by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The term 'community policing' is often used these days whenever the media, politicians, and police officials discuss the way forward in keeping our communities safe, yet equitable, in the 21st century. But do many people understand what community policing means? I think with all the misunderstanding and mistrust of police departments around the nation, and the roadblocks that have been set in place by people and organizations with agendas who benefit from a split between the police and the communities they work in, it's safe to say that no, people don't understand what it means.
According to the Department of Justice, community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that 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.
Simply put: It means that the police in your city or town reach out to and work with members of the community to come up with plans, as a group, to address issues of crime and disorder.
The whole idea behind this philosophy of policing is that when the community is involved with the planning process of how the police should address issues in a specific community, citizens will gain a better understanding of the problems, help reform departments that are on the wrong path, and together, take ownership of the crime that permeates the streets of American neighborhoods so it can ultimately be eradicated.
Many people, including US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, believe this is the only way forward. Lynch and others also believe this is a way to relieve racial tension that has, once again, jumped to the forefront of the issues we face as a nation.
Lynch recently wrote an editorial for the Washington Post, saying, 'Recent incidents in Charlotte, Tulsa, and El Cajon, Calif., were just the latest in a long series of events that have left Americans feeling saddened, angry and confused about the meaning of justice in the United States. These high-profile traumas - which include the tragic officer-involved deaths of civilians and appalling, premeditated attacks on police officers - have laid bare the fault lines of mistrust that too often separate law enforcement and communities of color.'
'As attorney general of the United States, one of my top priorities has been bridging the divides between police and citizens,' she continued. 'I firmly believe that all of us - law enforcement officers, activists and ordinary citizens alike - have a role to play in closing those rifts and repairing the fabric of our society.'
Lynch says that the Justice Department has been tirelessly pursuing that goal in a number of ways.
'We dispatch mediators to assist with tense situations, provide local law enforcement agencies with training and technical assistance, and, when necessary, investigate allegations of unconstitutional policing,' she said. 'Our work to restore trust takes many forms, but it is all closely tied to the principles of community policing.'
Lynch says that 'community policing is a public-safety philosophy based on partnership and cooperation.'
'At its core is the idea that everyone has a stake in the safety of the neighborhoods where we live and work, and that none of us, police or citizen, can make them safe on our own,' she continued. 'Community policing uses our shared interest as the foundation for deeper understanding, mutual respect, and closer partnership. In practice, community policing encourages officers and citizens to communicate regularly, to share concerns and collaborate on solutions, and, above all, to get to know one another as people rather than stereotypes.'
In Seattle, we do this by way of demographic advisory councils to the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Micro Community Policing Plans, the Community Police Commission (CPC), and (supposedly) the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). I say 'supposedly' because, even though traditionally the OPA tends to rule in favor of the officer, SPD officers by and large look at the OPA as 'no friend to the police,' as I was told by an officer who did not want their name mentioned because they are not an official spokesperson for the department. Aside from making recommendations to Seattle Chief of Police Kathleen O'Toole - which she does not have to follow - the OPA is powerless and often jeered by the public for recommending slaps on the wrist in place of real consequences for officers who violate policies or worse.
As the current chair of the LGBTQ Advisory Council to SPD and president and founder of Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) - a local social justice organization that, among other things, assists the community in anti-crime initiatives and police relations - I have seen firsthand the positive outcome of the advisory councils, CPC, and community policing efforts. The idea is that in order to help make our police department one that works for everybody, it is better to work alongside them than against them.
Last year, Lynch visited Seattle as a part of her 12-city Community Policing Tour to learn what municipalities around the country are doing to foster trust and cooperation. 'I was inspired and encouraged by what I saw,' she said.
'In Cincinnati, I witnessed officers spending time in local classrooms as tutors and mentors in safe and supportive settings for kids. I observed cutting-edge de-escalation training in Phoenix, where officers were taught how to exercise restraint in ambiguous situations. And in Fayetteville, N.C., I learned about the police chief's youth advisory council, which gives local high school students a meaningful role in shaping their city's policing practices and policies.'
When Lynch visited our city, I got the opportunity to meet with her and speak to her about ways that community policing can aid the LGBTQ community. I talked to her about the SOSea Safety Shuttle and how funding for the project never developed, even though we had provided more than 500 rides home for LGBTQ and allied people during early morning bar and nightclub hours (helping to reduce the number of attacks during those hours by a considerable amount) and the Capitol Hill neighborhood's acceptance of the project. The need for funding, I said, is critical for community groups that set out to do the work necessary to yield positive results.
We also spoke about the need to counter the rhetoric that police officers are conditioned to not provide safety for members of the LGBTQ community. While it is true that Stonewall was, indeed, a police riot, the fact is it was police who ran toward the bullets in Orlando when Pulse, a Gay nightclub, was under attack. Departments like SPD have drafted (with advice from members of the Transgender community) policies on dealing with Transgender citizens. There are a record number of out Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender officers (Seattle now has two out Transgender officers). This is in direct contradiction of the age-old argument that we are somehow the enemy of police.
The Seattle Police Department's Safe Place Program - which I helped develop and implement with SPD LGBTQ Liaison Officer Jim Ritter - has signed up more than 700 businesses across the city, and been adopted by departments throughout the state and country (including Orlando). This shows that at no time in our nation's history have the police and the LGBTQ community been closer. That is progress. That is community policing in action.
None of this means, however, that there isn't more to do and that everything is somehow perfect. Because it is not. But it is a start. It is better today than it was yesterday. Now, the focus is on the future and what we can do to make things safer for LGBTQ people of color and improve police relations. This is a good thing.
Lynch was impressed by what she saw in Seattle. In fact, Chief O'Toole was invited to the White House and honored by President Obama for the department's reform efforts in the face of a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree, and she sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama during the president's latest State of the Union address.
Lynch said at a community policing forum in Seattle on September 24, 2015, that I attended, 'I am here in Seattle today because this city's leaders - all of you around this table and your partners beyond this room - have demonstrated your commitment to making progress - together - on behalf of your fellow citizens and for the good of this great city.
'Three years ago, Seattle entered a consent decree with the Justice Department to remedy a pattern or practice of excessive force in policing. Thanks to the consent decree and the commitment to change it represented, the Seattle Police Department has adopted policies and instituted trainings to address bias, curtail the use of force, and implement new mechanisms of accountability. Those reforms have not only led to positive results in Seattle but have become a model for similarly situated departments throughout the country. I am proud of the important steps Seattle has already taken, and I promise you that the Department of Justice will be there as your partner as we continue this important work.'
In her Washington Post editorial, Lynch announced, 'President Obama has designated this week as National Community Policing Week: a time for law enforcement and communities to come together, acknowledge our shared pain, begin to rebuild trust, and chart a peaceful course forward. Over the next several days, the Justice Department and its partners will hold more than 400 community policing events nationwide, where we will focus on ways to ensure that all members of our society can be confident in the guarantee of equal protection under our laws. We also will publish a report about my community policing tour, offering a blueprint for other localities to learn as they work to build trust and legitimacy in their own neighborhoods and implement the pillars of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.'
On Monday, such an event took place, when several community police leaders and I, alongside community demographic leaders, were invited to the office of US Attorney, Western District of Washington, Annette L. Hayes to receive an update on where we are in the SPD reform process, discuss upcoming assessments and milestones, and give our perspective on the work to date and the challenges that remain. The meeting took place at the Federal Courthouse and was a roundtable discussion. Everybody was equal; no community was shut out.
In its latest report, the federal monitor of the DOJ's consent decree highlighted the significant progress the SPD has made in its reform efforts during the past year. The consent decree was brought on because, according to a 2011 report by the DOJ, SPD officers used excessive force, often against the mentally ill or people impaired by drugs or alcohol, in about 20% of all arrests and because the officers themselves often escalated a minor interaction into physical confrontations.
The federal monitor says that behavior is changing in the SPD. Currently, only 1.6% of the 9,300 crisis contacts result in reportable force. That's a far cry from about 20%, as reported in 2011. Furthermore, there was a 55% decrease in the number of moderate- to high-level use-of-force incidents in the last year.
And there's better news to report too.
Many cities, like Seattle, are under scrutiny by the DOJ. Some of these cities are creating new structures for civilian and community oversight. Seattle is one of several cities launching an Office of the Inspector General. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's latest budget includes $3 million to strengthen police accountability. Some portion of that will go to launch the Inspector General's office.
In July, Murray made clear, 'It is my suggestion that we take the part-time auditor's position, which is on a consulting contract, and make it into an inspector general's position with a stronger ability to investigate complaints and practices.'
He plans to introduce such legislation soon.
The role of Seattle's OPA auditor, former deputy mayor and out Lesbian judge Anne Levinson, has been to independently review the complaints to the OPA and how they are investigated. Levinson says she is supportive of the new office.
'The inspector general would have staff [and] independent authority to do the audits and evaluations, and report on a regular basis and present to the city council in a public fashion,' Levinson told KUOW in an October 1 interview.
Levinson has, in the past, recommended broader changes, like monitoring the use of force by police, and training officers in de-escalation, racial bias, and how to handle people in crisis. According to her KUOW interview, those findings often gathered dust, until the DOJ reached a consent decree with the city in 2012.
'Because of the consent decree, a number of the recommendations I have made have now been implemented,' she said. 'But it's only because of the force of the court behind. This administration of its own volition hasn't implemented very many of these recommendations.'
She said she's watching for in the upcoming legislation to review how the OPA and inspector general are protected from political interference.
'Independence,' she said. 'What you'll want to look for is that the mayor can appoint the OPA director, for example, but the city council can appoint the inspector general, so you have a balance of powers.'
In other words what Murray, Levinson, and other police watchdogs want is the ability to have more bite than bark.
Lynch ended her Washington Post editorial by saying that it is her commitment, and the commitment of the Obama Administration, to have community policing events extend far beyond this single week.
'Our country's founding principles guarantee every person a life of safety, dignity, and opportunity,' she concluded. 'By allowing residents and law enforcement officials to see one another as allies, rather than as adversaries, community policing helps to make that guarantee real - not just for some Americans, but for all.'
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