Community policing looking ahead: yay or neigh?

A couple of years ago, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was born out of a national crisis about trust, legitimacy, and transparency. Led by Chief Ron Davis, the task force published a remarkable final report about what modern law enforcement could and should look like in the United States. The report was organized around six pillars:

  1. Building trust & legitimacy
  2. Policy & oversight
  3. Technology & social media
  4. Community policing & crime reduction
  5. Training & education
  6. Officer wellness & safety

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) created by President Obama still exists. However, President Trump’s policing pillars moving forward will probably look a little more like this:

  1. Law & order

President Trump is vocally pro-police and anti-crime. (This position tends to disregard the fact that crime rates have reached historic lows.) This support looks like it will translate to more funding for militarized equipment, less civilian oversight, and an effort to replace community policing with stop-and-frisk policies. His Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, opposes consent decrees, in which the federal government intervenes to reform police departments. (VICE News has done some detailed reporting on the Trump administration’s position.) The groundbreaking Police Data Initiative, now housed by the Police Foundation, seems to be in limbo.

“A collision course with time”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Seattle Police Chief of Police Kathleen O’Toole recently spoke at a winter symposium of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) in downtown Seattle. Schultz, as well as most of the chiefs at the symposium, seemed to agree that it is a matter of if, not when, police departments will be forced to change. The change may be triggered by a “YouTube situation” (an SFPD officer’s words), a shift to digital records management services (RMS), or the rise of civilian oversight tools for consumers (e.g. independent apps).

The police — particularly the NOBLE leaders — are quick to say their agencies are playing catch up when it comes to technology, data, and evidence-based policies. What’s more, police departments are addressing their vulnerabilities in three key areas:

NOBLE: National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives

#1: Police legitimacy — “lawful but awful”?

Jack Goldsmith seems to have coined this phrase, and it’s a theme that the NOBLE symposium attendees addressed repeatedly. “Police legitimacy” depends on a public perception that the police are primarily fair, impartial, and trustworthy. (There’s context for this: public trust in institutions just hit a record low.) One of the reasons that so few police-involved shootings result in legal charges is that these shootings are usually legal. Police officers have remarkably wide latitude to exercise their judgment when it comes to doing their jobs, including using force. However, if the public feels that the police cannot be trusted with this freedom, officers risk becoming an illegitimate force in the communities where they work.

#2: “There’s no such thing as the ‘good old days’ for us”

In the past year, police leaders have been more willing than ever before to acknowledge historical wrongs. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice is promoting community-police reconciliation, which includes public apologies and open listening sessions between chiefs and local communities. From January 26, 2017:

Louis M. Dekmar, police chief of LaGrange, GA: “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in [the 1940 lynching of Austin Callaway], both through our action and our inaction. And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.” (New York Times)

At NOBLE, many of the chiefs, lieutenants, and sergeants in attendance—most of whom are African American—said something along the lines of, “We see both sides of this issue. We know the challenges of being a police officer. And we understand why people are upset. We come from the same communities.” As Ron Davis put it, “There is no such thing as the ‘good old days’ for us. That’s not us. We only have the bad old days.” One lasting effect of the 21st Century Policing Task Force is that officers seem more willing to be blunt about the past in order to look ahead to to the future.

#3: “We have to redefine law and order”

Regardless of whether or not the 21st Century Policing initiative continues under the same name, or with the same federal support, police departments are at a point of no return. They may not be forced to evolve by the White House, but their pain points are severe: increased public pressure, low officer morale, and declining recruitment numbers are all changing how police departments serve the public.

The space in which police departments operate is shifting as well. As Dr. Cedric Alexander, a Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Public Safety in Georgia, said, “we have to redefine law and order.” Crime reduction and community trust cannot be separated from one another. Howard Schultz said this as well: “Without trust, the police fail. And when the police fail, our communities fail.” And Ron Davis added, “When you lose that trust, it affects everything we do to solve crime.” In other words, law and order relies in part on strong community-police relationships.

21st Century Policing 2.0

Policing is a notoriously localized service in the United States, for better and for worse. Police departments retain a high level of control over how they work in their communities. Overall, the field of public safety remains fragmented. Despite their similarities, it often seems like police departments resemble snowflakes, with no two agencies exactly alike.

On a practical level, this means that police departments can control where modern policing goes next. Federal policies, funding, and positions will not unduly influence local law enforcement agencies. Without federal support, the Police Data Initiative risks stalling. However, the police departments that have already joined the initiative will likely continue to participate. Police chiefs who have bought into the six pillars will probably stay the course. The balance in may not shift toward community policing in the next four years, but 21st century policing is unlikely to backslide all the way to the original “tough on crime” approach to enforcing the law.

For the most forward-looking police chiefs in the country, this may mean that their job just got harder. A lack of federal support — or even active efforts to undermine police reform — means that chiefs will require a greater deal of local support to uphold the six pillars. This, in turn, requires investments by cities and businesses to promote community-police dialogue, among other things. It will require partnerships with universities, such as San Jose Police Department’s impressive collaboration with the University of Texas-El Paso’s Center for Law and Human Behavior. And all of these efforts will depend on chiefs who believe that training, transparency, and data-driven policing will ultimately improve public safety for everyone.

It’s a tall order, and time will tell who among us — neighbors, police chiefs, city leaders — is willing to rise to the challenge in the next four years. If you know of a rising leader in this field, please let me know! I’m always interested to learn about chiefs who are getting this right, either from their colleagues or from community members who have seen them in action.

About my90: we got our name from a police sergeant who said, “we miss 90% of the story when we talk to the public.” my90 helps people take control of this missing 90% to improve community-police relations and make neighborhoods safer. Learn more about my90 & get in touch at