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Groundbreaking police-community partnerships offer ways to improve neighborhood safety


Philly residents work together to improve safety

Philly residents and police working together

HVI Safety Fun Day in Detroit

Tahirih Ziegler of Detroit LISC in Grandmont Rosedale

Philly residents and police working together

If you walk past North Philadelphia’s Rainbow de Colores Park on a summer day, you’ll see children playing on a playground and running through sprinklers, a bustling handball court and a well-tended community garden. Newly installed solar lights mean the activity continues well into the evening.

Five years ago, Rainbow de Colores looked very different.

“It was a playground that was basically controlled by drug dealers,” says Andrew Frishkoff, Executive Director of the Philadelphia office of the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC).

Less than a block from a prolific drug-dealing corner, the park served as a base of operations for a local drug-trafficking organization. Community members were reluctant to leave their homes, let alone play in the park.

Beginning in 2010, however, community members, local nonprofit organizations (including LISC), a Philadelphia police captain and the local councilwoman joined forces to take back the space.

While LISC worked with community members to clean up the park, 26th District Police Captain Michael Cram and his team dedicated themselves to keeping away criminal activity. Councilwoman Maria QuiƱones Sanchez and the Department of Public Property delivered approximately $200,000 to support the cleaning and rehabilitation efforts, and the community drove the decisions to include the handball courts and community garden.

“It’s a little bit of judo,” says Frishkoff. “Taking something that is blighted and a hub of criminal activity and not just trying to move the crime but actually turning that space back into an amenity for the community.”

The state of community-police relations

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the nationwide protests that followed are a stark reminder of the tension between law enforcement and the communities they police throughout the country.

In June 2014, Gallup reported that just 53 percent of the U.S. population has a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, the lowest reported level of trust in the police in the last 20 years. At 37 percent, levels of trust are even lower among African-Americans. One-quarter of African-Americans have very little or no confidence in the police.

The racial composition of police forces, racial disparities in stop and arrest rates, and inappropriate use of force have been driving new discussions about police behavior. On December 1, President Obama requested $263 million in funding for police body cameras and training to help address a “simmering distrust” in the wake of the events in Ferguson.

Further from the spotlight of media attention, however, neighborhoods around the country are joining with community development organizations, local law enforcement and municipal authorities to overcome that distrust while decreasing crime and revitalizing neighborhoods. These collaborations are making community-based policing work.

Since 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has tried to support police forces that model best practices and the communities they work in. The DOJ has awarded nearly $31 million in Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grants to support community safety in 46 cities and towns around the country. $4.5 million more has been provided to LISC to support these grant recipients. LISC has been running its own Community Safety Initiative (CSI) in cities across the country since 1994.

According to Julia Ryan, program director for the CSI project, that experience makes LISC a valuable partner.

“The goal is to tap research from all over about what works, to help reduce crime in these communities,” says Ryan, “and also bring the experience and knowledge of the people on the front lines in struggling neighborhoods into the national conversation.”

Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, says the values at the foundation of community-based policing — leadership, collaboration and ethical behavior among them — need to be reflected in every aspect of a police department’s work.

“Community policing is not a program,” he explains. “It is a philosophy about how police departments go about their business in a way that engages the community in the co-production of public safety.”

Here are programs in six cities, all of which have received support from the DOJ and LISC. The scope of these programs is relatively small, affecting only a handful of neighborhoods and communities, but they serve as important examples of success that can be replicated.

Building partnerships

In Philadelphia, Captain Michael Cram has moved from the 26th District, home to Rainbow de Colores Park, to the neighboring 25th district. And he’s brought his lessons on community-based policing with him.

“I’m a firm believer that neighbors take back neighborhoods, not the police,” he says.

Since February, Cram and his officers have started three community groups. In some cases, they’ve identified key members of the community — block captains, ward leaders or other leading figures — and worked with them to form a group. In other cases, they simply announced a community meeting, knocked on doors, handed out flyers and worked with the residents who show up. Now, nearly a year later, all three groups are holding regular monthly meetings that Cram and his officers attend.

“They’re the eyes and ears of the community,” insists Cram. “They educate us on what’s going on in the community and we educate them on how the police work and how they can help us better.”

Six hundred miles away in the white, working-class West Side neighborhood of Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, there was a problem with basement break-ins. Intruders were breaking through basement windows to steal copper wiring, appliances and other items.

In theory, the solution was simple: In Covington there was a historical regulation requiring basement windows be plate glass, so a variance was needed to allow residents to install windows that were better reinforced against break-ins. Residents petitioned the city for a change, but city officials either didn’t hear the complaints or didn’t listen.

The LISC office in Cincinnati heard them. LISC brought the issue to the local police, a group that had been responding to the break-ins but not to the community’s prevention efforts. When law enforcement and residents went together to city government to present the problem, the city agreed to change it. Basements, if not sealed correctly, can be easy access for intruders and burglars, so changing these windows to something stronger makes all the difference and the same can be said for other parts of the basement that need to be carefully looked after. For example, storms can shake loose windows and cause cracks in a basement so using a Basement Waterproofing Kingston service or one similar, can help rectify this and completely secure a basement for water and burglars to stay out of.

“Since they changed that, they haven’t had any basement break-ins at all,” says Kate McInerney, assistant program officer at LISC Cincinnati.

Three years ago, Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood had a problem with a nuisance bar. Through a combination of relationship-building with police, neighborhood mobilization,and substantial grant funding for community safety, Lawrenceville had seen a 60 percent reduction in crime since 2002 and an almost complete elimination of Part 1 crimes such as homicides, aggravated assaults and prostitution. So community members were distraught when a local social club, traditionally a community space, became a hub of criminal activity.

“There were shootings, underage drinking and drugs,” recalls Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a community development corporation. “And it’s really hard in Pennsylvania to shut down a liquor-licensed establishment once it’s already operating.”

But Lawrenceville United drew upon the partnerships it had built over ten years to shine a light on the issue. After a three year fight and with the help of the Bureau of Building Inspections, the local police and Liquor Control Enforcement, the bar was shut down. Not only that, the bar owners were also denied a transfer of their liquor license to a nearby property thanks to community-led protests.

In another particularly surprising case, the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood in Northwest Detroit is volunteering to pay more taxes to support a wider range of safety measures in the area. After community members circulated petitions, receiving support from at least 51 percent of homeowners in the neighborhood of 5,000 homes, the plan was presented to the City Council and the new Neighborhood Benefit District was approved. Through a partnership with the local police, the new funds are supporting secondary police officers, the installation of security cameras and better lighting throughout the neighborhood.

If getting a neighborhood to volunteer to pay more taxes sounds like a herculean task, getting the rest of the city stakeholders on board was no easy feat either.

“Many meetings,” says Amber Elliott, a Detroit native and assistant program officer for LISC, when asked what it took to launch the initiative. “A meeting every week for a year, getting many people to the table who didn’t think it would work.”

But now that the citywide ordinance exists and the tax structure is in place, it can be replicated. Already the West Village and East Village of the Jefferson East neighborhood are moving forward with a Neighborhood Benefit District of their own.

These tangible victories are important, but the community empowerment and promise of change is the story Cram and others want to tell.

“The relationship between the police and the community, it’s phenomenal,” says Cram. “That’s the most important thing. That’s a home run.”

Planning for safety

Strong community-based policing not only requires effective relationships between the community, police and government, but also a physical environment that promotes safety.

For a number of years, parts of Walnut Hills, a densely populated, predominantly African-American neighborhood just northeast of downtown Cincinnati, functioned as an open air drug market. With heavy traffic passing through the neighborhood’s two main corridors, drug traffickers and prostitution rings saw a steady stream of business.

They were also able to easily hide their activity. Both of the main streets running through Walnut Hills are one way, making it a simple task to spot approaching police vehicles. Drug dealers and prostitution rings could operate in the open and melt away at the first sign of trouble.

The community knew what was happening and, with the help of the local LISC office and the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, convinced the city planning office to make both corridors two-way streets.

“It was a huge change,” says Kristen Baker, a program officer at LISC Cincinnati “[There was] a dramatic reduction in drug-dealing and prostitution and other criminal activity in the neighborhood.”

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Andriana Abariotes of the Twin Cities LISC office praises the long-term commitment that city and police leadership have shown to community-based policing. LISC has been a partner in this process, taking a proactive approach to planning and designing neighborhood development with community safety in mind.

In June 2014, a new light rail line opened, connecting portions of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. This spurred a number of community development projects and LISC, along with its community partners, recognized an opportunity to apply community safety lessons.

“We facilitated design sessions between the community, the developers and the police department,” recalls Abariotes. “[We wanted] to ensure improvements that would reduce crime hotspots or improve safety in and around these new developments.”

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies include natural surveillance and improving lines of sight to deter criminal activity and create a perception that people can be seen at all times. Movement prediction designs public spaces with appealing and well-lit pedestrian walkways so that the movement of people is predictable.

Whether the environmental design changes happen in response to a crime problem, like in Cincinnati, or to preempt the emergence of crime in developments like in Minneapolis, the essential idea is that crime does not occur independently of the neighborhood environment. By designing neighborhoods better, it is possible to make them safer.

Looking forward

With protests against the Michael Brown decision and other incidents continuing across the U.S., community policing is now a front line issue.

“We’re now past the point that these are individual incidents,” says Bueermann. “This is now a movement to reform police practices as it relates to the use of force.”

For community policing to work, the police force needs to reflect the community they are policing — and “recruiting in the spirit of service” must be prioritized over “recruiting in the spirit of adventure.” Training must focus not just on technical skills like firing a gun and conducting a traffic stop, but on cultural sensitivity, the science of addiction, and how best to interact with special needs populations. The police need a multitude of strategies for communicating with citizens. They need to get to know the community, and success needs to be measured in terms of outcomes — whether the goals defined by the police and the community are being met — not outputs, like the number of arrests or citations.

“Most police chiefs are going to tell you that they engage in community-based policing,” says Bueermann. “The issue, though, is do they really understand it? Are they really committed to it?”

The opportunity exists not just to reform the use of force, but to reform the way we police our society, he adds. The results of community policing in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other cities are a testament to the positive impact of these partnerships.

This story is part of a series on community transformation underwritten by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national organization dedicated to helping community residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy and sustainable communities of choice and opportunity.

Region: Southwest

Community, Features, Pittsburgh