Community Policing and Crime
A surge in violent crime in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 has once again brought the issue to the forefront of public concern. America's largest cities experienced a one-third increase in murders in 2020, according to a national survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Homicide rates remained high in the early months of 2021 compared to previous years. While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated public consciousness since the spring of 2020, surveys find that Americans now rank violent crime as a more pressing concern.
The recent uptick in gun violence and homicides has worsened an already dire situation in majority-black neighborhoods, where most victims of such crime live. In their analysis of 2019 gun-mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence found that "37% of gun homicide victims were Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 — although they made up only 2% of the U.S. population. Their gun homicide rate was more than 20 times higher than White males of the same age group." Black women were also disproportionately affected by gun violence, but to a lesser extent than black men. As the study found, "Black females were more than four times more likely to be firearm homicide victims than White females."
Several explanations have been offered for the rise in murders in the last two years. Research by law professor Paul Cassell suggests that the killing of George Floyd by police and subsequent unrest in cities nationwide produced a "Minneapolis Effect," making officers more reluctant to engage in arrests, stops, and other enforcement efforts that deter gun violence. He estimates that the decline in proactive policing contributed to 710 homicides and 2,800 shootings in June and July of 2020 — crimes that disproportionately harmed blacks as well as Latinos in low-income neighborhoods. Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, by contrast, tends to discount reactions to the Floyd killing and the de-policing argument, instead emphasizing the impact of the pandemic.
Yet disadvantaged minority neighborhoods were struggling with an uptick in violent crime well before the pandemic: Between 2014 and 2019, U.S. homicide rates increased. If policymakers at the national, state, and local levels want to help the communities devastated by violence, they would do well to consider a neglected but important factor: community-police relations.
Three medium-sized cities in particular — St. Paul, Minnesota; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Newark, New Jersey — demonstrate the value of improving these relations. In each city, the change in the homicide rate for 2020 was not only far below the national average, but also dramatically lower than it was in nearby localities.
By considering the lessons these cities have to offer — and by contrasting them with less-than-successful efforts at reform in Philadelphia — officials across the country could pursue a new approach to reducing violent crime and helping disadvantaged communities thrive.
A DISTINCT VISION IN ST. PAUL
St. Paul's 13% increase in homicides in 2020 was dwarfed by the 73% increase across the river in Minneapolis. For many observers, the disparity between the Twin Cities reflects the differences in police cultures.
Back in the 1970s, St. Paul made a commitment to community policing — a strategy in which officers are continually assigned to a single neighborhood to form relationships with its residents. This sustained commitment to deepening community relations is why Andrew Johnson, a professor at Minnesota's Metropolitan State University, believes St. Paul has been more successful than Minneapolis in keeping homicide rates low. "Minneapolis has more rules and sensitivity training," he says. "[But] what is needed is a different vision of policing, and St. Paul has that much better than Minneapolis."
Building trust between officers and residents is a core component of community policing, and it's something St. Paul does admirably. The city's police department has reached out to several community organizations — especially those working with vulnerable populations — to develop a series of programs that bring officers and residents together for discussion and joint activities.
One example is the Handcuffs to Handshakes program, which the police department runs in conjunction with the state's department of corrections. Through Handcuffs to Handshakes, officers visit a juvenile correctional facility, where they lead circle discussions with the young people held there. Officers can volunteer to talk, listen, and participate in the facility's programs, while the incarcerated youths express themselves through theater and music. This two-way learning process not only gives the officers a better understanding of the roots of crime among at-risk youth, it helps the young people gain an understanding of, and greater empathy for, the officers and their work.
Another program brings together police recruits and a group of community activists and disadvantaged residents from the Circle of Peace Movement (TCOPM). Participants join one another for an annual trip to Washington, D.C., where they visit both the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The visit allows officers and community members to better appreciate their differing perspectives, histories, and struggles. TCOPM also holds weekly meetings between officers and community residents to build upon and deepen the relationships developed among participants.
In addition to reaching out to the community, St. Paul's police department has made a conscious effort to hire officers who live within the city limits. This practice is another effective strategy that falls under the community-policing umbrella.
Melvin Carter, St. Paul's first black mayor, understands the value of recruiting officers from directly within the city in which they work: He is the son of a police officer who lived and worked in St. Paul. In an interview last year, Carter told Bloomberg's Adam Minter about "the amazing, superhero-esque ways" officers like his father "solved problems that you may not know existed if you weren't from the community."
Carter was elected in 2017, during a turbulent period for the city. That year, the officer accused of killing Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul was found not guilty, sparking protests and increasing the urgency to enact police reforms.
Crucially, Carter had the backing of St. Paul chief of police Todd Axtell, who stressed the importance of building up a "bank of trust" between the community and the police through repeated, respectful interactions. In the wake of the Castile protests, Axtell worked with Carter to update the police department's use-of-force policy by prioritizing de-escalation techniques and better defining what constitutes resistance from suspects. The department also held several community meetings and incorporated suggestions from the public into its new policy, including a provision to remind officers that "[v]erbal arguing alone does not constitute active resistance."
St. Paul police have continued their reform efforts by implementing the Ethical Policing is Courageous, or "EPIC," training program, which teaches officers how to monitor their partners and prevent wrongful actions before they occur. This and other training efforts have helped the department reduce use-of-force incidents and civil payouts for police misconduct. Johnson observes that such changes "have not only contributed to the dramatically lower 2020 homicide spike [for St. Paul] but also fewer excess-violence complaints against the police in recent years."
Finally, Carter has worked with the city's police department to embed a mental-health unit within the force. "[Even] the staunchest police supporters will say our officers don't have the capacity or the expertise to be the social workers and the mental-health therapists and the drug counselors," Carter told Minter, so he has invested in supplementing that capacity. Today, social workers accompany officers on 911 calls involving people with mental-health issues, helping to connect residents with health-care resources and prevent situations where police feel compelled to use force against those suffering from mental illness.
St. Paul's decades-long experiment with community policing — one that Carter and Axtell have admirably contributed to — has paid off in the form of a relatively low violent-crime rate. Not all cities have such a history to build on, of course. But examples of more recent efforts to transition to community policing exist, and they are showing promise.
REFORMING ATTITUDES IN ST. PETERSBURG
Homicides actually declined slightly in St. Petersburg last year, in marked contrast to the 52% increase across the bay in Tampa.
There have been tensions between the St. Petersburg police and members of the community in the recent past. Those came to a head in 2011, when a black teenager killed a white police officer. According to the Reverend Kenneth Irby, a pastor at a St. Petersburg church who taught journalism at the time of the shooting, the event revealed a deep mistrust between the black community and the police department, as well as the need for comprehensive reform.
Much of the credit for the improved police-community relations since then belongs to the city's chief of police, Anthony Holloway. Upon being selected to serve as chief in 2014, he reached out to members of the community — including pastors like Irby and their congregations — to undercut the "us versus them" attitude among residents toward the police and vice versa. His signature Park, Walk, and Talk program is a key part of this endeavor. The program has helped residents get to know the officers who police their communities while allowing officers to familiarize themselves with the neighborhoods and residents they are charged with policing.
Irby himself has also been instrumental in helping develop more positive police-community relations in St. Petersburg. After the shooting in 2011, he convinced the police department to fund the Write Field initiative, which provided forums for dialogue between officers and community members. In 2016, Holloway asked Irby to join the department's civil-service team, which focuses on building ties between police and the faith community, as well as reducing juvenile crime. As part of that team, Irby supervises new crime-prevention strategies — including the Clergy on Patrol program, which brings together officers and faith leaders, and the Not My Son program, which provides youth with alternatives to crime through dialogue and mentoring initiatives.
Though there remains work to be done, especially on the youth-outreach front, retired pastor Manuel Sykes believes these efforts have encouraged St. Petersburg residents to embrace a police presence in their neighborhoods. As a result, officers have been able to deter illicit activity and reduce violent crime.
Beyond strengthening community-police relations, Holloway has transformed police training in the city. About one third of St. Petersburg's officers have been hired in the last seven years, and new cadets are extensively trained in de-escalation and bias-prevention strategies. This training is designed to transform the department's culture into a force of "guardians, not warriors." The department has also worked to hire senior administrators from more diverse backgrounds, and has made a conscious effort to recruit locally — it currently runs an explorer program at junior high schools, an apprenticeship program for high-school students, and a recruitment program at St. Petersburg College.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has also played a crucial role in implementing community-policing strategies in St. Petersburg. Under his leadership, the city initiated a pilot program in which mental-health and social workers are paired with police officers in responding to calls involving non-life-threatening situations — much like the one recently launched in St. Paul. By incorporating social-services providers — who are better equipped to address issues of mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness than are the police — into the department, the program has reduced pressure on the city's officers while enabling police and social workers to better serve the community.
Challenges remain for St. Petersburg's relationship with its police, of course. For instance, the city experienced an uptick in violent crime and murders in the early months of 2021. For Irby, public opinion of police officers remains one of the biggest obstacles to reform; though he works within the police department and is aware of how it has transformed over the past decade, he knows "misperceptions persist" among the black community. He was particularly troubled by recent demands to defund the police rather than support the mayor's re-allocation of funds within the department.
Nonetheless, the efforts described above have served the city well. When protests broke out after the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, Holloway immediately called for meetings with more than a dozen community leaders and residents to discuss their concerns. By drawing on the relationships he had developed and nurtured over the preceding decade, Holloway was able to allow residents to voice their opinions to police while ensuring that protests did not spill over into senseless violence.
FROM TRAUMA TO TRUST IN NEWARK
In Newark, the same number of homicides occurred in 2020 as in 2019. Murders in nearby New York City, by contrast, increased by 44% over the same period. Much like St. Petersburg, Newark's numbers reflect a remarkable transformation that has occurred in the city over the last seven years.
In 2014, a federal Department of Justice investigation revealed a pattern of unconstitutional stops, arrests, and uses of force by police, with most of these violations targeting black residents. That same year, long-time Newark resident Ras Baraka, son of activist Amiri Baraka, was elected mayor.
Baraka campaigned on a platform that included police reforms, and in 2016, he agreed to a federal consent decree to settle a lawsuit against the city's police department. The decree required Newark to implement sweeping alterations in its policing efforts, and in keeping with this agreement, the city's police have revamped their use-of-force policies, cracked down on officer misconduct, initiated anti-bias training, and expanded programs to improve community relations. In the wake of these reforms, even the department's most vocal critics have remarked that there are fewer complaints from residents about excessive uses of force by officers.
Anthony Ambrose, the department's former public-safety director, agrees, adding that the quality of police investigations has also improved. The city is also paying less in settlements of excessive-force lawsuits than it did prior to the consent decree. Retired pastor William Howard believes the department's reforms have helped Baraka become particularly popular among sections of Newark with the highest crime rates. As is the case with most successful police-reform efforts, the combination of community and police action is making the city safer.
One prominent example of this strategy at work comes from Brian O'Hara, Newark's public-safety director and long-time police officer. O'Hara oversees the police force's involvement in the Trauma to Trust program, an initiative in which community members meet with police on a regular basis to engage in a dialogue and foster mutual understanding. Residents share their stories of trauma with police, while officers share their own struggles with residents. By enabling members of each group to see the human beings on the other side of the police-community divide, the program has strengthened community trust. Over the years, Trauma to Trust has worked with more than 240 officers and 335 community members, contributing to a 50% decline in police complaints.
Meanwhile, Equal Justice USA's Will Simpson, the organization's director of violence-reduction initiatives, has helped facilitate increased community engagement at the street level, where police and residents have collaborated to develop crime-prevention strategies. "[These efforts have] brought back a sense of ownership and pride within communities," he remarks. "[They] put the 'public' back into 'keep the public safe.'"
During this period of reform, Newark's police department has also undergone a demographic transformation: Almost 60% of the department is composed of officers hired in the last seven years, and close to 80% of the force is now either black or Latino. While certainly helpful, Simpson doesn't believe increased diversity has been the most important factor in transforming policing. "For residents, the first thing they see is the badge, not the color of the police officer," he observes. "We have white police officers who have built trust, while some black and brown officers have not engendered trust."
Simpson points to two other elements as having a greater impact on improved police-community relations: First, the new, younger recruits are more likely to buy into the view that they are guardians of the community, not warriors on the street. Second, the department has hired more officers who are from or reside within the city. As Simpson recognizes, people prefer to interact with officers who know their neighborhoods — which is easier to do when officers are members of the community. A white officer who grew up in Newark's central ward, for example, may understand the experiences of its black residents better than officers of minority races who live outside city limits.
Some critics are reluctant to credit the mayor or the police department for these improvements. Reforms wouldn't have been possible, they say, without the federal government's consent decree. Aqeela Sherrills, who leads the Newark Community Street Team — a group that aims to curb violence by sending social workers and former offenders to neighborhoods struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and resident disputes — contends that community groups like his should receive the bulk of the credit for the city's homicide reductions. And in fact, Baraka recognizes the value of the Street Team: One of his early decisions was to provide the organization space to work within a former police precinct.
Others believe there are still too many use-of-force complaints against officers, and are particularly upset with the high number of police stops of black residents that continue to occur. In response to these charges, Ambrose points out that increases in stops and uses of force can be attributed to a more stringent reporting system. And while acknowledging that black residents are more likely to be stopped and have force used on them than residents of other races, he pushed back against claims of racial profiling: "We don't racially profile. We act strictly when a crime is committed, or crime is afoot."
Simpson believes Newark's policing will continue to improve with the recent hiring of the Reverend Ronald Slaughter as deputy director of community relations. In this position, Slaughter will help implement protocols to respond to stop-and-frisk and use-of-force concerns, and establish a committee consisting of two residents from each Newark ward to help improve community-police relations.
While Newark's police department may have a ways to go in satisfying residents, its steady improvement over the years and continued emphasis on community policing offers reason for hope.
MISTRUST IN PHILADELPHIA
The same cannot be said for many cities across the United States, including in nearby Philadelphia. There, homicides increased by 40% in just the last year. Police have tried to reduce violent crime by reaching out to the community, but their sporadic efforts have had mixed results.
Joseph Sullivan, a recently retired senior commander for the Philadelphia Police Department, ran patrol operations for the department's 21 districts and oversaw initiatives like its community-relations unit. He attempted to improve matters by making himself accessible to residents in majority-black neighborhoods. In several precincts, the department set up job fairs on street corners where young black men congregated. "[We] brought potential employers to those corners," Sullivan notes, "and the efforts were successful in obtaining employment for many of these young men."
Sullivan also recognizes the value of local leadership in policing efforts. "I gave district commanders the latitude to tailor plans for their districts," he says, "because they knew their communities and knew their needs."
His and others' attempts to create more meaningful dialogue with the black community, however, were uneven. Meetings were held to allow residents to voice their concerns and for police to explain why aggressive actions might be warranted in certain situations. And in some cases, the department made adjustments based on these discussions. But unlike the efforts in St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark, these efforts did not result in sustained initiatives where officers and residents met on a consistent basis to solve neighborhood problems.
Philadelphia's limited success with community policing is also due in part to less-than-vigorous leadership from above. The city's mayor, Jim Kenney, is a Democratic-machine politician who is most interested in labor issues. After he assumed office in 2016, he made his signature issue a contentious soda tax — not reforming the police department.
Additionally, the city's police commissioner, Richard Ross, was unable to lead a more robust transformation of the department. Ross joined the force in 1989, when there were few black officers, and his leadership was at times inspiring: In 2019, he personally negotiated the surrender of a man who had shot six police officers. Unfortunately, Ross failed to adequately confront a toxic culture in the department that weakened officer morale; perhaps his most strident effort in this regard was to place 72 officers on administrative duty for uploading racist memes on Facebook. He later resigned after allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination were made against officers within the department. Tellingly, instead of hiring a new commissioner from Philadelphia, the mayor tapped the police chief of Portland, Oregon, to take Ross's place.
District Attorney Larry Krasner has not helped matters. A former public defender, Krasner appears to view all criminal offenders as victims and the police force as the enemy. Upon assuming office in 2018, he immediately reduced some offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, including possession of an illegal firearm if it was not involved in a criminal activity. Meanwhile, misdemeanors were reduced to fines. He also instituted reforms that required bail only for the most serious offenses, potentially allowing more offenders to commit crimes before being detained.
While reforms of the criminal-justice system were warranted, Sullivan believes the ones adopted went too far, creating an environment in which community residents see no upside in working with police. "Residents don't believe that if they identify someone for a shooting, there [will] be high bail, followed by a conviction with jail time," he contends. "If the public was convinced that there would be swift, certain, and sure consequences for committing violent crime, there would be more cooperation. But they see the same people being arrested over and over again, back on the street with arrogance and impunity."
Another reason behind Philadelphia's stalled success is the fact that while joint initiatives with the police garnered support from several individuals on advisory councils, this enthusiasm did not always carry over to residents. Police-community relations suffered most acutely in the most distressed neighborhoods, where residents tend to distrust not only the police, but all government agencies. Encouraging these individuals to attend meetings and become more receptive to working with officials remains a major challenge.
Additionally, when demonstrations occurred after George Floyd's killing in 2020, Philadelphia police faced a more complex situation than did officers in cities like St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark. In the latter three municipalities, police had built ties to the community that enabled them to limit the need for aggressive actions to quell militant protests. And in Philadelphia's black neighborhoods, this is largely what happened at the outset: Community leaders and elected officials stood side by side with officers at protests to put an end to much of the violence.
Yet the city is also home to a large number of young, and primarily white, social-justice advocates, who engaged in destructive and even violent actions in the wake of Floyd's killing. These activists stopped traffic for long periods on Interstate 676 and vandalized the historic Center City neighborhood. Police felt they needed to take aggressive actions to end the violence and obstruction, which only intensified the activists' frustrations.
Philadelphia also illustrates the downside of failing to employ mental-health professionals in policing efforts. On October 26, 2020, Walter Wallace, Jr., who suffered from mental illness, was killed by police. Between 2013 and 2020, he pled guilty to several criminal charges and had been ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Then last October, officers confronted Wallace after receiving reports of a man wielding a knife. Both officers drew their guns and yelled for him to "put the knife down" around 11 times. When Wallace appeared to make menacing gestures, they shot him. The shooting sparked the ire of the black community and led to further demonstrations.
Despite these troubles, other large cities with socio-economic distress levels similar to those of Philadelphia experienced even larger spikes in murders; a handful saw increases of at least 50%. The city's attempts at reform, therefore, have not been in vain. And yet much work remains to be done to build trust between Philadelphia's police officers and members of the community.
The successes in St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark indicate that improving community policing can make a difference, even in disadvantaged neighborhoods. After analyzing the reforms they've implemented in recent years and drawing contrasts with the halting efforts in Philadelphia, some common themes emerge about how to produce better community-police relations and, in turn, to reduce violent crime.
First, proactive leadership in both city hall and the police department is crucial to any successful community-policing effort. Leaders like St. Paul's mayor Melvin Carter and police chief Todd Axtell, St. Petersburg's mayor Rick Kriseman and police chief Anthony Holloway, and Newark's mayor Ras Baraka and public-safety director Brian O'Hara, were instrumental not only in spearheading police reforms and community-outreach efforts, but in making sure those efforts were sustained over time.
Second, liaisons between residents and police must be deeply embedded within the community. A good example is St. Petersburg's Kenneth Irby, who is a member of both the police department's civil-service team as well as a pastor at a local church. Liaisons need not hold official positions in the community outside of their police roles — public-safety director O'Hara, for example, has successfully reached out to Newark residents through the Trauma to Trust program without relying on external credentials. But working with individuals who maintain leadership roles within and outside the police force lends credibility to community-policing efforts. Above all, residents should believe that police are listening to their concerns.
Third, police departments should recruit a larger share of younger officers, as well as officers who live in the neighborhoods they police. Recruits who are fresh out of school can be trained to work with, instead of against, the community at large. And as members of the community themselves, these officers are better equipped to build positive relationships with residents than are officers recruited from distant locales.
Finally, policies and outreach efforts that provide support for community groups' efforts at violence reduction — including those that shift mental-health cases from police officers to social workers — are a key component of any successful community-policing strategy. These programs not only reduce pressure on police departments, they also engender trust among officers and the communities they police. And by directing non-life-threatening calls to social workers, residents' issues are addressed by the people best equipped to handle them.
It should be conceded that medium-sized cities like St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark have certain advantages for deepening community-police ties that are not shared by larger cities like Philadelphia. Working within a medium-sized or smaller city enables elected officials and police officers to communicate directly with residents in ways that don't often translate well in the largest cities, meaning effective leadership can have a greater impact on residents' attitudes and behaviors. And yet size isn't the only factor contributing to the success of efforts in St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark: Almost all medium-sized cities in the United States with significant black populations have experienced dramatically higher homicide rates in recent years — with the exception of these three.
Much has also been written about the link between economic deprivation and violent behavior. Philadelphia's socio-economic distress levels — as measured by low education levels, poverty, joblessness, and housing vacancies — are more than 20% above the national average, making it difficult to stem gun violence there. St. Paul and St. Petersburg have socio-economic distress levels that are closer to the national average. And yet their levels are not all that different from those of two nearby cities — Minneapolis and Tampa — where gun violence has surged. Meanwhile, Newark's distress level is similar to that of Philadelphia, and yet only the latter experienced a homicide increase between 2019 and 2020. Thus, while high distress levels can certainly explain some of the differences in homicide spikes between cities, they are hardly determinative.
That being said, successful community policing tends to be more difficult in cities that are larger or have higher levels of economic deprivation. Unfortunately, little can be done to alter these factors, at least in the short term. But other strategies do fall within leaders' control. These include the ability to prioritize police reform; to reach out to community leaders and organizations; to hire younger, locally based officers; to develop partnerships with mental-health professionals; and, above all, to build deep connections between the police and community members through sustained interactions that give residents hope for a better future.
Lessons learned from cities like St. Paul, St. Petersburg, and Newark can serve as a guiding light for how to implement a better policing model in all cities — one that reduces violent crime and helps members of struggling communities thrive.