The events in Ferguson, MO, New York City, and Beavercreek, OH in the news, on social media, and the subsequent protests have captured my attention – I’ve been almost addicted to reading news updates and thought pieces. The issue of the abuse of power by those who are charged to serve and protect and the issue of race in America have been in the forefront of my mind lately, not just because I’m black, but because I’m the mother of a black child who will one day become a black man. Reading article after article, watching news stations, seeing people of all colors and ages protesting the lack of indictments all over the country in all these cases, and listening to NPR just makes me want to belt out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
Why does this matter to economic and community development? One of the common issues that arises when I’m collecting public input in client communities is a concern that leadership doesn’t adequately reflect the diversity present in those communities, whether it is race and ethnicity, age dynamics, sexual preferences, income levels, etc. According to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Project, one of the most important factors that makes a community a desirable place to live is openness—and the perception of residents that they can be a part of networks and feel safe and secure and hopeful in a place. When people feel represented and safe, they are more connected to their communities. When they feel more connected to their communities, they are more likely to be civically engaged. When more people are civically engaged, communities have a better chance of retaining their talent, developing leaders who represent a wider array of that community’s constituents, and eventually providing more opportunities for more people to increase the community’s overall wealth.
I’ve had my eye on these cases and others for many months now, and before the most recent events in the court cases, some interesting facts were published about Ferguson and its elected officials and other public servants. According to CNN, two-thirds of Ferguson’s population is black, and its mayor, police chief, and five of six city council members are white. Only three of the 53 officers on the police force there are black. With these dynamics—no matter why they came to be this way—it’s no wonder that the residents feel unheard and unrepresented. A couple of months later, USA Today published an article discussing arrest disparities across the nation uncovered using data from the FBI. In their review of the data, they determined that “at least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black.” Amidst all the concerns that stem from groups of people, how can this particular disparity be addressed? President Obama released his plan to strengthen community policing earlier this week, and it includes promoting a community-oriented policing model. So what is that? Below are a few best practices of cities trying to restore the faith that citizens have in their safety and security.
Taking citizen complaints to foster trust and create checks and balances: San Francisco voters supported the creation of an Office of Citizen Complaints in the 1980s, and it still exists today and has increased staff capacity over the years. The agency investigates every complaint that comes in about officers acting in a position of authority. The Office can make recommendations to the Chief of Police or go directly to the Police Commission in more serious cases. The Office strives to be a tool for the police department to improve public safety and efficiency while also ensuring that the public feels it has an outlet. It is important to note here that there exists tension between the police department and the Office as well as some tension among the public, who sometimes thinks the Office isn’t doing enough.
Developing relationships with youth and providing services early on: Here in Atlanta, the police department has the Police Athletic League (PAL) youth program that is a partnership between Atlanta police officers and Atlanta businesses to “use sports, education, and recreation to connect police and local youth.” The program exposes local kids to the city’s many activities and creates positive interactions to help them become productive citizens as they grow up.
Preventing crime by engaging citizens through understanding and training: In Cary, NC, residents are able to enroll in a 12-week Citizens Police Academy, where they learn about the operations of the Cary Police Department, including patrol procedures, the recruitment and selection process for new officers, and other items that citizens might not normally be aware of. The city also has the Citizens Assisting Police program, which consists of volunteers who do not carry weapons and cannot make arrests but who are able to help with security at public events and assist their fellow citizens with minor but necessary needs like car seat installation.
Proactively listening to citizens before major incidents happen: The police department in Minneapolis, MN has developed a Chief’s Citizens Advisory Council. The council includes both police department personnel and community members to identify and address pertinent issues concerning public safety, particularly pertaining to “community outreach and engagement; recruitment, hiring and promotions; training and development; and accountability.” The goal is to “help build a police department that provides exceptional police and public safety services, embraces a culture of respect, reflects the diversity of the people of Minneapolis and is committed to building relationships in the community.”
Retraining existing police officers: Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD will be retraining approximately 22,000 officers through a three-day tactics training course that will focus on topics such as “deescalating situations and interacting with people who are mentally ill.” This retraining is an effort to begin changing the relationship between police and the community and building trust.
Ensuring that police are members of the communities they serve: Boston Police Department requires city residency prior to hiring new officers, and one city leader would like to consider a requirement for officers to have lived in the city for three years. There are other cities (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that have similar residency requirements), and others (D.C. and Detroit) that don’t require residency but offer incentives to encourage officers to reside where they work. I would love to see an analysis done to determine if police officers are more effective and less likely to abuse power if they are policing their own community.
One more best practice is rigorously screening and evaluating new police trainees. Of course, all police departments I’ve read about say that they physically and psychologically screen and assess their recruits. This process needs to be evaluated further to ensure that future police officers don’t have biases against various groups of people and that they have no inherent fears or negative views about groups that would change their approach in any situation.
In this turbulent time in our nation, it is vital that we develop and implement long-term solutions. In economic development, this is particularly important because diversity is here to stay, and communities that have embraced and even celebrate diversity are also communities who have or are building strong workforces. But none of these or any other programs will ever be effective if we don’t begin to cultivate and build respect for all human lives, no matter their color, culture, or any other difference. As our CEO J. Mac Holladay says from time to time—tolerance is not the answer because it still implies that who is being tolerated is unpleasant or disliked. It bothers me to the core when I hear people dream of a colorless society—it will never be possible to “not see color.” But if we as a nation ever join together to truly celebrate how colorful we are and seek to see each color for its individual beauty while also enjoying the rainbow as a whole, maybe we won’t have such disturbing and polarizing issues such as those we’ve seen this year, and #blacklivesmatter won’t be a trending topic on Twitter. Answers to such complex issues aren’t easy ones, but with thoughtful conversations, citizen engagement, proactive policy designs, fair enforcement of the laws stemming from those policies, and an underlying spirit of acknowledging that all lives matter, change can be made over time.
 Interviews: Best Practices in Community Policing. http://www.pbs.org/pov/everymothersson/special_practices_ka.php