While there is still debate over how the recession will continue to impact crime over the next few years, there is little debate about the important role that the community plays in the fight against crime. While communities must take the lead, I continually hear from law enforcement officers that communities are not engaged. There are many factors at work that keep community representatives from attending police-community meetings, and that keep residents from reporting crime and working with police to both prevent and combat crime.
A recent report from the Police Executive Forum (PERF) that was funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services highlights some of the factors that have led to a “stop snitching” movement. We all know the reasons why people are reluctant to report crime or take a stand against it. In all likelihood, we have experienced these factors where we live—fear of retaliation, mistrust between residents and police, and the ineffectiveness of the judicial system. While fear is a real factor, 74 percent of those agencies participating in the Executive Session that the PERF report was based on indicated that they knew about only a few isolated incidents of retaliation.
This issue hit home for me even more when I recently attended the funeral of a long-time community activist, Ms. Loree Murray, in Washington, DC. Ms. Murray was in her nineties, had started a community organization that works against gangs and drugs, and literally changed the face of her community. She was the victim of retaliation on more than one occasion—her house had been burned down, her tires slashed, her life threatened, and yet she persisted. Why? What made her persist? I don’t know the answer, but this is what I do know about Ms. Murray. She had a strong relationship with police officers and managers over the years—one that was based upon honesty, communication, and accountability. Ms. Murray was not what we call in the community organizing world, “a lone ranger leader.” She used her gift of persuasion and her personal strength as an elder to develop a cadre of community activists who joined her on patrol, stood with her at numerous community events and activities, and joined with her in a phone tree when the situation necessitated reporting crime. Finally, she treated all in her community with respect, but expected you to respect her and her home (the larger community) in return.
How do we get more Loree Murrays in the world? How do we get the community engaged to report crime and work with law enforcement? Some police departments initiate community policing efforts. Others change how they handle community contacts. The New York Police Department added a third step to its Stop and Frisk procedures: “Explain.” Another law enforcement agency initiated a more customer-friendly police stop. Most recently, I read about two technological approaches to bridge the police-community gap. The Yarmouth Police Department in Massachusetts, like many law enforcement agencies across the country, initiated an online reporting system. The Detroit Police Department recently announced a unique multi-media approach. Its three-phase plan includes a Network Alert system that allows people to sign up to get information via text or email. A 411 tip line will allow those who fear retaliation or mistrust police to report crime anonymously. The most unique approach is a Detroit Police Department page on the social media sites Facebook and MySpace that are aimed at reaching more young people.
Decreased community involvement in the fight against crime will exacerbate crime trends in the years to come. We must act now to continually create avenues to reach all residents in the fight to protect our communities. Is technology the answer? Are relationships the key? I personally believe that relationships, communications, and involvement are all key to successful police-community relations and will produce safer communities.
For more information on community crime prevention resources, visit www.ncpc.org. For more information on the PERF research,"The Stop Snitching Phenomenon: Breaking the Code of Silence" at the COPS office, visit http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/ResourceDetail.aspx?RID=514.