Law Enforcement through Community Engagement: From Productivity to Purpose
One of the most common approaches to reducing crime is to increase enforcement. In his first two years as police chief in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Ed Cronin excelled in increasing enforcement. However when these efforts resulted in no decrease in crime, he was persuaded that community policing must address the causes of crime as well as its chronic symptoms. Using systems thinking, a community coalition recruited to address the immediate problem identified a number of strategies to increase safety and sustainability. The results of this new enforcement model include a reduction in criminal activity, the active engagement in the political process of a previously disenfranchised community, a police department who actively partners with other groups to address tough problems, and a law enforcement professional who has become an international advocate for a systemic approach to creating healthier communities.
In November of 2002, when I was appointed Chief of Police in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I was about to face one of the most difficult challenges of my law enforcement career. Fitchburg, an old New England industrial city of approximately 40,000 people, had not been successful in making the transition to the current technology-driven economy and had, therefore, been economically depressed for many years. The lack of growth and prosperity in the city resulted in a very depressed real estate market, which in turn made housing accessible and affordable for immigrants. In addition to its changing demographics,Fitchburgalso experienced a rise in poverty and a serious drug problem with accompanying violent crime. When I was formally introduced as Fitchburg’s new police chief at the Mayor’s press conference, the Mayor explained that I was to “lead the war on crime and drugs.” This was the first time I had heard my new role described in this way, and I interpreted it to mean that I would oversee a stepped-up, comprehensive enforcement policy whose objective was to rid the city of drugs and crime. Most of the crime that was occurring was drug-related in one way or another. When I took over as police chief, one of my first actions was to form a regional task force of surrounding cities and towns to collaborate in the enforcement of preventing narcotic trafficking and violations. Over a two-year period, drug enforcement with search warrants increased over 400 percent (from 21 search warrants per year to over 100 per year). Seizures of illegal drugs and confiscation of drug dealers’ assets also increased as part of our stepped-up enforcement.
After two and a half years we had achieved an impressive increase in our enforcement rate, but despite this, there was no appreciable difference in the crime rate. In addition, the murder rate in Fitchburgrose to a higher per capita rate than that of any other city in the state. There were six murders during my first 18 months as chief of police and five involved minorities killing other minorities.
A Turning Point
These disturbing statistics made no sense to me until I was involved in a particular investigation incident that proved to be a turning point for me. I knew that my approach to community policing would be different from then on.
One Christmas day, I received a phone call from the police department informing me that two people had been murdered and that a third was not expected to live. I was also told that everyone involved in the crime – the victims, the witnesses and the perpetrator was Latino.
I left immediately for the police station and arrived there at about 4 am. The level of activity inside the station was the same as it was on any ordinary work day with officers filling out reports and working on the preliminary investigation. The officers on duty that night were the younger and newer officers in the department, and it was customary for them to work the late night shift. They were all working in a very professional manner, focused on doing their jobs accurately and efficiently. I could see in their faces that they were forming impressions from the night’s activities. For me, they represented the future of the department and that I had the responsibility and opportunity to influence how they would develop professionally.
Seeing that everything was under control, I went to another part of the building to meet with the detective supervisor investigator. My first question to him was whether there was anything I could do to help with the investigation. He said, “No, not right now.” But a short time later, he came into my office and asked if I would meet with the family of one of the victims. I said yes, hoping that this would relieve him of the emotional and time-consuming burden of dealing with a grieving family.
I asked him where the family was and how long they had been waiting to talk with someone. He told me they were in the lobby and that they had been there for about an hour and a half. I knew that everyone was focusing on investigating the crime, but I was uneasy that the family had been kept waiting for so long for news about the death of their loved one. Before going to meet the family, I asked an on-duty Latino police officer to assist me in translating the conversation I was about to have. I also wanted to be sure that I fully respected any cultural norms that were associated with the death of a family member. He and I went to the lobby together, and met with the mother and two sisters of the victim. I introduced myself as the Chief of Police and asked them to follow me to a small private lounge area located next to the detective bureau. I noticed that they all had some blood on them and it was apparent that they had all been at the scene of the crime at some point.
Once inside the room, I saw how visibly upset they were and asked what I could do to help. Only one member of the family, a teenage girl, spoke English. She said that her mother just wanted to know what was going on with her son. I told her I would be right back, and left the room to find the detective supervisor who informed me that the victim had died. He and I agreed that I would be the one to notify the family.
I returned to the private lounge area, and before I had a chance to relay the news to the family, the commander of Massachusetts State Police came in. I quickly introduced him to the family and proceeded to let them know that their son/brother was dead. They were naturally very distraught, crying and wailing inconsolably. The victim’s mother was so overwhelmed with grief that she ran into the detective bureau, where she threw herself on the floor and became hysterical. Her daughters reacted similarly. After a few minutes, I encouraged them to return to the lounge area where they could grieve together and in private.
I left the room with the Latino officer who had accompanied me and asked him if there was anything I could have done differently. “No Chief,” he said, “you just have to let it go.” I then went to speak with the State Police Commander. I wanted him to know how sorry I was that he had to walk into this situation. In response he said, “Chief, I really wish you had not talked to them before we had a chance to. They could have been told about the death later. We should have had the opportunity to talk to them individually because they are potential witnesses to the crime.”
At this point, I realized something that should have been obvious to me. Although all the local and state police officers involved in this incident were displaying excellent technical investigative skills, none of them showed empathy for the victim’s family. More important, I realized that none of us understood the broader circumstances of this murder or of the other four murders that had occurred in the last 18 months. I suspected this was due in part to the fact that the family was Latino, and then began to wonder how the police would have responded if the victim had been someone prominent in the community, such as the president of the local university. Would his family have been kept waiting for one and a half hours in the lobby that night? Would they have been ignored for as long a time as this victim’s family had been? Would we have asked them to split up so that we could conduct individual interviews?
Managing Complexity in a New Way
The more I thought about this incident, the more aware I was of underlying circumstances that likely contributed to it and to the other previous murders in the Latino community. I began to look for patterns in police behavior or for recurring events that would give me a starting point for re-examining how I had been approaching such complex and sensitive incidents, and I learned some startling information: members of the Latino community were suing members of our police department. More specifically, I learned that 17 police officers were currently being sued by members of the Latino community for various forms of alleged abuse, but that in none of these instances was a police officer found responsible for wrongdoing.
It was becoming apparent to me that something deeper and more fundamental was at the core of our city’s increasing criminal activity. The fact that members of the Latino community were suing so many officers was not random or coincidental, but a symptom of deep and long-held misperceptions by both Latinos and police officers. Without contacts or relationships within the community, without some level of mutual understanding by all the groups involved and without an organized outreach program, it was not surprising that the bitter feelings that were building up lead to crime being a routine part of life in Fitchburg.
As chief law enforcement officer, it was my duty and responsibility to develop and put into place a plan that would lay the foundation for constructive communication and mutual understanding throughout the community. Experience told me that the most effective way to do this was to try to actively engage people in helping to resolve our city’s chronic crime problems. The first step was for me to become much better acquainted with the various minority groups that made up the majority of our community. In the course of attending different events and meeting, I met the executive director of the Twin Cities Latino Coalition. The coalition was formed in response to the very high drop-out rate of Latino students attending public school inFitchburg. Originally funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the program involved recruiting community leaders to work together to create a strategic plan that would address the community’s most serious challenges. The Coalition hired Sayra Pinto as its executive director. Sayra was a well known and highly respected community activist who had extensive experience working with inner city gangs throughRoca, a nationally recognized program that works to help young gang members transform their lives and become self-sufficient, economically stable members of their communities.
My conversations with Sayra were very instructive in terms of understanding some of the underlying causes of Fitchburg’s extraordinarily high crime rate. I learned, for example, that over 50 percent of the students in Fitchburg’s kindergarten system were Latino, and that the drop-out rate for Latino students at Fitchburg High Schoolwas more than 40 percent. She also introduced me to an abundance of research that demonstrated how children who fail in school are at a much higher risk for poverty, repeated involvement in crime and incarceration.
In addition to our mutual commitment to community improvement, Sayra and I had a mutual interest in applying the principles of systems thinking to this highly complex problem. Each of us was committed to getting to the root cause of the increasing crime rate in the Latino community. Identifying symptoms and designing solutions was no longer sufficient.
Putting Systems Thinking to Work
During this time, I attended a conference given by SoL , which confirmed for me the potential value of applying a systems approach to indentifying and reducingFitchburg’s crime rate. In learning about the principles of systems thinking and in understanding how to go about diagnosing root causes rather than identifying symptoms, it became increasingly clear to me that if our police department maintained its current approach to fighting the war against crime, we would not be able to achieve a sustainable solution.
Within the criminal justice system, conventional wisdom tells us that enforcement is an effective practice in reducing crime. In fact, it is a very ineffective approach because it does not take into account the entrenched social, cultural and political factors that are in play in situations such as ours. By looking for patterns of behavior and action within the context of these less apparent factors, and by recognizing that behaviors and actions in one part of the community were affecting behaviors and action in another, I realized that the city’s chronic problems were part of a much larger and more complex set of circumstances. In effect, I sawFitchburgas a system and understood, probably for the first time, what a radically different approach we had to use to address crime. Our current approach to crime inFitchburgwas a very common one, and one that produced the opposite results that we wanted. As the crime rate increased, we stepped up enforcement but instead of resulting in less crime, additional enforcements generated even more crime. Stuck in this negative reinforcing cycle, Fitchburg’s crime rate continued to grow and the relationship between the police department and the Latino community worsened.
It was clear to me that the problem was far beyond what I or my department could or should handle. I knew the solution had to involve the larger community. As I was trying to figure out the best way to do this, the local newspaper, the Sentinel & Enterprise, ran a series of articles for its 125,000 readers, called “decades of Addiction.” the series highlighted the fact that most of the people involved in the city’s drug-related crime were Latino. This was disturbing to me because, in my opinion, this information would only serve to deepen blame and resentment toward Latinos. Soon after the series was printed, the newspaper’s editor contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to put together, with financial support from the Sentinel & Enterprise, a regional taskforce to come up with a plan for resolving the crime and drug issues inFitchburgas well as its surrounding communities. This was just the kind of support we needed to engage the community. I agreed and we formed a regional task force chaired by two local university presidents and made up of all the local police chiefs, probation, parole and prison officials, social workers, school superintendents, teachers, private citizens, and representatives of all the minority groups in the region. In all, the task force had about 50 members.
Working with Sayra pinto, our first step was to hire consultants to conduct a comprehensive systems thinking workshop. Through this training, the task force was introduced to the model’s basic principles and archetypes. By diagnosing the city’s most serious problems using a systems approach, the task force eventually identified the fundamental issues underlying the region’s chronic criminal problems lack of economic development and institutional racism.
The work we did lead us and the community to understand that the responsibility for resolving the region’s crime problems was not only the responsibility of the police, as many of us had originally assumed, but the collective responsibility of the larger community. My police department continued to use enforcement as a deterrent but this time in conjunction with task force groups that developed prevention and intervention strategies for at-risk youth. One result was the introduction of a summer jobs program for at-risk youth and youth who could potentially become involved in criminal activity. The task force raised $50,000 to implement the new program, which became a huge success. During the summer of 2006, the first year of the program,Fitchburgrecorded a decrease in violent crime. For the year overall, violent crime fell by 14 percent followed in 2007 by an additional 4 percent reduction.
There were other signs of systems thinking at work during this period. For the first time, public institutions and private companies came together to question past practices that were counterproductive – producing unintended consequences or in some way contributing to maintaining the status quo.
Systems Thinking Expands its Influence
The efforts of the regional task force lead to more opportunities for relationship building with the Latino community. Our police department formed a regional partnership with the twin cities Latino coalition and successfully applied for funding that allowed us to increase our work with at-risk youth. We also broadened our research and reconsidered expulsion practices in our schools. Our findings lead to the introduction of a restorative justice model in which students are held accountable for their actions rather than being just being punished for them. In addition, the regional task force began a community dialogue on race relations that resulted in forming multi-racial committees that probed sensitive aspects of deep-seated racial problems. Because of the work of these committees, the minority community became a much greater presence in local affairs, eventually resulting in the election of the first minority woman in the city’s history to become Mayor.
For me personally, integrating a systems perspective into my thinking lead to deep self-reflection, and I began to wonder how I might have been contributing to the problem rather contributing to a sustainable solution. I now understood that blaming others for the police department’s initial ineffectiveness in reducing Fitchburg’s crime rate was a way of shifting the burden of failure “out there” when I should have also been looking inward – at myself and my department.
Global use of Systems Thinking in Community Policing
Having experienced firsthand the power of systems thinking, I was curious to know whether it was being used in other police departments across the country and was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t. I have attended many national police conferences, and have heard of no other instances where a systems approach is being used in community policing. There have been studies on the relationship between systems thinking and policing, but most of them are theoretical and without much practical application. In addition, these studies were not done in theUnited States, but in other countries including theU.k.,New ZealandandSingapore. TheSingaporepolice department has been training its officers in the systems approach and has been successful in resolving community policing and department organizational problems. During the first International chiefs of police conference in the Middle East North Africa region inDohain November 2008, theSingaporepolice, who have been using a systems approach for ten years, gave a presentation on the success of their community policing program. As if to underscore its effectiveness, I learned that the commissioner of theSingaporepolice department had been elected as head of the prestigious international police agency, Interpol.
A Continuing Journey
There is no question in my mind that the comprehensive and holistic way in which systems thinking addresses crime and organizational problems is very effective. It has been invaluable to me in resolving the most common but also the most entrenched problems in modern police operations.
Introducing systems thinking into my work has been both a revelation and a challenge. It has taught me that managing crime without taking into account the social, cultural and political circumstances that go far beyond the criminal activity itself is destined to fail. I have learned that tackling complex problems as an isolated entity, such as a police departments often are, is not likely to bring worthwhile change. I have learned that defaulting to quick and easy fixes can easily result in undesired and costly consequences.
Improving the way crime is managed by theFitchburgpolice department is an ongoing process. I have recently retired from my position as police chief, but with an entirely new perspective on problem solving. I believe that in the end it will be our ability to engage the broader community in on going dialogue and our ability to work consistently toward that goal that will help us become more effective law enforcement officers and that will lead to safer, healthier and more engaged communities.
About the Author
Ed Cronin has served as Chief of Police in Gardner, Massachusettsand in Fitchburg, Massachusetts for much of his 26-year career in law enforcement. He has worked extensively outside the United Statestraining and advising police forces in several former Soviet Union locations as well as in Cairo, Egypt. Ed earned his Master’s degree in Criminal Justice Management at the Universityof Massachusetts, and is the founder of Coaching for Success, an organization that provides career and life coaching for law enforcement firstname.lastname@example.org.