Police must foster trust with vulnerable communities

Broken-windows policing should make way for a more positive community-based solution, argues Hal Pepinsky

By: 
Hal Pepinsky
Date: 
Thursday, 21 January, 2016

The relationship between police officers and communities regarded as having high levels of crime should be reassessed to curb the disproportionate use of force.  I am thinking particularly of addressing problems of policing in communities of color in my home country, the United States, where excessive, periodically homicidal, force by police has led to widespread protests that 'black (and brown) lives matter'.

Led by New York City, policing in many communities has become locked, in a now internationally adopted record-keeping system called CompStat, into putting on an artificial display of effective crime control.  District or precinct supervisors are regularly given computer printouts showing on one hand how many 'serious' crimes have been reported, and on the other hand how many arrests for all categories of offences have been made.  More arrests and fewer reported or recorded offences are interpreted as demonstrations of successful crime control, of effective 'broken-windows' policing.

Broken-windows policing

The pressure to make broken-windows policing work makes police less likely to show up or to take reports from people calling for assistance, while supervisors press police to stop, search and make up pretexts to arrest people, particularly in communities of color 'known' to be 'high-crime areas'.  This is an exacerbation of a longstanding problem of evaluating police performance by the numbers.  In a study of police crime reporting in Indianapolis from 1948-1978, Bill Selke and I found a recurring oscillation between periods when the media chided police for not responding to citizen complaints, and offence reports climbed as arrests fell, and ensuing periods when police were criticised for failure to control crime, and arrests increased while crime reports fell. 

It was actually a study of police crime-recording trends in the UK, which were attributable also to policing practices, that led me decades ago to call for a moratorium on counting crime and criminality.  It is not merely that police statistics are artifacts of police behaviour.  Subsequent involvement with national networks of protective parents in child custody cases, which introduced me to networks of survivors of intergenerational ritual abuse that extended to evidence of widespread torture and homicide, have convinced me that it is a distortion to suppose that underclass young people of colour are more prone to personal violence, let alone other kinds of offending, than those who live largely beyond police surveillance.  All in all, the role of police as crime controllers is greatly exaggerated.

Community policing

Some police chiefs have reacted against CompStat-oriented broken-windows policing, explicitly in Cincinnati, Ohio, and instead have begun a process of re-orientation toward community policing. Measures such as attempting to treat people with compassion and taking officers out of patrol cars and encouraging them to engage with the community have contributed to making law enforcement a more positive undertaking. Similarly, in Richmond, California, the police have made attempts to hire according to diversity, stay away from guns and engage with activist groups

I would go beyond having some police specialise in community service.  In training and then as a part of time on duty, I would have all patrol personnel spend time accepting invitations to community meetings, working on community improvement projects like building and maintaining community gardens, and especially, as in Cincinnati, spending time with young people, as in tutoring and sports.  The objective, to borrow terms used by Nils Christie in Limits to Pain (1981), is to know people they police 'in many respects' in various contexts outside of law enforcement.

A half century ago it was popular for criminologists such as Jerome Skolnick to use words like 'service' to describe policing that is valued and appreciated in more affluent, largely white communities.  There are many useful functions police perform as first responders, which extend from informal dispute resolution to meeting needs of aid and reassurance that lie outside crime control. 

As mutual trust and respect is built between police and lower-income communities of colour in particular, as police become more responsive to community needs and community members become more open to working with and assisting police, it is my hope and aspiration that black and brown lives will indeed matter more, as police stereotypes about the dangerousness of entire neighborhoods dissolve.   It is not only that people of colour may become safer from police, but that police may gain more respect and appreciation for providing the safety and services they can reasonably offer.


Hal Pepinsky retired from the Criminal Justice faculty at Indiana University, Bloomington, in the U.S., in 2009, at which time he started a blog in the field for which he is principally known, 'peacemaking', at pepinsky.blogspot.com.  He may be contacted at pepinsky@indiana.edu.

More on: