Community policing: the need to change the culture of compliance

By Nicole Hughes Waid

President Obama named civil rights; gun safety; prisons and detention; and state, local and tribal law enforcement as four of the Department of Justice’s top priorities for fiscal year 2015. These four priorities illustrate the serious problems that are currently dividing our nation and the critical need for solutions to these problems.

As the country reels from the images of Ferguson (Mo.), Staten Island, and the assassination of two NYPD police officers, our federal, state and local governments are searching for ways to bring communities back together. The immediate reaction is to place blame, but this is not merely a police problem – this is a national problem.

So what is the solution? The government has responded by allocating funds for more police training, surveillance equipment and revised standard operating procedures. Some of these changes are necessary; however, these are just small Band-Aids being placed over a larg wound. By establishing stricter rules and guidelines, some believe that this will make our law enforcement communities more “compliant.” However, compliance is not measured by the number of rules and regulations; compliance is a culture that is established and maintained from the top down. 

The definition of culture is “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” The only way to solve the problems that plague our communities and to heal this divide is to tackle the issues collectively. This means that the entire community must invest in the culture of compliance and create partnerships between law enforcement and the community that foster the open exchange of ideas and beliefs – creating safe avenues to vent frustration and implement change. 

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 established the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) within the Justice Department to promote community policing. According to the definition of COPS, “Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”

As a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C., I was actively engaged in the community policing and community prosecution model, and I can attest from first-hand experience that it works. Instead of reacting to crime, law enforcement proactively engaged community members in problem solving and establishing methods to take back ownership of their communities. Officers were not only trained on use of force and evidence collection, but were trained to listen to the people whom they protect.

As a community prosecutor in a poor, primarily black neighborhood, I worked closely with white, black and Hispanic police officers to improve community relations and to stop the trend of high crime and blight commonly found in poverty-stricken communities. We faced special challenges confronting a smaller community that experienced difficulty recruiting residents to become law enforcement officers.

As a result, the community felt it was being policed by outsiders. Our goal was to become engrained in the community by being present in the schools, attending community meetings, attending church services and patrolling the neighborhoods on foot. This integration was critical to understanding the issues that caused crime in the neighborhood, as well as the solutions needed to prevent it. 

Because a culture of compliance is only successful when the top management makes it a priority, police departments had to invest time and money and had to “buy in” to the community prosecution model. Officers were allowed to step away from responding to the radio, writing tickets and focusing on crime statistics and were instead encouraged to speak to community members and really listen to the problems that plagued the community. Police officers were rewarded for taking the time to play a game of football with some neighborhood kids or attend a community meeting while on patrol. These simple acts showed the community that law enforcement cared and was invested in improving the community.

When we first implemented the community prosecution model, there was a great deal of anger and venting from both sides. The community felt abandoned and the officers felt unappreciated for doing a thankless and extremely dangerous job. However, we trained officers not to get defensive, to listen closely to what was being said and to the emotions that were being expressed, because without this exchange and catharsis, wounds would never heal. When community members realized that we were listening with no excuses for past actions, there was a sense of relief and of hope. Neighbors, who were initially wary of speaking to the police, would see the same men and women each day walking the neighborhood and little by little, a dialogue was established. The adversarial roles of the police versus the community were slowly dismantled as both sides began to trust that the other was invested in the success of the community as a whole. With the erosion of mistrust came the mutual respect necessary to rebuild, serve and protect. 

Soon, community members were stepping forward as witnesses to the violent crimes that were being committed in their neighborhoods. Officers responded immediately to safety concerns and, with the assistance of the police, communities established Neighborhood Watch programs, after-school programs, and neighborhood clean-up projects. Instead of jump-outs and reactive policing, officers and prosecutors put together proactive investigations based upon the community’s concerns and information provided.

When gang violence erupted, the police increased the number of patrols; however, they also established a tennis program with young children from rival neighborhoods with the hope of breaking the cycle of violence. Law enforcement worked together with the community to solve the problems plaguing their streets. As crime decreased, the community acknowledged and appreciated the efforts of law enforcement and a mutual respect was created. Washington D.C. was once the murder capital of the United States, but now the city is noticeably absent from the list of most violent cities nationwide.

As our country struggles to overcome the tragedies of 2014, we must remember that the real enemy is poverty and that the violence is a manifestation of the frustration of the community and the police with the seemingly endless failure to address the issues of poverty. This failure results in the loss of too many black children and young adults each year to gun violence. Blaming law enforcement or the community itself is not going to solve this problem. The culture of compliance must change so that we can collectively find solutions to the violence that plagues our neighborhoods and implement those solutions for a brighter and safer future for everyone.

Nicole Hughes Waid is a white collar and corporate compliance partner with law firm Roetzel & Andress and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.


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