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Despite praise, ‘community policing’ in Boston does not work for everyone, experts say

The approach has long been praised by police in Boston and elsewhere as evidence of a commitment to excellence

East Boston police Officer Hugo Alvarez (left), and Captain Kelley McCormick played ball with 3-year-old Dante Elliott.
East Boston police Officer Hugo Alvarez (left), and Captain Kelley McCormick played ball with 3-year-old Dante Elliott.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

For years, city leaders and police commissioners have described it as the guiding principle of Boston’s approach to law enforcement — a seemingly simple two-word catch phrase that describes a progressive new approach: community policing.

As he announced an independent review of the Boston Police Department’s use-of-force guidelines last week, Mayor Martin J. Walsh once again touted the city’s community policing model, rattling off programs with names like “Coffee with a Cop” and “Shop with a Cop.”

But as calls for police reform have reverberated across the nation in recent weeks, the once-innovative buzzword has come under growing criticism.

Some deride it as a gimmick, or little more than a bumper-sticker slogan. Experts say that evidence of its effectiveness remains ambiguous. And as dozens of recent protests throughout the city have shown, the current system — despite the praise of city officials — is not working for everyone.

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“On the surface, it sounds really good," said Fatema Ahmad, head of the Muslim Justice League, one of the groups seeking a 10 percent cut to the Boston Police Department’s budget. "If your assumption is policing is helpful, it seems like a good idea to have officers interacting with the community.

"But understand that at the core of policing, you expect people need to be punished, be incarcerated.”

In neighborhoods where the relationship with police has been historically fraught, for instance, some argue that strategies aimed at building community-police partnerships can have the opposite effect.

Some argue, too, that the very premise of the strategy — that an additional police presence is a good thing — is false.

“I think a lot of community policing efforts have led to more surveillance, this broken-window philosophy of small behaviors, and really just controlling people’s behavior — and Black and brown people, in particular,” said Dara Bayer, an organizer in Boston who works with young people on transformative justice, a nonpunitive framework that seeks to respond to and prevent harm through community relationships and practices.

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“There are countless other ways to address harm that don’t include people with guns patrolling a neighborhood.”

In an interview last week, police Commissioner William Gross defended the concept of community policing, calling it the fabric of police work in Boston going back decades, to when he was a teenager on Dorchester’s streets and encountered mentoring police officers himself.

In Boston, he said, community policing is a philosophy and can range from officers partnering with mental health workers to help at-risk youth, to assisting those with substance abuse problems along Melnea Cass Boulevard, to having officers hand out masks during a pandemic.

Boston Police Officer Hugo Alvarez (center) handed out face masks during a community initiative.
Boston Police Officer Hugo Alvarez (center) handed out face masks during a community initiative.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The underlying goals, he said, are to prevent crime and assist residents.

“Community policing isn’t about ice cream trucks and basketball games," said Gross, who acknowledges that the term itself has become a sort of cliche. “These are hard-hitting civic programs and responsibilities. It’s about being responsible to the people you serve.”

The concept of community policing can be traced back to the 1960s and ’70s, said Stephen Mastrofski, a professor emeritus in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. Then, like now, there existed issues with government legitimacy, and those concerns extended to the police.

In Boston, perhaps the most high-profile example was the so-called “Boston Miracle,” when police teamed with local clergy to address soaring youth violence in the early 1990s. Homicides, which had skyrocketed during the height of the violence, dipped sharply, and in the aftermath, Boston was held up as an example to other departments across the country of the good that could come when police worked in concert with the residents they served.

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The effects of that effort, said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, can still be felt today.

“I know that the original players have all gone on to do other things, but I would say the legacy of what we started in Boston still persists,” said Brown, formerly of the Ten Point Coalition, the collection of ministers and community groups that worked with police officers in the ’90s to quell violence. "And the reason why I say this is because we’ve got community policing as an intention. It’s not a branch of the Police Department — it’s what the police department does.”

But without a concrete definition, police departments elsewhere have been left to enact their own brand of community policing, leading to versions that can vary significantly from department to department — even within different jurisdictions of the same department.

While some departments fully embraced the philosophy, experts say there are plenty more that went half-in — and more still that used it as a kind of bumper-sticker slogan while making no real effort to carry out the necessary work.

“It’s not a checklist,” says Wesley G. Skogan, professor at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “It’s not a one-pager with some boxes, and if you [check] nine out of the 15 you’re doing community policing. Lots of police chiefs would like it much more if that was the case.”

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Some of this has been the result of external factors: Police being increasingly relied upon to deal with issues, including mental health disturbances, not historically in their purview; a focus on antiterror policing after 9/11; and more recently, a federal anti-immigration push has often pulled local departments into the effort, taking time and resources away from other initiatives.

But there have been more insidious issues, too.

Though officer support for community policing appears to have grown in recent years — a 2014-15 national survey found that 73 percent of officers surveyed indicated some or strong support for community policing — convincing rank-and-file officers to adopt and support this type of policing has historically been a challenge, says Tammy Rinehart Kochel, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Southern Illinois University.

“One of the biggest — if not the biggest — hindrances to fully adopting aspects of community policing, is the police subculture,” said Kochel. “'We’re the heroes, we’re the white knights, we’re going to protect you and save you, and . . . being macho and in control of the situation’ — all of that goes counter to a lot of the ideas behind community policing.”

Quantifying the effectiveness of the strategy, meanwhile, has been difficult.

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While a 2012 study from the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that community-oriented policing strategies had positive effects on citizen satisfaction and perceptions of police legitimacy, researchers also wrote that "our findings overall are ambiguous. The challenges we faced in conducting this review highlight a need for further research and theory development around community policing.”

And though there’s more evidence today than there was then, says Mastrofski, "there’s still a lot of gaps in our knowledge.”

But even when carried out optimally, some argue, there are limits to what the approach can accomplish.

“A lot of people have called for more community policing, which can include anything from putting in more community liaisons to handing out free ice cream during the summer,” said Boston city Councilor Julia Mejia, one of the first to call for the redirection of police resources and who recently suggested the city should transfer control of $1.7 million in state grants for gang prevention from police to the Boston Public Health Commission.

“But let’s be honest: While these initiatives might help build relationships, they don’t tackle systemic inequities and they don’t hold our government accountable.”

What’s no longer in question, however, is that trust between police and the communities they serve — one of the benchmarks of community policing — has eroded significantly across the country.

Even as it touts the successes of its efforts, Boston police announced changes recently to its use-of-force policy. Last week, Walsh joined other cities in declaring racism a public health crisis, announcing that $12 million from the police overtime budget would be transferred to social service programming, including $3 million going directly to the Department of Public Health.

Ayana Aubourg, of Families for Justice as Healing, said she doesn’t have a direct answer to what the future of policing should look like.

But reallocating resources away from police and back into communities is tantamount.

“Whatever alternative that we’re pushing for," she said, “it’s not giving more funding, more investment into agencies that continue to harass and perpetuate racist policing, racist police violence.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.