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Community Policing Is Not the Answer

Investing billions of government dollars into programs that embed police in Black communities will not reduce police violence, nor repair years of injustice.

People walk past a police car in the in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn on November 18, 2019 in New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

I was 15 when I first had a gun pointed at me. The kid holding it must have been around my age. 

I had just left a party in Brooklyn with my godbrother, Terrell. The police had shut the party down, which was routine after a certain time of night in that neighborhood. After leaving with a few friends, a group of kids came out of another building in the housing projects we were in and started to follow us down the street. 

I had a sense that they wanted to jump or rob us, so I told my godbrother to cross the street. “If they follow us, run,” I said. Halfway across the street, I turned around and saw one of the kids raise a gun at me. “If you run, I’ll shoot you.”

We all ran, but Terrell and I got separated, so I went back. Terrell wasn’t there, but he called a few minutes later and we met up, laughed, and rehashed the story.

This is just one experience of navigating violence that marked much of my childhood. Throughout all of those experiences, I never thought to call the police.

Proponents of community policing argue that embedding police, particularly in Black communities, can build trust and partnerships that would have changed my calculus, to call NYPD. But the strategy is flawed and has drawn resources away from communities that need it and instead directed them toward policing. Time has shown that community policing is merely an expensive attempt at public relations, after a long history of racialized police violence and injustice, and does little to reduce crime or police violence.

Twenty-five years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, known more commonly as the 1994 crime bill. The law established the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, which has channeled over $14 billion to police departments and saturated cities with more police and police resources despite research suggesting the grants have had little to no effect on reducing crime. The COPS office was also a significant driver behind the emergence of police throughout public schools because it created the COPS in Schools grant program, which ended in 2005.

But the practice emerged well before the crime bill passed, on the heels of social unrest throughout the country, often sparked by police violence such as the brutal beating of John Smith in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967. In 1968, the Kerner Commission reported that nearly half of the urban rebellions since 1965 were sparked by instances of police use of excessive force. The report also advocated for the creation of jobs, improved housing, and an investment in education in urban cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored those recommendations in favor of expanding policing and incarceration. 

The strategy resurfaced in public discourse in 2014 after unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, by a white police officer. Local law enforcement organized community events in the area such as basketball games and ice cream giveaways.  

Community policing, strategies that center having officer diversity to better reflect the demographics of the community, and initiatives that focus on trust, reconciliation, and procedural justice between communities and police have become popular with some city leaders, including Bill de Blasio in New York City, and mainstream reform organizations such as the Vera Institute of Justice. At the national level, the Department of Justice, for example, launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice in September 2014.

Community policing creates the false idea that police can solve structural issues through building partnerships, but policing has only made those issues worse.

On the surface, community policing sounds like an ideal way to reform policing. But police violence toward Black people has persisted. A study examining the strategy around the country suggested that community policing does not significantly reduce crime or make communities safer 

Community policing may also deter people from participating in local programs that police hold or are involved in, as one study suggests avoidance of police is a common strategy among marginalized groups such as Black youth. The positive publicity that may come from giving kids ice cream and playing basketball does not make communities safer. On the contrary, the strategy further floods communities with police and legitimizes an institution that is centered on punishment and control.  

As a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, my dissertation examines safety, poverty, and policing in a high-rise housing project in Brooklyn. I find that residents have to deal with police harassment, deployments into the building, and the stress and anxiety that come with constant police presence. Heightened presence and contact are often disguised under the umbrella of community-oriented policing efforts, such as the addition of officers often called beat cops to continuously patrol the building and area throughout the day and night. 

The NYPD argues that community, or neighborhood, policing will increase trust and cohesion between police and communities. On its website, the department states: “Neighborhood Policing greatly increases connectivity and engagement with the community without diminishing, and, in fact, improving the NYPD’s crime-fighting capabilities. The NYPD has long encouraged officers to strengthen bonds with the communities they patrol.” But the disconnect is palpable, and police appear more as an occupying force, surveilling the residence as opposed to protecting it.

Structural racism and poverty also force people to employ strategies that are often criminalized in order to navigate incredibly difficult and complex situations, such as with fare evasion. Thus, as long as poverty and racial inequality exist, policing will always expose Black people, and other marginalized communities, to higher rates of surveillance, arrest, and violence. Community policing creates the false idea that police can solve structural issues through building partnerships, but policing has only made those issues worse.

Police do not speak to the wide range of concerns around safety that residents have, nor should they try to. Marginalized communities need resources to thrive. Investing in community policing—or policing more broadly—will not change the underlying, structural context that leads to a lack of safety. Nor will it change the laws that criminalize people for being poor and disadvantaged. The solution to public safety lies in troubling the idea that policing equals safety.

The real work lies in developing alternatives to punishment and policing, not nicer cops. 

Grassroots organizations across the country are fighting to divest from policing and reinvest in community programs. Take, for example, No Cop Academy in Chicago, the Agenda to Build Black Futures by BYP100—an activist organization whose New York City chapter I helped found—and invest-divest campaigns such as Liberate MKE in Milwaukee. In North Carolina, organizers with the Durham Beyond Policing coalition successfully organized to divert funds for additional police personnel toward community-based safety and wellness initiatives. 

The billions of dollars channeled through the COPS office and the crime bill to expand police resources and power could have been invested in community institutions and programs that foster safety and wellness, such as arts and athletic programs, violence interruption initiatives, quality schools, community-led domestic violence support, hospitals, and drug treatment facilities.

Federal funding could also go toward alternatives to policing that may actually cultivate safety. If I could have called a number of people I trusted within the community that were trained to help manage violent situations, I might have done so that night in Brooklyn. Having trained and well-resourced rapid response teams that can address a wide range of emergencies without police presence may be the future of cultivating safety and solving the problem of policing.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are funneled to police departments that agree to make efforts to repair the “broken” relationship between Black people and police. But the relationship was never whole. 

Growing up in the Bronx, and later in Newark, I learned not to trust or rely on the police. I was beaten up by the police when I was 13 and harassed more times than I can remember. And more people in my family and community had been arrested, harassed, or brutalized than I could count. Instead, I relied on myself, and a few people that I felt that I could trust, like my godbrother.

For many people that I know, their relationship with the police is irreparable. No amount of conversations or events will fix the relationship, or make them comfortable calling 911 in an emergency. Divesting from policing and investing in communities will ultimately make people far safer than police ever will.

Philip V. McHarris is a writer, activist, and PhD candidate in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University.