Efforts that connect police to the community in which they serve help to reduce encounters that lead to extrajudicial killings by police.
In Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he describes Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, as a “demon.” After he fired the first shot, Wilson says he heard a “grunting, like aggravated sound” coming from the teenager. He explains, “You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.” After firing 12 rounds, Wilson eventually shot Brown in the head, killing him.
In a 911 report, a caller related that someone, possibly a child was pointing “a pistol” at random people in a Recreation Center. The caller clarified that the gun was “probably fake.” According to the responding officers, they approached 12-year-old Tamir Rice, ordering him to hold up his hands. Tamir reached to his waistband and grasped a bb gun. In a matter of seconds, one of the officers fired two shots, fatally hitting Rice once in the torso. Footage was released of the officers tackling the bereaved 14-year-old sister of Rice after they shot her 12-year-old brother. Rice’s mother said that a friend had given him the toy gun to play with minutes before the police arrived.
In these descriptions we see fewer teenagers and more vicious animals. Many extrajudicial killings of Black people share similar dehumanizing stories. Policy makers and community members need to shift this pervasive negative narrative. Micro-place community policing is one solution.
In vulnerable communities, high rates of gang violence and high rates of police bias come hand in hand. Between 1991 and 2013, there were on average approximately 400 police killings reported to the FBI from local police. Out of all these incidents reported annually, an average of 96 per year involved a white police officer killing a black person. In contrast, there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain in 2013. In Canada, cases of ‘justifiable homicide’ hover around a dozen annually. These figures reveal a disturbing propensity for US police officers to use deadly force and a high potential for racial bias in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios.
Project Longevity in Connecticut, Operation Ceasefire in Boston, and lesser-known initiatives in Chicago and Cincinnati are organize to reduce the homicide victimization and gang violence among young people in these areas, with the help of local law enforcement and community partners. However, these programs also have unseen potential to increase police-community relationships and humanize black lives in the eyes of law enforcement. Community members not only patrol with police but also are considered equal partners.
Project Longevity is a community-oriented policing strategy to reduce gang violence in three of Connecticut’s major cities: New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. It is modeled after successful efforts implemented by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and Operation Ceasefire: Boston Gun Project. Connecticut has seen dramatic declines in police and civilian violence after the initial implementation of this program.
Project Longevity directs federal and state spending to the most vulnerable communities in these cities with the purpose of steering at-risk youth and repeat offenders away from violence. A broad array of social services (housing, educational opportunities, addiction and mental/health care) are offered to those who want to end the cycle of community violence and gang activity – with the option of “receiv[ing] the full attention of the law” the next time any crime occurs.
Longevity combines social services, law enforcement, and community involvement to target crime and positively influence dynamics between residents and the police. Key to this strategy is a quarterly “call-in,” an intervention that combines local, state, and federal level law enforcement; community members; service providers; parents; and members of the clergy.
According to Tiana Hercules, “They speak to these young men and in some cases young women at the call-in and explain to them the consequences of further gun violence in the city of Hartford. Essentially, the message is put the guns down or the next body that drops in the city or person to get shot is going to receive the full focus of law attention. And not only yourself, but also those who you run with.” Violent crime in Connecticut’s three big cities after Project Longevity has decreased nearly 15 percent and crime in the state has decreased 10 percent, twice the national average. Longevity is credited with half of this overall cut in statewide violent crime.
The problem of police brutality in the United States is one of police accountability, but not in the conventional understanding of the term. The typical hypothesis is that once law enforcement is vigorously policed they will be held to a higher standard, decreasing the likelihood of police excess. This is the motivation behind the Obama administration’s $75 million push for mounted body cameras nationwide. Perhaps if Darren Wilson were monitored, he would not have so easily killed Mike Brown, or so the story goes. However, history teaches us that this conventional way of policing the police may be misplaced. In the trial of LAPD officers who beat Rodney King in 1991, videotape evidence was argued away because it did not present the full picture. This year, apparently indisputable video was refuted in the recent police killings of Eric Garner and John Crawford.
Instead of external accountability, police officers need to develop a greater sense personal accountability to the vulnerable in communities where they serve. This need for personal accountability stems from a racial and spatial separation that keeps communities and police isolated. This gap reinforces the biases that keep youth like Mike Brown and Tamir Rice dehumanized by the very people tasked with their protection. Programs that put law enforcement and communities in greater contact should be encouraged. There is no better policing mechanism than one’s conscience. Working closely with residents provides information that can prevent dangerous encounters with police, simply by police intimately knowing community members and their families. More importantly, these programs humanize members of vulnerable communities to law enforcement. Darren Wilson was wrong. There are no demons, just police officers isolated from communities.
Andrew Lindsay, a 2015 Truman Scholarship Finalist in Massachusetts, is a junior at Amherst College, where he is an active member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and studies Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought.