Op/Ed: Can Community/Police Relations Be Salvaged?


Can Community/Police Relations Be Salvaged? The following article has been written by David Sullivan. It includes editorial content which is the opinion and story of the writer.

In 1994, amid a great deal of hoopla, President Clinton signed into law the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994”. Title I of that Act deals with public safety and policing cited as the “Public Safety Partnership and Community Policing Act of 1994”. Under this act the Office of Community Oriented Policing allocated more than $8.8 billion dollars in grants for cities throughout the country to hire and re-hire police officers. By 1998, seventy-five thousand police officers had either been hired or re-hired as a result of those grants. This was the latest and perhaps the most aggressive attempt at creating community partnerships to address not only crime and quality of life issues but to enhance the relationship between the police, local governments, and all members of the community.

It’s now 29 years later and the events in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio;

Baltimore, Maryland and other cities all across the country have shed doubt that the $8.8 billion dollars has been an effective use of taxpayer money as we have yet to realize any substantial benefits from community-oriented policing.

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Unfortunately, what went wrong is now a one-sided issue with police departments and police officers taking the brunt of the criticism with little to no support from the community and city leaders. Those who understand the community policing philosophy realize that it was, and still is, a lack of police, city and community leadership coupled with a misunderstanding of that philosophy that has caused the void in police/community relations. Sadly, that void is filled with empty rhetoric coming from self-appointed, self-serving so-called community activists, who far too often have very little or no stake in the affected communities. It is a fact however, that community policing aside, police officers have done a very credible, if not remarkable, job in policing their cities in spite of the criticism, hostility and resentment.

Can community policing be salvaged?

Regrettably, the answer is probably not, at least not with the older part of this generation. But, we have to start somewhere and that should be with the younger members of this generation. Once the 1994 Act was signed into law police chiefs in many larger cities failed to fully understand the community-policing philosophy and in turn failed in their responsibility to identify and unite the community policing partners that are so essential to addressing crime and quality of life issues within the community. Instead, they became politicians, often separating themselves from their own police officers. City leaders and city services, crucial community policing partners, have not adequately addressed the issues that have a negative effect on overall crime and quality of life concerns.

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The media, another community policing partner, continually shows bias against police that constantly respond to deadly situations, social disorder, and civil disobedience, then sensationalizes to the point of escalating already volatile situations. Too often the media gives credibility to those contributing to civil disobedience along with the empty rhetoric spewed by those self-appointed, self-serving community activists who are demanding justice and action before the facts are known and investigations have even begun.

And when the investigations are completed, they have shown that police officers acted appropriately and were justified in their actions in all but the rarest of instances and it’s those rarest of instances that the media depicts as the normal actions of the policing profession. It’s ironic that those who immediately accuse the police of being judge, jury and executioner are themselves doing exactly that. A compelling argument could be made that a bias media, being more subjective than objective while giving credibility to opinions rather than facts, is not in a position to be an effective community policing partner.

What is salvageable however, is the relationship between the police department and the community.

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Arguably, the most important of the community policing partners are the citizens themselves. While city leaders have a vision for the future of the city, it’s the citizens, by their actions and inactions, that have the greatest impact on that vision. It’s also the actions of the citizens that determine how police resources and city services are prioritized and used.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, England’s Home Secretary and London’s Police Chief, said, “the police are the public and the public are the police, the police being the only members of the public paid to give full time attention to ‘what is incumbent on every citizen’ in the interest of community welfare and existence”. That simply means all citizens are expected to follow the legislated and social “norms” of society and not deliberately and negligently become a drain on police and city services and negatively affect quality of life issues. At every opportunity, police and city leaders do not hesitate to tell the citizens that the police are out there 24 hours a day, every day “for” them.

However, for whatever reason, they fail to tell the citizens the police are out there 24 hours a day “because” of them.

Perhaps the problem is trying a “cookie cutter” approach to policing. In other words, trying to fit all cities and communities into the same mold. Many smaller cities already fit into community-oriented policing without having to make significant changes. At this point however, it’s questionable whether our larger cities will ever be able to evolve into community-oriented policing.

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Unfortunately, for cities that failed to successfully achieve community-oriented policing what is left is the single issue of a positive police/community relationship. That too is failing because of leadership issues among police and city administrators and self-appointed community leader/activists. Police/community relations are an included byproduct of successful Community-Oriented Policing. Without that success police/community relations are a separate issue much harder to achieve.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best; “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions“. Unfortunately, too often, the police become that scapegoat with no pushback from city administrators, community leaders and police leaders themselves.

David Sullivan, a former police officer, is a retired 26-year Air Force veteran where he was a hospital laboratory managing director and superintendent of Bacteriology and Hematology training responsible determining Air Force laboratory training needs, developing lesson plans, study guides, workbooks and measurement tests. He got into policing with the Dallas Police Department at the age of 48 and stayed in patrol until retiring at the age of 65. At the age of 76 he returned to policing with the Lakeview Police Department serving the cities of El Lago and Taylor Lake Village, Texas as a patrol officer until retiring once again at the age of 82. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and is now working on his second book.

Op/Ed: Can Community/Police Relations Be Salvaged?

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