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Communities rethink how to police

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This is the seventh and final article in a series examining local police policy, practice and relationship to the community. Read all the articles in this series at

Articles in this series

In Burlington, Vermont, a young man charged with disorderly conduct after a rowdy night at a bar likely won’t be hiring an expensive lawyer to represent him in front of a judge, in hopes of avoiding jail time or a hefty fine. 

Instead, if he chooses, the man will meet with a group of citizen volunteers who ask him to describe how he came to commit the alleged crime. If he caused harm to someone, the victim might describe how the man’s actions were hurtful. Finally, the young man and the volunteers will consider three questions. How can he make amends to the victim? How can he make amends to the community? And how can he learn something from the event, to keep it from happening again?

When the actions that address those questions are clarified, the man signs a legally binding contract committing him to the actions. He returns in a few weeks to report on his progress, and if all goes well, he meets with the group a third and final time for closure.

The process, called a restorative justice panel, seems to work, according to two Burlington residents who are deeply involved.

“You don’t see people committing the same offenses again,” said Anneke Hohl, the director of the Burlington Community Justice Center, which sponsors five restorative justice panels that meet with offenders each week. “People seem to move from a self-centered perspective to having more awareness of others.”

Regina Mahony, a county planner and one of the citizens who serves on the panel, agrees that restorative justice can be -powerful.

“It’s really pretty amazing,” she said in an interview last week. “The process can be uncomfortable and hard, but it has a huge impact.”

The Burlington system of restorative justice is one of three progressive strategies highlighted in this final article in the News series, “People and Police,” which has examined issues related to villagers and local policing. Also under the spotlight is Olympia, Wash., where two years after citizens rose up in protest following a police shooting of two black men, systemic changes in the department seem to be addressing officers’ racial bias. Also in Olympia, police and black activists have begun a city-wide conversation on racial justice. 

And in a third example, police in Madison, Wis., are embracing the role of guardians rather than warriors, adding the soft training of social work skills to balance the hard edge of law enforcement.

The News hopes that these three examples provide opportunities for villagers to consider and discuss different options for how “people and police” can engage with each other.

Citizen justice

In the traditional criminal justice system, those most affected by a crime — the offender and the victim — never talk to each other directly, but rather pay their attorneys to talk to the judge. But in the restorative justice process, the offender and victim do talk to each other, and the offender hears about how the crime impacted another life. That part of the process can be powerful, especially if the offender is open to hearing the victim’s story, according to Mahony, the Burlington volunteer.

“Each and every case is different, especially depending on how much ownership the client takes,” she said. “The more responsibility the client takes, the better the system works. If folks take ownership, it can be a transformative process.”

And while the offender must consider how to make amends to the victim, the process also requires that the offender make amends to the community. Most often, this part involves about 10 hours of community service, with offenders volunteering at nonprofits that help the homeless, the mentally ill, or those just re-entering society after prison. 

This component often makes a big impact, Malony said.

“If the person has lacked purpose in life and has the opportunity to do something useful and valuable, that’s huge,” she said, stating that some offenders continue their volunteer work even after their case is closed.

Vermont is an outlier among states because for more than two decades its state criminal justice system has promoted restorative justice as an alternative to the traditional system.

According to criminologist and restorative justice advocate John Braithwaite, restorative justice is a system that “restores victims, restores perpetrators and restores communities.” According to Braithwaite at, “the idea is that because crime hurts, justice should heal.”

The Vermont effort began in 1994 when the state criminal justice system surveyed citizens to determine what sort of justice system they wanted. Influenced strongly by the do-it-yourself nature of the counterculture and the Vermont back-to-the-land movement, citizens responded that when possible, they wanted a compassionate system that held individuals accountable.

“You don’t see people committing the same offenses again. People seem to move from a self-centered perspective to having more awareness of others.”

— Anneke Hohl, director,
Burlington Community Justice Center

“People here didn’t want to just lock people up and throw away the key,” Hohl said. “They wanted to have a chance for dialogue and repair.”

In 1994, the Department of Corrections launched a restorative probation program, and based on this program’s success, in 1998 the state Department of Corrections partnered with municipalities to develop the first ot 20 Community Justice Centers, or CJCs.

In Burlington, the Burlington Community Justice Center currently sponsors several forms of restorative justice, with four restorative justice panels meeting weekly with adult offenders and one meeting with juveniles. The center also sponsors a Parallel Panel for Victims of Crime, which seeks to provide redress for all crime victims, including those whose cases are in the traditional system. And a new “wrap-around” program provides intensive help for offenders with ongoing needs, such as those with mental health issues or drug addictions.

About 35 volunteers — trained by the State Department of Corrections, with additional training from the local center — provide services to about 700 offenders and victims each year in this small city of 40,000, Hohl said, and referrals come directly from the police department.

Overall, according to Hohl, the emphasis on restorative justice has enhanced Burlington as a community.

“It increases the connections between community members,” she said. “We talk about crime as damaging the fabric of a community and this process as repairing that fabric. It helps people feel more empowered and connected. It helps build a strong community.”

Tragedy sparks reforms

As is often the case, police reforms in the small city of Olympia, Wash., began with a tragedy. And in this specific instance, the tragedy also led to a community conversation around difficult racial issues, and the beginning of enhanced understanding.

In May 2015 brothers Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, who are African American, were both shot by white police officer Ryan Donald. Donald had been called to a Safeway on a case of suspected shoplifting. The two men attacked him with their skateboards, the officer said, and he feared for his life, according to the May 21, 2016 Olympian.

While both men survived the shooting, Chaplin remains partially paralyzed and is confined to a wheelchair.

The shooting sparked a series of protests in this small, generally laid-back Pacific Northwest city of 50,000. While most of the actions were peaceful, a few ended in violence and arrests, according to the Olympian.

Also in response to the shooting, area African Americans formed a new group seeking police reforms, the Black Alliance of Thurston County.

“The police shooting was the catalyst. It’s what brought us together initially,” said Dr. Karen Johnson, one of the Black Alliance founders, in a phone interview last week.

When Johnson and other Black Alliance leaders went to Police Chief Ronnie Roberts and other officials seeking better training for Olympia police, they found the police to be receptive.

“He heard us when we went to bat for implicit/explicit bias and de-escalation training,” she said.

According to Deputy Police Chief Aaron Jelcick in a recent phone interview, the department was open to hearing the black leaders’ concerns because police leaders shared the concerns.

“We were already moving in this direction,” he said, having crafted a new departmental mission aimed at earning the trust of the community.

The department also formed a task force, with representatives from minority and underserved communities, that met for eight months to hear citizens’ concerns about policing. The group then made a public presentation on its findings, stating that citizens wanted enhanced trust, respect and listening in their encounters with police.

During the next year, 100 percent of police employees completed the 8-hour implicit bias training provided by the national program Fair and Impartial Policing, and all officers also completed the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT. The training didn’t come cheaply; the Olympia City Council approved $300,000 for the entire project.

Also during this time, police and Black Alliance leaders engaged the community in a city-wide conversation on race issues. To do so, they hired Steve Byers, who runs Community Cafés, a venue for “small group conversations around powerful topics,” Byers said in a phone interview this week.

“Something different happens when people are talking directly to each other,” he said, stating that the events were the first opportunities after the shooting for blacks and whites to come together for direct dialogue.

In the first Community Café event, participants were paired with one person while each described a time in their life when they were the victim of prejudice. They next joined into small groups to discuss a personal experience of racial bias, and if they had no experience, “it was an opportunity to listen,” Byers said. 

Participants moved from group to group to interact with others as they considered a third question, “What does my city need to cultivate to reduce instances of racial bias?”

The turnout was unexpectedly large, according to Byers, with about double the 60 people expected, including about 30 police officers. And he witnessed what he often sees in the events, which were structured on the World Café model of bringing people together for difficult conversations.

“There were some profound shifts,” he said, citing a powerful closing statement in which a young white woman spoke of her growing awareness of her white privilege.

The event was repeated a year later, following the police implicit bias training. The second conversation began with officers describing what they learned from the training, and how that awareness changed the way they interacted with others. The second event focused on what Olympians want from their police department, Byers said.

To Johnson of the Black Alliance, the conversations were a valuable step in addressing racial concerns.

“For us to have these well-attended, honest conversations was a great first step,” she said last week.

However, Johnson and fellow activists are not limiting themselves to improving the policing climate in Olympia. The 2015 shooting made clear that a Washington “deadly force” law protects officers who shoot citizens to the extent that it’s almost impossible for police to be found guilty of a crime, even if the officer is found to be negligent.

So Johnson has become engaged on a state level to amend the deadly force law. Part of a statewide task force addressing the law, she and others proposed an amended law that is at this point stalled in a statehouse legislative committee. But she’s hopeful that change is coming soon, especially given the level of citizen concern sparked by the 2015 incident.

“Activism will continue,” she said. “The people are engaged.”

Guardians in Madison

While many municipalities pursue police reform following a tragic incident, the city of Madison, Wisc., has been practicing progressive policing for decades, beginning with the leadership of reform-minded chief David Couper, who started his 20-year tenure in the early 1970s. In fact, while many departments are just beginning to recognize the importance of implicit bias training, Madison police required the training of its officers nine years ago, according to current Police Chief Mike Koval in a recent phone interview.

“Being a guardian means that I’m protecting your rights and I’m protecting the voiceless, even if someone is having the saddest or maddest or baddest day of their life.”

— Mike Koval, chief of police,
Madison, Wis.

Currently, the department keeps track of its progress with an annual report comparing its actions with reforms recommended by the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The department’s 2016 report cites 18 areas of reforms, including establishing “a culture of transparency and accountability.”

Since 2016, all information on arrests, traffic stops and use of force, broken down by race and gender, is posted on a quarterly basis on the department’s website.

“Transparency and accountability are the new watchwords,” Chief Koval said.

And while the department is addressing progressive policing on many fronts, its newest measures focus on balancing officers’ law enforcement skills with the soft, people skills of social work.

Enforcing laws requires only about 25 percent of an officer’s time, according to Koval, while the rest is spent addressing quality-of-life issues, dispute resolutions and chronic problems such as homelessness and drug addiction. 

“What we do encompasses social work skills,” he said. “Why apologize? We should embrace it.”

And the Madison department is embracing that challenge, with an emphasis on officers seeing themselves as protective “guardians” rather than “warriors.”

With a warrior attitude, “the ends justify the means,” Kovar said, but a guardian’s attitude is more compassionate.

“Being a guardian means that I’m protecting your rights and I’m protecting the voiceless, even if someone is having the saddest or maddest or baddest day of their life,” he said.

In recent years, the department launched several new initiatives that embrace social work, especially regarding the mentally ill. Five officers have been taken off patrols and each assigned to a specific group of citizens with mental health issues, such as the homeless, hoarders, the autistic and veterans. 

The officers conduct outreach services — one officer has coffee at a homeless shelter weekly —  and attempt to address problems before they become a crisis, according to Hannah Flanagan, associate director of emergency services at Journey Mental Health Center in Madison, which works with the police.

“There’s a lot of work around reducing the risk of threat to the community,” she said. “It’s really blossomed in recent years.”

The new initiative has improved communications between the police and mental health workers, and has also reduced the stress and paranoia that the mentally ill often feel when dealing with police, Flanagan said.

“It helps to develop a relationship that’s not adversarial,” she said.

The department has taken other steps as well. Along with the officers designated to mental health outreach, several officers are now mental health liaisons, who specialze in dealing with the mentally ill while still assigned to a regular patrol. And a crisis worker from Journey is embedded with police three days a week, to help address any mental health calls.

The department has been able to take on this complex work partly because it has a mature and highly educated workforce, according to Chief Koval. The average age of new officers is 29, he said, and most officers have a bachelor’s degree, with 20 percent possessing a master’s and 15 percent law degrees. He’s also proud of the department’s diversity: 30 percent of officers are female and 10 percent are African Americans, which is a higher percentage than that of the African-American population of Madison.

While the department continually strives to do better, the basics of its progressive policing are simple, according to department spokesman Joel DeSpain in an interview last week.

“It’s having the officers recognized as leaders and problem solvers,” he said. “The biggest thing is being out in the commnunity and helping to solve its problems.”

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