Police Like a Security Guard?

There is, unfortunately, a big difference between police services in a gated community and those delivered in most of our nation’s cities. There is difference is in support, trust and safety.

Those who have the most contact with police (poor neighborhoods) seem to have the least amount of support and trust. Many residents do not feel safe in their homes. Too often, we hear people of color say their neighborhoods are unsafe and over-policed.

I don’t hear the same kind of things from those who live in gated communities.  Gated communities are those wealthy neighborhoods we’ve all seen from outside their walls who have the means to construct barriers and hire guards to patrol and control access to their communities.

After Arrested Development was a published in 2012, I was invited to co a number of service clubs to talk about the book. When I presented the problems I saw developing in policing — the Four Obstacles:anti-intellectualism, violence, dishonesty, and disrespect. Most of those present were simply puzzled by the idea that all police were not loved and respected. After all, they had never encountered aggressive, disrespectful police. “We don’t understand. Police do a great job in our neighborhoods — although most of us have never had a recent contact with any of them.”

During the same period of time,in other neighborhoods, I heard from community activists and young people of color. When I asked them the same question about contacts with police, a lot of hands went up and the stories that followed troubled me.

The more vocal young people in these groups said they wanted community control of their police. They simply felt they had no ability to what they believed was an extremely negative situation. Community control of police is not a new idea to me. I often heard this expressed when I was a street cop in Minneapolis during the late 60s from those who felt powerless when it came to asking police to be fairer and more respectful.

Seeking to control the government who had power to arrest you and put you in jail was one of the objectives of our Founders. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights still in effect today.

If you observe the residents of any gated community in America today they are doing just that — assuring personal safety and managing authority. They have means, an elected resident council, and will actively be involved in selecting, directing and controlling their private police. If one of their teenage children misbehave in their community they will be chastised and taken home — not arrested and placed in juvenile detention overnight. How long do you think gated community residents would tolerate an abusive or disrespectful guard? Not for a moment! Why? Residents and their guests expect, yes demand, their security personnel accommodate their needs and are respectful to them and their children at all times. Period.

Should it be any different in a poor community? Can public police act in ways that are accommodating and respectful to those who have few means and power? There is a way. I maintain that the true practice of Community-Oriented Policing (COP) will provide this kind of outcome. I have seen it work and it is possible. I never received a complaint that one of my Neighborhood Officers was disrespectful or used excessive force. Why? Because the officer and community had build relationships with one another. Moreover, the neighborhood officer knew that his or her success (and even personal safety)in that community depended on building strong, respectful and collaborative relationship with residents.

They came to share the same community goals and agreed how they were to be pursued. This might be shocking to some readers, but even the most troubled and dangerous neighborhoods are populated with a majority of people who desire safety and order. They want their neighborhoods to be safe for their children. I hope we are at a time in our nation’s history that we understand we cannot arrest ourselves out of our urban problems. We can, instead, work together – police and community members – to find solutions.

The problem is that most police departments are not prepared to police in this manner. Sure, they have a community policing “program,” but it’s not how they operate department-wide day to day. You can’t get the neighborhood focus you need from officers who not trained to think this way and, instead, rotate in and out of neighborhoods driving high-powered and equipment-laden patrol vehicles with a “them versus us” attitude.

There’s an old song from the musical, “The Music Man” about how “you gotta know the territory!” That should apply to police as well as door-to-door sales persons. Knowing your neighborhood is essential to the delivery of quality police services.

This has been a long journey for me stretching back far too many years. Yet, I am not ready to give up. I still think the heart and soul of successfully policing a diverse city is for police to get back to the roots of true COP as we once intended years ago; in fact, towards the end of my career I stopped calling it COP and referred to what I was trying to achieve was Neighborhood Oriented Policing (NOP), because COP was misunderstood and lost its effectiveness when became a program and not the way, and the only way, to deliver police services in America.

When I look back, those men and women whom I assigned to troubled neighborhoods knew who they were and what they needed to do. Dallas Police Chief David Brown recently reminded us at the end of his career that policing is a “people business.” That’s so true. And when you are in the “people business” you know on whom you focus and build your relationships. When that happens we come closer to achieving the goals of our society.

Put the right police officers, with the right training and leadership in the most troubled neighborhoods and you will be surprised at the positive things that will happen. By “right” I mean police officers who are emotionally mature, and understand their role as guardians and protectors of that community. In addition to being mature and well-trained, they need to control their use of force, be honest, caring and willing to work solving resident-defined problems.

American policing has been on a slippery slope since the start of this century. Sometimes I think something terribly has gone wrong, Police in America have become over militarized in attitude and action. They have been misled into wars against crime and drugs and now immigrants and terrorists have been added. At the beginning of each of these wars, their leaders told them that arrest and force was the way to win instead of working closely with community members. Our police have been trained and equipped to be soldiers only to find many people now see them as soldiers of occupation. And we know from history that occupying forces never won a war. Occupiers always have to go back home, disgruntled and defeated. It doesn’t have to happen here. Sir Robert Peel knew this long ago when he and others organized the first public police in London in 1829. He declared, “police are the people, and the people are the police.” When we understand this things will get better.

Today’s police officers have a right to be angry. They have been duped into believing excessive force and military-like operations in our city neighborhoods work. It’s going to take courage from them to stand up and say, “We’re not going to do it this way anymore!” When they do that they will become “outliers.” But when enough outliers challenge a dysfunctional system, the outliers become the insiders. Change will come; but it will come slowly. So, why not start now? Officers, you know what you need to do.

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