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Community policing

Closing the gap between officers and those they serve

Photo Courtesy of The Community Policing Dispatch

Salvatore Pinero, Practicum Writer

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Statistics presented by USA Today show us that the number of officers “gunned down” increased by 167 percent in 2016. This surge becomes even more troubling as the Washington Post reports that, in the same year, “ambush killings of police officers has hit a ten-year high.” Many attribute these findings and horrid events such as the Dallas police ambush to a possible rise in anti-police mentalities. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center reveals that 60 percent of U.S. adults see fatal incidents between police officers and black Americans as “symptoms of a deeper problem” showing us that there is indeed a disconnect between police and the people they serve. How do we close this gap?

This division is mainly manufactured by a sense of subjugation. A portion of Americans, primarily in low income areas, feel as if cops are no longer their guardians but their oppressors. Reports in the media, misguided activism and more are feeding into this rift.

Before we can begin healing the divide, it’s important to note some facts. According to a study by the Justice Department that was published in 2011, “9 out of ten residents who had contact with police” found that the officer or officers involved in the engagement acted “properly.” Furthermore, based on data from 2014 and 2015 it is evident that in the process of over 11 million arrests per year in the U.S., officers only used deadly force 0.00009 percent of the time.

But the question repeats itself: how do we close this gap? Regardless of the aforementioned data, one fact stands true; police and the communities they serve must come together and form a relationship of trust and understanding. To reach this goal there is no better way, or more difficult feat, than community policing. This initiative is being practiced by law enforcement departments across the country.

Since 1994 an office of the U.S. Justice Department known as Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has spent over $14 billion on community policing efforts across the nation. COPS says it is “[committed] to building trust and mutual respect between police and communities” as well as “[addressing] underlying issues” that may be the catalyst for future crime.

I spoke with a local police chief from West Conshohocken Borough. Michael J. Sinclair has been the Chief of Police there for eight years. The borough describes itself as a “lively community” and Sinclair notes that it is made up of “residential, office and industrial areas.” It is a small suburban police department located in Montgomery County. Sinclair is a 36-year veteran of police work and a former captain in the Philadelphia Police Department.

He proudly informed me that since his appointment his department has encountered virtually no complaints, hasn’t met major issues such as lawsuits and consistently receives thank-you letters from the community in relation to the professionalism and helpfulness of his officers. In that context, we spoke of the bond between his officers and the borough residents and how that relationship is created and maintained.

Sinclair clarified that community policing is an effort all officers must undertake. He said, “Every officer plays an important role” in reaching out to the community, emphasizing that it can’t just be done by one person. Sinclair explains that unlike large cities such as Philadelphia where nearly every patrol district specifically has “community policing officers” as well as “the support of a Community Relations Unit that fosters a partnership between the police and the community,” the West Conshohocken Borough does not retain a designated community policing officer. Because West Conshohocken Borough has both a smaller department and population than Philadelphia, it gives each officer a personal opportunity to be a partner with the citizens they serve.

He went on to say that, first things first, everyone who wears the uniform should ask the question, “Why do we exist as a police department?” He believes that all officers should follow “the mission of their organization.” Whether it be the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics or a department’s own mission statement, Sinclair insists that a police officer should read, understand and live by those standards.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics starts off by saying the “fundamental duty” of officers “is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect . . . the weak against oppression” as well as mentioning that an officer “will never act officiously or permit . . . prejudices” or “animosities . . . to influence [their] decisions.” It ends by declaring “the badge . . . is a symbol of public faith.”

West Conshohocken Borough Police Department’s mission statement includes that an officer must act out of “fairness and compassion” with an unrelenting duty to preserve peace, “enhance the quality of life” and “foster a sense of security.”

To achieve these standards, as Sinclair said, officers must be “involved in every aspect of the community.” He explained that his department involves itself in the residential, business and education communities by attending senior meetings once per month, helping with community days, appearing at numerous different “community events” and more.

One particular aspect of these engagement efforts is the “Park and Walk.” Sinclair’s officers will occasionally park their cars and walk around the block, and in the business district, interacting with members of the community. He said, “officers need to maintain two-way communications and a visible positive presence in the community,” while also “[fostering] a sense of security.” Sinclair went on to say that it imprints a “very positive” experience on the officer and the individuals they encounter.

This is all in an effort to form a bond with the community. Sinclair said that departments “can’t reduce crime if [they] don’t have that partnership.” This is achieved, alongside the aforementioned initiatives, when officers have a “visible presence” at every possible event in the neighborhood they serve. Specifically, in West Conshohocken Borough police officers will participate in “law enforcement sponsored events,” attend Special Olympic events and more.

Sinclair also found it significant to explain that “no department can exist today without the engagement of the community.” He also said that it is “important for police departments to be transparent,” and that through accountability, officers can gain trust and confidence from the communities they serve. Sinclair made note that being a police officer is the only civilian job in the world where someone can “take a life, save a life, or give a life,” and that such an understanding illustrates just how testing, essential and gratifying police work can be.

To gain even more perspective on the matter, I reached out to another local cop from a department known for its community policing efforts.

I spoke with Sgt. Rodger Ollis of the Coatesville Police Department who is also a proud alumnus of West Chester University. He graduated with both a BA and masters in Criminal Justice. Ollis credits Dr. Mary Brewster, the Chair of the Criminal Justice Department at WCU, “for her engaging style of instruction that made the study of criminal justice theory” applicable “to modern day policing.”

Sgt. Ollis, or as the community calls him, “Officer Ollie,” has been a cop for over 20 years. Before and during his early years as an officer Ollis worked at QVC in the security department. He elevated through the ranks at QVC, leaving in 2008 after serving as a Regional Manager for many years.

Ollis said that being a cop is “what [he does], not necessary what [he is].” He clarified, saying he is more than just a police officer; he’s a husband, a father, a coach, a volunteer and a mentor. Some, however, consider Ollis a community activist. He responds by saying he “just feels that he is active in the community.”

Sgt. Ollis explained that the front end of his profession is policing, which includes “education, prevention and relationship building,” while the back end is law enforcement. He makes a point to separate the two, saying that “arrest isn’t always the answer, it’s the result” and that by “engaging the community” he and his department can prevent the future spread of crime while also “[fostering] relationships that help solve crime.”

Ollis dug deeper, saying that to win over the hearts and minds of “victims of circumstance,” cops need to teach themselves and the community “responsibility and accountability.” He also made clear to mention that his badge is shaped like a shield, “not a dagger,” signifying how officers’ first and foremost duty is to serve and protect the community as “guardians.”

If there’s one thing that truly stands out about the Coatesville PD and Sgt. Ollis, it’s the training. Whether you’re fresh from the academy or a veteran officer from a different area, every department has cops who are new to the community go through a training period. The Coatesville PD doesn’t just show new officers around, they incorporate them into the neighborhood. Ollis explains that in training he has taken officers to local soup kitchens, senior homes and park events to learn about the people they are employed to serve. Ollis says this not only helps a cop develop tuned “person skills” but it also forces them to “take the first step” in “engaging the community.”

Furthermore, Ollis elaborated on efforts the Coatesville PD has taken to get involved with the more than 13,000 residents in the community. Sgt. Ollis went on to explain that people won’t fully trust the police “until they know they care.” He said, “you can’t change the way people act unless you change their thinking,” and this is exactly what his department has made strides in doing.

For example, a local woman complained to the department that kids were loitering in her front yard and on her porch. Instead of showing up to catch the kids in the act, members of the Coatesville PD and community volunteers went to this woman’s home and fixed her dilapidated porch, upgraded her fence, improved the lighting and cleaned up her front yard. This effort not only showed the community that the police care, but it also solved the loitering problem. This clean-up method works as well with graffiti cover-up, community gardens, trash pickup and more to improve the “quality of life.”

It is not uncommon to see Jack Laufer, Coatesville’s Chief of Police, along with Lt. James Audette, Sgt. Ollis and others from their department applying the Broken Window Theory. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that this philosophy theorizes that both physical disorder—“vacant buildings . . . abandoned vehicles, vacant lots”—and social disorder—“noisy neighbours” and loitering—can bring down the quality of life in certain areas. The Broken Window Theory says that this disorder may lead some members of a community to commit crime, which results in a cycle of disarray and misconduct feeding off one another.

Ollis said the application of this theory “[attempts] to reduce crime by positively changing the environment and engaging the public.”

Another aspect of community policing practiced by Sgt. Ollis and his colleagues is impromptu engagement. Ollis says that there are endless opportunities for cops to literally jump out of their cruisers and engage the community in a positive and personal way.

Coatesville also started a “good ticket program” wherein residents are rewarded if they’re “caught doing something right.” As reported by CBS Philly, and explained by Sgt. Ollis, Coatesville officers are citing kids in the area for “leading by example” in school by “[picking] up litter” and more. These good deeds are recognized by a ticket worth ten dollars if deposited in the Kids’ Klub savings account at the Coatesville Savings Bank. Sgt. Ollis sees this as an opportunity to show kids the importance of both good deeds and early monetary responsibility.

Furthermore, the department also started a Coffee with the Chief event where community members can come to a local coffee shop and have a personal conversation with Chief Laufer and others. From restoring a Coatesville welcome sign to holding improvised pizza parties in the department parking lot with local youth, the Coatesville PD is a shining example of how community policing can bring cops and those they serve together in a safer and cleaner environment.

As you can see there is a picture attached to this article. This photo, taken by Lauren Parker-Gill, has been seen across the nation and won the June 2017 Community Policing in Action Photo Contest held by the aforementioned Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The award was bestowed upon Coatesville Police Department because it features one of their own. It depicts, as described by the e-newsletter of the COPS Office, “an officer running through the local splash pad with a group of children during its grand reopening after maintenance.”

The officer in the photo asked to remain anonymous. The Community Policing Dispatch noted that Laufer said the “officer’s request for anonymity really speaks to the community policing philosophy” that “it’s not about one officer being involved in community policing, it’s about the whole department.”

After interviewing these two individuals, as well as reading cases from around the U.S., it seems that one very important aspect of community policing stands out. This is the effort of law enforcement departments to improve the quality of life within the neighborhoods and cities they serve. This can be certified by the Broken Window Theory.

It is beyond evident that the current political climate is having an effect on the bond between police and civilians. Police departments in places like West Conshohocken Borough and Coatesville are excellent examples of how a community and the officers tasked with protecting them can come together for the good of themselves and their neighborhoods.

Salvatore Pinero is a fourth-year student majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]

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