This is a difficult time for policing. Notwithstanding the historically low crime rate we currently enjoy, public confidence in the police is the lowest it has been since 1993, when murders and property crimes were near their peak.
Police departments can turn things around. We know this because they have done so before. Thirty years ago, police agencies across America were facing a crisis. The crime level was soaring, on its way from less than 300,000 violent crimes annually in 1960 to what would approach two million such crimes in the early 1990s.
The statistics explain what happened next. The police redoubled their efforts and rose to the challenge, finding innovative ways to fight crime. And it worked: crime rates dropped across the board, with some returning to levels last seen in the early 1970s.
Now police departments face a new challenge: community trust. This is not just PR; it is critical to doing our jobs effectively. Research has shown that when individuals do not trust the police and do not believe that they share a common set of values with the police, they feel less obliged to follow the law, to cooperate in criminal investigations, and more generally to ensure neighborhood safety.
We have seen that the police can be remarkably adept and creative when it comes to fighting crime. What would it look like for law enforcement to deploy that creativity and innovation to build better relationships with the citizens and neighborhoods they serve?
Many police departments are showing that they are up to this challenge by taking proactive steps to increase transparency and accountability. For example, a number of law enforcement agencies have begun to experiment with body-worn cameras, which allow the public—and department supervisors—to monitor how officers respond to suspects, victims, and witnesses.
The speed with which body-worn cameras are being adopted nationally shows law enforcement's strong desire to strengthen community relations. By providing a firsthand record of officers' interactions with the public, these devices enhance transparency and accountability. The video recorded by a body-worn camera can also be used to train officers and give supervisors the opportunity to provide timely feedback.
But body-worn cameras will not be enough. While they provide a record of what happened after a community-police interaction has taken place (which is critical for identifying and correcting serious issues), and help to ensure that department policies are followed and enforced, they do little to prevent crime. They also raise significant challenges regarding cost, access and privacy for both law enforcement officers and those interacting with them.
To improve both public safety and public confidence in the police, we must join body-worn cameras with a larger effort to rethink how we approach some of the fundamentals of providing police services to our communities. In the last few years, we have seen remarkable turnarounds from police departments that have embraced their traditional role as trusted public servants.
For example, the police department in Spokane, Washington—where Frank Straub, a co-author of this essay, serves as chief—saw its use-of-force numbers drop 22 percent between 2013 and 2014. What changed? In the wake of a controversial in-custody death and several years of fractured community-police relations, the Spokane Police Department initiated a series of reform efforts, including body-worn cameras, alongside a broader suite of tactics.
Those tactics include the following:
- All officers were given verbal de-escalation and 40 hours of crisis intervention training;
- The force was diversified through hiring and transfers;
- Officers were required to spend time in neighborhoods on foot patrols, in homeless shelters, mental health clinics, and community court, and to participate in the Youth-Police Initiative.
Some call it a shift from warrior to guardian role. We call it reconnecting with the community.
While Anne Milgram, this essay's other co-author, served as attorney general of New Jersey, a similar emphasis on community relationships and reconfigured police roles improved public safety in the city of Camden. During that time, the city hired more officers and put them on the streets to meet the citizens in the communities they serve, and it cut the time it takes to respond to a call from an hour to mere minutes.
Camden still struggles. But shootings, violent crime, and robberies are all down significantly. These improvements came about through hard work, not quick fixes.
Restoring community trust in the police is imperative to fighting crime and increasing neighborhood safety. Body-worn cameras will play a critical role in this effort, but they are only likely to succeed if they are part of a larger community-engaged strategy.
When it comes to repairing a damaged relationship, there are no Band-Aid solutions; but success is possible.
It starts with a willingness and commitment to change.
Frank Straub is the chief of the Spokane Police Department. During his tenure, the Spokane Police Department has dramatically reduced serious crime and the use of force by its officers, expanded community policing initiatives, and implemented a department-wide body-worn camera program. Anne Milgram is vice president of criminal justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the former attorney general of the state of New Jersey. Under her leadership, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation works with a broad coalition of partners to develop evidence-based practices for policing across the country. They welcome your comments.