Put the Community Back Into Community Policing

Put the Community Back Into Community Policing

Police abuse has captured media attention throughout the past year — from the case of Mike Brown in Ferguson, to those of Eric Garner in New York, Zachary Hammond in South Carolina, and Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati, among many others. The notion is that police are failing our communities.

There's a perception that, instead of aiming to keep residents safe, police are militarizing, engaging in trigger-happy tactics, and taking the lives of innocent individuals — and are quick to defend their actions with the "I felt threatened" excuse. In some cases this explanation does seem reasonable. In other cases, video evidence shows that it is not.

The question for many is: Why are police failing us? One hypothesis that stems from a long line of research argues that police are more likely to become unaccountable when they are divorced from their communities. This research suggests that police departments should adopt what is referred to as "community policing," which encourages police to build a relationship with residents and to view them as partners in combating crime as opposed to having an "us versus them" mentality.

When departments use community-policing strategies, they move away from the "maximizing arrests" approach and divert their hours toward proactive, problem-oriented activities. This means police learn about why crime is occurring and employ strategies that may prevent crime from happening. Furthermore, police are less likely to "just shoot" someone they recognize as a member of their community. And on the residents' side, getting to know the officers helps them trust the police. If people trust the police, they are more likely to discuss information about potential suspects and other emerging problems in the community.

Take, for example, the recent community-policing-inspired program in Los Angeles. LAPD officers started coaching a football team, the Watts Bears, which comprises young boys from crime-ridden housing projects. While no formal research has evaluated the program yet, there are early signs of success. First, families are reporting that they trust the police more and that this program is helping to breakdown the "us vs. them" mentality. Second, reports show that homicides in this area have significantly fallen. And third, by coaching the young boys through this football program, the police are potentially keeping them from joining gangs. This program is also illustrative of what it means for officers to be proactive in their approaches.

LAPD officer Keith Mott explains this new program: "It's not like the old LAPD that is just looking to arrest people. As we have built relationships, people are letting us know when shootings are occurring, or before gang activity happens, we're getting phone calls, which allows us to be more proactive. We talk to people, so they begin to trust us."

But this ray of community-policing hope may have little chance of success throughout the nation if the federal government continues to reward police departments for focusing on War on Terror and War on Drugs initiatives. This includes supplying departments with paramilitary units (i.e., SWAT teams) and equipment such as body armor, aircraft, armed vehicles, weapons, riot gas, watercraft, and surveillance equipment, all coming from Department of Defense's 1033 program.

The truth is, it's quite difficult for police departments to build community-police partnerships when the police look like they're about to go to war with the community. These federally funded initiatives create the reality of the "warrior cop."

Federal programs don't just exacerbate the hostility between communities and the police; they also incentivize the police officers to prioritize federal needs over community needs.

For example, police departments that cooperate with federal drug investigations receive a share of any associated asset forfeitures. This means that local police are able to generate increases in their budgets by confiscating assets (cash, homes, cars) during the process of investigating drug-related crime. Thus, any department choosing not to place a greater emphasis on drug-related crime forgoes income, regardless of the community's actual public-safety needs. Also, notoriously, police often outright abuse these asset-forfeiture policies, which cultivates more community resentment.

If the goal is to help police become more accountable to their residents and to develop community policing initiatives, then the federal government needs to stop funding local police departments with military equipment and distorting their incentives to prioritize federal initiatives over community needs. A giant step toward putting "community" back into community policing starts with recognizing how the federal government creates the warrior cop.

Liya Palagashvili is an assistant professor of economics at SUNY-Purchase, an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and coauthor (with Peter J. Boettke and Jayme Lemke) of "Re-Evaluating Community Policing in a Polycentric System" in the Journal of Institutional Economics

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