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Police must relearn lessons they’ve forgotten

The cops cannot impose order on a community. Instead they can lead the community in promoting its own safety.

A sheriff's deputy raised his fist in solidarity alongside protesters at a march last weekend in Flint Township, Mich.Jake May | Press

As a pair of old guys who began our careers in policing during the 1960s and ’70s, we are writing now because we have seen this movie and know that it doesn’t end well. As recent events show, the police are again struggling with how they interact with at-risk communities. The profession has found itself in a difficult position — much of it, however, of its own design.

On one hand, police have progressed far as a profession, making use of data-driven tactics focused on the neighborhoods with the most crime. All too often, however, those tactics have occurred in a strategic vacuum. Sure, we talk about community collaboration and train police in de-escalation techniques and bias awareness, but all too often we communicate to officers which side of the coin is really important by evaluating short-term data about crime and measuring the processes of policing rather than broader outcomes in the communities where the policing mostly happens. Then, we decline real accountability, both for those officers who violate the rules we say we promote and, as important, for those who stand by and watch their colleagues offend.


And we are surprised when those same communities push back? It’s no wonder that our efforts to promote professionalism fall on deaf ears at the community level. When the Hennepin county attorney in Minnesota, discussing George Floyd’s killing, announced that he wouldn’t be “rushed to justice,” he was both legally correct and exceptionally tone deaf, apparently forgetting that only a few months earlier several prosecutors in Georgia recused themselves from investigating the killing of Ahmaud Arbery rather than bring charges against someone they considered to be their own. The community can be forgiven for taking the Minneapolis prosecutor to be saying that what was needed was a long, drawn-out investigation so the problem would go away once things had settled down. Several police chiefs across the country acknowledged that the next day.

Many of our friends on the job point out that the issues are nuanced and that much good police practice is going on across the country. We don’t disagree. In one of our cities (New York) the officers we know are rightly proud of their efforts to engage with their communities. We should recall, however, that it was only a few years ago in New York that Eric Garner’s dying pleas of “I can’t breathe” held the nation’s attention. It took five years for New York police to fire the offending officer. And no criminal charges were filed. Similar stories have come out of St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, while Oakland and Chicago seem always to be on the edge of conflict.


We want to share two main observations. First, all communities desire both safety from crime and freedom of movement without fear of the police. The police cannot impose order on a community; instead they can lead the community in promoting it itself. Over the past few decades we have worked with a wide range of communities — both domestically and internationally — and have seen that while each community defines what constitutes order, they all seek it. If the majority of a community’s members want safe and orderly lives (as the police say they believe) then the only real question is whether they see the police as being on their side in pursuit of that goal. Are the police seen as part of the solution, or just another of the many problems the community must confront? Supporting “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that you are not opposed to “Black-on-Black” crime. We make a serious mistake if we force communities to choose between those goals.


Second, we shouldn’t confuse tactics and strategies. In our efforts to advance data-driven policing, we tend to adopt, test, and evaluate narrowly focused tactics while giving less and less concern to the broader strategy. Stop and frisk — a practice with considerable police support — was meant as a defensive measure to let officers frisk suspects who might be armed and harm them. But many places (most notably New York) made it into an aggressive tactical measure. Regardless of whether the police intended for that to happen, that nuance is likely lost on the person being stopped, questioned, and frisked every time he ventures out to the store. But what police do should be guided by why they are doing it.

After exploding in the 1960s, crime remained high for two decades, from the early 1970s to the 1990s. We tried militarizing police with Vietnam-era equipment, but that only made the problems worse. In the ’90s, however, the police began to reorient their approach: they significantly expanded their presence and changed their primary goals to solving community problems and working with at-risk communities to collaboratively address security concerns. The sharp declines in crime since then have been attributed to a variety of causes, from lead abatement to increased incarceration. But we believe that it most closely correlates with sustained efforts by police to make themselves trusted members of the communities they serve.


The lesson is that while the police should continue their various training efforts in de-escalation and bias awareness — they are important — they alone won’t fix what is broken. Unfortunately, we believe that many hard-learned lessons from the past are being forgotten. If so, we will likely experience much more conflict of the type we have seen the past week until everyone understands that community safety can occur only when we all seek the same outcomes. Until the police know and care about what it takes for all citizens to collaborate in their own order and safety. Until the police and groups like Black Lives Matter can work together on protecting communities from all of the things that might threaten them.

Dennis Kenney, a former police officer in Florida, is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Timothy N. Oettmeier spent 42 years in the Houston Police Department and helped to create its community policing philosophy.