The recent string of disturbing videos and angry protests exposing police brutality against black Americans have put an unprecedented level of pressure on politicians to deliver solutions. Black Lives Matter activists have urgently demanded concrete policies from leaders both inside the Beltway and on the campaign trail. But the most consistent political response to the excessive force that killed Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott and many others has been decidedly gentle: community policing.
Community policing is a feel-good term, one so broad and nebulous that it seems difficult to oppose. While speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference last week, President Obama touted it as the solution to crime in Chicago and Camden, N.J. Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told the Urban League in July that police brutality is unacceptable and offered community policing as the first solution to dealing with it. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a vocal proponent of community policing for decades, promoting it in her 1996 book “It Takes a Village.”
The Department of Justice defines community policing as a strategy for building trust between police and the community through cooperative efforts of law enforcement and local leaders, nonprofits, businesses and other entities. Various tactics, from body cameras to data sharing, all have been mentioned as aspects of community policing. None of those are bad practices.
But at its foundation, community policing demands more police on the streets. Obama said as much in his IACPC speech last week, and Clinton has professed that community policing needs “more officers on the streets to get to know those communities.” But in communities like mine, the predominately black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, putting more officers on patrol doesn’t lessen the chance of police brutality — it worsens it. As long as police know their badges empower them to operate with near-impunity, we don’t need more encounters with them; we need fewer.
This lack of law enforcement accountability is at the root of police brutality, and community policing doesn’t address it. It doesn’t assure me that a cop will be punished if he chokes my neighbor to death on the street corner during an arrest. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold caused Eric Garner’s death during his arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in July, wasn’t indicted and is still working as a cop. Given that, New York City’s announcement that it will hire 1,300 more cops to patrol neighborhoods like mine under the guise of community policing doesn’t bring me comfort; it makes me feel like my neighborhood is being occupied.
As Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told NPR earlier this year, popular notions of community policing often misrepresent what policing is. Elected officials suggest that law enforcement can be done in a “happy way,” when, in fact, it’s adversarial by nature. “The simplistic notion that the cops just have to be nice to people is silly, and that’s a lot of the conversation,” he said.
Lance Eldridge, a police officer in Craig, Colo., emphasized this idea in a 2010 essay for PoliceOne.com, noting that community policing “may be unintentionally fostering the very police state the philosophy was meant to discourage.” The practice puts police officers in positions where they aren’t needed, he wrote, heightening tension in situations that could be resolved civilly:
Having armed law enforcement officers encouraged by community policing, or directed by policy and practice, to mediate civil disputes, family issues, and social contracts may make officers appear more accessible to the public, but it also creates a slippery slope that places officers, and therefore their authority and integrity, in between and among citizens who otherwise may not request or appreciate their presence.
There’s no pleasure in seeing a cop in my community, gun and badge in tow, who has full power to control the dynamic of our interaction. Moreover, my cozy relationship with a beat officer wouldn’t prevent a cop like Eric Casebolt from throwing a 15-year-old girl to the ground after a neighborhood pool party. And even though Ben Fields was fired as a school resource officer last week after he was captured on cell phone video throwing a high school student out of her desk, another law enforcement agency could give him a badge.
As sincere as the philosophy of community policing might be, it’s not the solution to police brutality. The bad relationship between police and residents is not the cause of excessive force, it’s the result. The real cause is the fact that police officers are rarely, if ever, charged in connection to the people they kill. A Washington Post investigation found that only 54 officers had been charged in the thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade. With those odds against police accountability, why would any marginalized community feel comfortable with more police patrolling their streets?
Obama is quick to say that African Americans aren’t making up stories about the abuse they endure during encounters with law enforcement. Still, neither he nor any of the candidates running for the White House has articulated a policy that assures those wayward cops will never work for another law enforcement agency again.
That’s what their calls for community policing fail to grasp: holding cops accountable.
Like any other law-abiding citizen, I want to walk around my neighborhood any time of the day and feel safe. But until I believe those officers who are sworn to protect me will be convicted for violating my civil rights, I would rather not see even more of them occupying my neighborhood under the guise of community policing.
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