcement on how to conduct pedestrian stops in a manner that promotes crime control objectives while minimizing negative outcomes that can ultimately undermine police effectiveness.”

At a program yesterday to discuss the new publication, Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center explained that the volume was based on a roundtable discussion held in 2011, when “stop, question and frisk” was a widely used, and hotly disputed, practice under then-New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, working for then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

New Mayor Bill de Blasio campaiged against the practice, and the number of stop-and-frisk incidents has dropped dramatically under his police commissioner, William Bratton.

The Urban Institute report noted that stop-and-frisk can be done legally and can have an impact on crime, but “given the recent wave of protests, public backlash, court cases, and new laws attacking stop-and-frisk, this policing strategy is at a critical juncture.”

La Vigne asked three speakers yesterday, Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier, and Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles whether or not they supported stop-and-frisk.

All three agreed that the question is more complicated than a yes or no answer.

Davis, the former Police Chief of East Palo Alto, CA, said that “stop, question and frisk is flawed.” Police departments should be judged not only on what they do but also how they do it, he said. “How we deliver a service is as important as the service itself.”

Keesee, a former Denver police officer who holds a Ph.D. in intercultural communications, noted the tension between “reductions in crime and the collateral damage” to a community that may result from heavy handed police tactics.

Lanier called for hiring of police officers who believe in “empathy,” not just tough law enforcement. She avoids tactics like “zero tolerance” or “hot spots” policing that emphasizes flooding high-crime areas with officers who make arrests for every offense, major and minor. She noted that the same areas with high crime rates also are the ones where victims and witnesses live, and police need their cooperation to make cases.

The Urban Institute report said it is an open question whether the “widespread application of stop and frisk, which may target individuals based on the color of their skin and their presence on the street,” is constitutional. (The de Blasio administration in New York City dropped an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that New York officers violated many citizens’ rights as they practiced stop-and-frisk.)

The institute said that little research had been done on the impact of stop-and-frisk, but it is clear that the practice has “the potential for stop and frisk to influence attitudes toward the police in a negative manner.” The report said that, “Individuals' perceptions of the police may be particularly at risk in minority communities, which have a long history of tense relations with law enforcement.”

Better designed and executed community policing might minimize the damage from stop-and-frisk practices, the institute’s report said, and the speakers yesterday generally agreed.

“Given the current controversy surrounding the targeted use of stop and frisk and the potential for the practice to undermine public opinions of the police, a new strategy for using pedestrian stops must broaden its perspective beyond crime control outcomes,” the report said. “Implementing stops in the context of community policing can help officers use this tool more successfully and promote positive police-community relations.”

This strategy includes “strong leadership and commitment throughout all levels of a police department” and hiring officers who support community policing objectives. The institute also contended that, “police officers too must assume responsibility for changing perceptions of stop and frisk by ‘selling’ each stop they conduct and ensuring that all of their interactions with citizens are lawful and respectful.”

Underlying it all, speakers said, is improved police handling of racial issues. Davis, who is black, said police must “acknowledge the historical context” of officers acting harshly toward minorities. Keesee, who is also black, said police can behave in a biased way unconsciously even when saying, “I am not a racist.”

Davis expressed the hope that a new center being established by the Justice Department will be successful in increasing community trust in the police. The goal is for police officers to be accepted as a part of the community so that “seeing one doesn’t cause anxiety.”

Ted Gest is Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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