By Bertrand Laurent
Community Policing is a Social Equity and Racial Justice Strategy
Social justice and community policing, strongly supported by President Elect Joe Biden, is an approach to community security in which police forces and communities partner with each other to identify and address the root causes of crime and insecurity. As many of the causes of crime and insecurity in communities are often caused by social inequity and systemic racism, #communitypolicing has deep governance implications. Community policing puts law enforcement agencies and community groups where they should be, i.e. into the same space, together as partners on the front lines in the struggle for social equity and racial justice.
For this to happen, both the police and community organizations have to be predisposed to working together. But just being predisposed to working together is not enough. Many police agencies and community stakeholders mistake “community relations” programs for true community policing strategy. Frankly put, having a community relations desk in a police station, or holding occasional police softball matches, or making police presentations to schools, are all great ice breakers and may placate some community stakeholders. But they can just as easily cause others to feel left out while doing precious little to create the partnerships that are needed to do the hard work of identifying and addressing the root causes of crime and insecurity.
It’s Not Easy
On the police side this hard work means revising policies, creating new criteria for promotions, improving problem-solving methods, developing a deeper understanding of social dynamics, re-training, improving communication and dialogue with the public, and training in social psychology. These needs are often papered over in slick community policing manuals that are usually so full of abstract models, buzz words and technical jargon they can barely hold the attention of the police officers for whom they are written nor the community members with whom they are supposed to be partnering. And, unfortunately, police forces tend to choose community organizations with which to partner based more on their ability to help apprehend perpetrators or solve crimes, than by their ability to identify and address causes of crime and insecurity. This is not a community policing criterion.
On the civilian side an equally daunting set of needs exist among many community-based organizations. They need to understand how to better reflect and communicate the nuances inherent in their members’ concerns, how to organize themselves, how to create and run more effective advocacy campaigns, how to build coalitions around issues rather than around neighborhood personalities, how to identify and engage agents of change in the community, how to create communication strategies and stay in control of key messages, and how to reach across conflicts to find common cause, build networks and partnerships. Compounding the problem, marginalized communities that have few other service providers too often look to the police to address issues that are not within their domain and for which they are neither trained nor equipped.
The incoming administration’s plans to invest in the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office is a great move for building social justice, and we hope that COPS will fully understand its responsibility to develop the capacity of both police departments and community organizations to work as partners. Having worked with police and community stakeholders on one of the US Government’s largest community policing programs in one of the world’s highest crime settings and engaged with educators, private sector, academia, churches, politicians, youth gangs, and other stakeholder groups, I can attest that it is not a simple affair.
The Disenfranchised Have Something to Bring to the Table
While police forces have budgets, human resources and many potential partner organizations with which they can work in any given community, residents generally have few or no resources and only one police force with which they can work. Members of marginalized communities, especially, are particularly affected by feelings of disadvantage when dealing with law enforcement, and they rarely know how to work with other stakeholders such as other service providers, city councils and mayors’ offices. They are at a particular disadvantage because generally have relatively little civic knowledge and experience, few constructive experiences with law enforcement, and have limited material resources (of which they are painfully aware). Many marginalized or immigrant citizens may have negative experience with law enforcement from elsewhere and, being unsure about their rights as full members of their communities, are too often reluctant to become involved in civic action. As these very groups bear the brunt of the inequity and justice issues, the fulness and depth they can bring to solving the issues of social inequity and racial justice can enhance the community policing partnerships to the benefit of all.
The Mechanism Exists
The shortcomings in community policing exist in both the police forces and in the community organizations. America’s pressing racial justice and social equity issues will not be addressed until community policing receives far better improvement at both at the police and at the community levels, and this includes a special strategy for marginalized and immigrant communities. The incoming Biden administration is planning to earmark resources for community policing, and there are several ways the process could be jump started. One way would be to insert a Community Policing directive into the two dozen or so already existing DOJ Consent Agreements and supporting city level stakeholder discussions on community policing policy in other cities. The social justice issues are pressing and we have the tools. But there is no time to lose.
The author, a specialist in governance, resilience and youth crime reduction, has managed US Government funded community policing and social development programs in a dozen countries for over twenty years.