What sort of policing do we want?
- Published: February 9, 2017
PEOPLE AND POLICE
This is the second article in a new series examining police policy, practice
and relationship to the community.
Years ago, when John Grote was a local police officer working under Chief Jim McKee, he regularly read to young children at the Community Children’s Center. Sometimes he was off duty and sometimes he was on, but always he wore his uniform. After hearing a story, the kids could ask anything, and sometimes they asked about the story. But more often they wanted to know about being a policeman.
“They’d say things like, what’s that on your belt? What’s it for?” Grote said in a recent interview. “We were starting a friendship with the kids that would continue as they grew up.”
“When I think of community policing, I think of police that know and are invested in the community, walk the streets rather than cruise around in a sealed object, participate in community events, play with our children, have children in our village and view themselves as one of us. They need to like us.
Jennifer Berman, former member
of the Justice System Task Force
Grote didn’t read to the kids because the Children’s Center needed volunteers. He did so because the chief thought it was a good idea. It was one more way —; like bringing doughnuts to the Mills Lawn safety patrol kids or taking the safety patrollers out to lunch — that the local police engaged with the community.
“It was making connections,” said Grote, who is now retired after serving as chief himself. “It was building trust in the community.”
At the time, no one used the term “community policing” for the style of policing that McKee modeled, because the term hadn’t yet become popular. But when the term began gaining currency nationwide in the ’90s, Grote said to the chief, “Hey, this is what we’ve been doing all along.”
The term “community policing” has become more controversial in recent years, as some villagers feel it was co-opted by the Department of Justice War on Drugs “community policing” effort in which police in high-crime urban areas encouraged citizens to watch their neighbors for criminal behavior. But the term is being used in this article because when villagers are asked what sort of policing they want, the answer given most often is “community policing,” although some prefer the terms local policing, village policing or community-oriented policing.
But what do villagers mean when they say they want community policing?
According to Jennnifer Berman, formerly a member of the Justice System Task Force: “When I think of community policing, I think of police that know and are invested in the community, walk the streets rather than cruise around in a sealed object, participate in community events, play with our children, have children in our village and view themselves as one of us. They need to like us. Their sense of duty and protection, therefore, comes from wanting to protect their own family and people. And if the people they are sworn to serve feel comfortable in their presence and trust them to have their best interests at heart, they will work with the police to keep their community safe.”
In this second article in the “People and Police” series, the News has interviewed a range of villagers in an attempt to shine a light on the sort of policing that villagers want. We also hope to look at some factors that can pave the way to this policing style, as well as potential obstacles.
What villagers want
The foundational component of community policing seems to be police who are out and about in the village, seen and engaged with villagers in nonthreatening ways. In a 2015 News survey in which villagers stated what they wanted from local police, three fourths of the 477 respondents said they wanted police to be more engaged with the community.
In a recent email, longtime villager Kathryn Van der Heiden expressed this wish.
“I do think that when police officers spent time in the community, got to know the people of the community as well as our values and became familiar with the ethos of the village, that things went better,” she said.
Chief McKee’s engagement with the village flowed naturally from living locally and being involved in a range of activities, Grote said.
“He lived here, his family was here, he was deeply involved in his church and in the community,” Grote said. Most local officers at the time — in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — also lived in the village, including Dennis Nipper, Al Pierce, John Winks, Huey Livingston and Pete Banner, among others.
But times have changed. While many villagers still wish that local officers would live in Yellow Springs, state law prevents a municipality from requiring police to live in the town in which they work.
Still, an officer can be community-minded without living here, according to Molly Lunde, who holds up Officer Brian Carlson (now Yellow Springs interim chief) as an example.
Since joining the force in 2010, Carlson has made an effort to be visible, and has frequently stopped into Asanda, the downtown store Lunde owns with her husband, just to say hello. He’s brought his family into the store when he’s off duty, she said, so that they could meet each other.
“He is human to me, and I’m human to him,” Lunde said recently. “You get that from him.”
The visibility of officers in the community is also critical to the style of policing that Chrissy Cruz would like to see.
“I’d like to see officers be out and about more often, be part of the community, not just riding around in cars,” said Cruz, a member of the Human Relations Commission.
But beyond just having police be more visible, those interviewed said that they want police to engage villagers in a manner that’s nonthreatening and respectful.
“It’s people feeling safe,” said Village Council member Judith Hempfling. “It’s important to remember that police are public servants. People need to feel more safe, not less safe, when police are around.”
“Community policing is hard to evaluate. It’s easier to evaluate an officer by looking at the number of arrests, and harder to look at the question, ‘How have you helped the community be better?’ ”
Dave Meister, YSPD officer
Hempfling is attracted by a new program at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, in which new police officers are trained to assume a nonthreatening “guardian of democracy” stance rather than a “warrior” stance when interacting with citizens.
“I’d like to see what other ideas are out there,” she said. “I like the idea of guardians rather than warriors.”
To Council member Brian Housh, “it is critical that members of the YSPD have real and regular interactions with citizens, highlighting the importance of community engagement. Specifically, this means limiting the use of force, striving to de-escalate situations and approaching all situations with an open mind. Training in such areas as implicit bias, community sensitivity and restorative justice will facilitate this behavior.”
To Joan Horn, local police should interact with villagers in a way that’s “courteous, gracious and compassionate, but also tough when needed,” she said, offering former Chief Grote as the best embodiment of those qualities that she’s seen in her several decades in the village.
Horn said she also believes that while officers may not live locally, the chief should “be no more than five minutes away.”
And it’s critical that all villagers, including minorities and people of color, feel safe and respected in the presence of police, several said. Having grown up in Yellow Springs, John Gudgel remembers the “sense of calmness, confidence, reassurance and sense of pride that I felt with the Yellow Springs police as a child, teenager and young adult. When a Yellow Springs police officer, or any officer for that matter, was in your presence, you did not feel a degree of anxiety and nervousness that you feel in this age and time. … As a Black person and male (even as an old guy, professional and school administrator) in the world of today, I sometimes feel a sense of ambivalence and fear when stopped by a police officer, especially with what has taken place locally, statewide and nationally regarding blacks and police shootings.”
In recent interviews, several villagers emphasized that they want police to approach citizens with an attitude of inquiry and helpfulness rather than an assumption that the person has done something wrong.
Community-oriented policing is “about approaching situations with an open mind, saying, “how can I help?” wrote Council President Karen Wintrow in an email. “It’s about looking for easy solutions and de-escalating difficult situations. It’s also about keeping people safe, citizens and officers alike, so training and professionalism is critical. One of the best comments I heard during the Jan. 3 [Council] meeting was, ‘a police officer is looking for wrong while a peace officer knows something is right.’”
And local police need to see themselves as problem-solvers rather than punishment-dispensers, according to several villagers.
“I would like the police to utilize the mediation group, NAMI, and as many social services as are available in the area,” wrote Kate Hamilton, a member of the Justice System Task Force. “Restorative vs. punitive. More communication with, and visibility, with our officers. I strongly believe that a social worker to assist the department would be a fantastic asset for our police force and our citizens.”
Hamilton said she’d especially like to see local police interact with young people in a problem-solving rather than punitive way.
“I grew up here during the Chief Jim McKee years, so I would, of course, like to see that same type of police-citizen interaction, especially with the youth in town. Chief McKee would not automatically assume negative intent nor guilt. He would genuinely be willing to listen to people. To try and find workable solutions. Many of the officers from my youth were the same way. They took the time to find out what the issues were vs. automatically penalizing someone.”
Yellow Springs Officer David Meister sees community policing as “facilitating problem-solving with the community. We help people with all kinds of problems that have nothing to do with policing.”
According to Meister, his problem-solving approach to policing was heavily influenced by officers who mentored him when he began in the department almost eight years ago, including Dennis Nipper, Andrew Gault and Tom Jones, who Meister said had the biggest impact.
“He encouraged me to not just look at the easiest solution to a problem, but to find the best solution for the community,” Meister said of Jones. “It may be harder, it may take more time, but you might come up with a better solution.”
Shift in policing
In his seven years as chief from 2005 to 2012, Grote launched several programs to facilitate interactions between police and the community, including one that trained interested officers to perform their duties on bicycles.
“When a police officer is out on the bike, it’s easier to make contact with people, and especially kids,” Grote said of the initiative.
Grote also either showed up himself or had an officer show up each morning when school began at Mills Lawn to help kids get out of cars, both ensuring the safety of children and making friendly contact with citizens.
But in the years since Grote retired in 2012, during the tenures of Anthony Pettiford and Dave Hale, there was high turnover in the department and some of the community-engagement initiatives, such as officers on bikes, went by the wayside. In a News series on police/community relations in 2015, several villagers spoke of feeling that the officers were no longer familiar and the style of policing had changed.
“I’ve noticed a shift,” Carole Cobbs said then. “I’m not feeling the same sense of community policing. I don’t know when it changed but some newer officers don’t seem as friendly or as good at handling people.”
A longtime member of the Human Relations Committee, which at the time heard citizens’ complaints about local police, Joan Chappelle noticed what seemed a more punitive approach to policing than had been the case in the past.
In the past, she said, “There were fewer citations. Enforcement was the exception, conversations were the rule.”
Not all villagers felt that community-minded policing had declined, however. Officers always treated her with respect and kindness, Kathryn Van der Heiden reported, and Joan Horn also praised officers for their helpful behavior.
But dissatisfaction with local policing culminated last month in the outcry following the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop, when four officers attempted to shut down the event shortly after midnight by driving through the crowd with sirens blaring. In the resulting chaos, police chased and attempted to tase a young local man, who was charged with obstructing official business, a felony.
Chief Dave Hale resigned shortly after, and more than 300 community members showed up at a special Council meeting soon after, calling for a more respectful and engaged style of policing. The Village launched an investigation into the incident, and a special Council meeting to report the results of the investigation will take place Feb. 13. Village leaders are also beginning a search for a new chief.
Last week, the Village announced that Brian Carlson, a seven-year veteran of the department, had been hired as interim chief. Carlson cited healing the rift between police and the community as his highest priority, and Village Manager Patti Bates stated that Carlson’s community-minded focus was a main factor in his being hired.
“One of the important things right now is to try to bridge the gap in understanding between the department and the community. Brian already has a leg up in filling that gap,” she said last week.
Community policing challenges
On a recent day, Officer Meister was alerted that longtime villager Alan Macbeth had blown a tire out in his old pickup truck and was stranded on Xenia Avenue just north of downtown. When Meister responded to the call, he not only assessed the situation but also was soon under the truck, fixing the tire. (This reporter happened to be driving by.)
Asked later about his decision to go ahead and fix the tire, Meister said, “I know Al Macbeth. If I can help him out and help him get on his way, I’m happy to do that.”
While Meister will go the extra mile with those who need help if he can, he is sometimes frustrated that officers who do so don’t get recognized for their efforts.
“Community policing is hard to evaluate,” he said recently. “It’s easier to evaluate an officer by looking at the number of arrests, and harder to look at the question, ‘How have you helped the community be better?’ ”
Janet Mueller of The 365 Project said recently that that group, which is looking into ways to improve the police/community relationship, shares Meister’s concern.
“What counts is what we count,” she wrote in an email. “If success in community policing is engagement and accountability, then we need to measure these, and include them in reports to the public and in officer evaluations. What we count demonstrates what we value. To shift from traditional policing to community-engaged policing requires a commitment to the philosophy as well as ways to measure it in everyday operations.”
The difficulty in measuring community policing is one of challenges involved in training officers to be more engaged in this style, according to Victor Kappeler, dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. Kappeler wrote “Community Policing: A Contemporary Perspective,” and is an advocate of a strong relationship between police and the community.
Currently, there are two main models of community policing, according to Kappeler. In the first model, which he describes as “community-oriented” policing, a department takes a problem-solving approach in a community, perhaps introducing innovative programs to engage police with citizens, such as those introduced by McKee and Grote.
With the heightened national awareness of police/community relations in recent years, some departments are heading in the “community-oriented” direction, or at least giving lip service to doing so, Kappeler said in a recent interview.
However, Kappeler advocates a second, more radical vision of community policing in which the police department not only engages with the community, but also makes the community a full partner in setting the police department’s agenda.
“Community policing, in its ideal form, not only addresses community concerns, but is a philosophy that turns traditional policing on its head by empowering the community rather than dictating to the community,” he wrote in the article, “What is Community Policing?” from EKU Online Police Studies at plsnline.eku.edu.
Few departments have adopted the second, more progressive approach to community policing because “most police departments don’t want to surrender their power,” Kappeler said.
And before a police department can make such a change, it needs an open-minded chief, Kappeler believes, because while some organizations might change from a “bottom-up” strategy, police departments are very “top-down” organizations that generally only change in response to their leader.
“If you don’t have a progressive chief, you won’t move in this direction,” he said. “If you have a chief who understands the causes of crime, you’re more likely to have a progressive model.”
A department also needs field training officers to train new recruits to engage with the community, he said.
Clarity in the expectations of both the department and the community is also critical, according to villager Kate Hamilton, who questions the use of the term “community policing.”
“The divide between what citizens believe the term ‘community policing’ to mean and what police are taught it means is vastly different. It is very important that a consensus is reached on the definition and clearly, explicitly communicated to, and agreed upon (in writing) by our police department,” she wrote in an email.
And indeed, in a 2015 interview, former Chief Hale said that when he stated he supported community policing during his interview process for becoming chief, he was referring to the Justice Department meaning of the term, which emphasizes increasing arrests.
“During the interview process, I was interpreting the use of ‘community policing’ with the terminology I was used to, which is closer to the DOJ definition,” he wrote in a 2015 email.
While there are challenges involved in instituting the more progressive policing model, it offers substantive and positive benefits, according to Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University.
“It reduces tensions, there’s less violence both ways, there’s more support from the community for the police department,” he said. Without the usual tensions between police and the community, “you can begin to address the social problems that contribute to crime.”
When a police department and community adopt the progressive stance of becoming partners in setting the police department agenda, tensions dissipate, he believes.
“It gets at the “us/them,” “we/they” divide that has always been the source of conflict,” Kappeler said.