March 19, 2022

Addressing violence while building trust


Dear PERF Members,

All across America, police chiefs are at a turning point. COVID-19 case counts are diminishing, at least for now, but summer is coming on. Homicides have increased sharply in many cities. And support for police in disadvantaged communities is constantly being challenged. Chiefs desperately want to turn the corner. Can they restore legitimacy and trust, the #1 issue PERF members reported in our survey in late 2020, while also curbing violent crime?

Moreover, they’ve got to do it as the public’s expectations evolve and as proactive policing strategies come under heightened scrutiny. Look no further than Los Angeles, where the Police Commission recently implemented a policy to greatly limit the use of stops for minor traffic violations for the purpose of investigating more serious crime. Philadelphia also passed legislation barring police from making traffic stops for lesser violations. And in Chicago, the police department drew up a 13-page policy to narrow the circumstances in which foot pursuits are permitted.

So it was noteworthy that in New York City last Monday, police commissioner ‎Keechant Sewell sent 168 officers out to the city’s most violent precincts with modified uniforms and a new, more focused assignment: to find illegal guns and apprehend the offenders. I talked to Commissioner Sewell last week and was impressed with her take on tough issues.

Deploying these Neighborhood Safety Units is a recognition that increased gun crime needs more focused attention — and a clear indication that the country’s largest city doesn’t think it can rein in violence without a major infusion of cops dedicated to guns.

Importantly, however, the NSUs don’t seem to be a mere reboot of anti-gun units that raised concerns in the community and were disbanded in the summer of 2020. The officers in the new units are in uniform, rather than in plainclothes, and they are equipped with body-worn cameras to improve accountability. Chief of Department Ken Corey, for whom I have great respect, said the teams are getting additional training, too. "De-escalation is essential to all of it, communication skills is a big part of it, courtroom training and as the police commissioner indicated, constitutional policing," he said at a press conference announcing the initiative.

And the teams are meant to take a more targeted approach than the old anti-gun units did, focusing their efforts by using facial recognition and other technologies to identify people carrying guns. In addition, Commissioner Sewell says there have been opportunities for helpful dialogue with community members, who want to share their views directly with the new officers.

New York City is one of the country’s biggest stages, but agencies of all sizes all over the map are trying to thread a similar needle: combating crime while regaining community trust. In January, after a record-setting year for homicides, the Portland, Oregon Police Bureau launched a Focused Intervention Team of 12 officers and two sergeants, all specially trained, to focus on gun violence (filling a gap created after its own Gun Violence Reduction Team was disbanded in the summer of 2020).

The elephant in the room is that concern about proactive policing continues to grow, and every traffic or pedestrian stop carries a risk that things will go wrong. When something questionable happens and it is captured on video, that can magnify and multiply its impact on the public’s perceptions of policing. Police chiefs have to come up with the right strategies to sustain public trust and deal with violent crime — but the officers on the street also have a difficult balancing act, engaging with communities in ways that meet these twin objectives. Many officers are rightly nervous that even when they try to do their best, they will be abandoned and alone if something goes wrong. So New York is a test case, and other cities are watching, both their cops and communities.

An irony is that in disadvantaged communities where homicides have risen fastest, like Minneapolis’s Fourth Precinct on the north side, residents want responsive police, not a hands-off approach. But Minneapolis’s department is down almost 300 officers, and homicides are at levels not seen since the 1990s, when the city was called “Murderopolis.”

Somehow, we’ve got to make sure that officers don’t feel they are getting a mixed message. They need to feel empowered to both build trust and address violence at the same time.

And fundamentally, that means focusing on the places and people and networks where most violence occurs. Because we know for a fact that police can make a difference.