Two months after the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, NPR‘s All Things Considered (10/14/14) aired a story about an inspiring LAPD cop pushing “community policing” on his beat in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles:
As he talks stats, he interrupts himself to say hi to people on the street—something that happens regularly as he walks his beat up and down San Pedro Street. “I’ve been here so long that it’s like, they’re like family. I spend more time with these folks than my own family,” says Joseph, who is married and has three children.
A few months later, Skid Row—a famous refuge for the homeless that has been a battleground for civil liberties in the past—would be at the center of yet another explosive case of police brutality. Video footage of Charly “Africa” Keaunang being shot to death by police officers became national news. Police accounts of what happened conflicted with some video evidence, while footage from police-worn body cameras of the police officers involved was never released.
Africa’s death highlighted the problems between police and the homeless on Skid Row—which had never abated, despite the story about Officer Joseph. Outrage and protest followed. People wanted changes. No protesters had been calling for just nicer cops in LA—or, for that matter, in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, or in New York City after the killing of Eric Garner.
While some protesters had called for body cameras, others had concerns with that approach. Others called for an end to aggressive policing methods, like the “broken windows” theory that holds that cracking down on petty offenses can prevent more serious crimes. Most in the Black Lives Matter movement agreed that, for starters, cops who kill or brutalize unarmed citizens should be fired and punished.
But the police reform conversation, pushed into the national consciousness through mass protests and acts of civil disobedience by everyday people, was steered toward the theme of “community policing” by establishment figures—with the help of the media.
President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, co-chaired by a police official and directed by a former cop, serves to “build trust” and “strengthen community policing”—referencing “community policing” 64 times in their report. This year, when a protester crashed a conference of mayors this year demanding that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel resign for his role in the cover-up of the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, Emanuel—Obama’s former chief of staff—was at the conference to promote (what else) “community policing.” Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each made “community policing” a centerpiece of their proposals for criminal justice reform.
Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed into law a historic omnibus crime bill that funded hundreds of thousands of extra cops and built prisons across the country—and also pushed forward “community policing” as far back as 1994.
In all of the posturing around what to do about law enforcement’s stubborn refusal to stop shooting unarmed people, disproportionately black, community policing is the key establishment-validated “reform.” It sounds nice and slathers onto the contentious issue of “policing” a much more agreeable word: “community.”
The three major broadcast TV networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) locked onto the community-policing talking points, mentioning it 26 times after the killing of Brown and the resulting protests. That’s about twice as many times as they’d brought it up in the 10 years prior. Major newspapers did their part as well, producing thousands of stories post-Ferguson that referred to that pleasant-sounding policing model.
In that time, you can find stories about cops giving out hugs (Washington Post, 8/14/14) and practicing the “community policing ethos” (Washington Post, 5/7/15). You can find others discussing “training” and “tone” (USA Today, 12/29/15) and even cops saving kittens (New York Times, 1/25/16). There’s also the softly paternal feel-good stories of police tying kids’ shoes (CNN, 12/2/15) or playing basketball with black youth (CNN, 1/24/16). Sometimes certain police departments are looked to as models of reform (Huffington Post, 1/28/16) or as social workers for drug addicts—as opposed to the drug-war soldiers they’ve largely been (Vice, 6/9/15).
In his 2009 book Illusion of Order, Columbia professor Bernard Harcourt sums up the role of “community policing” in police/community relations:
The variations on the theme of community policing are wide…. The truth is, however, that the popularity and success of community policing is attributable in large part to the vagueness of the definition, to the national decline in crime beginning in the early 1990s, and to the fact that the expression “community policing” is far more effective for public relations than other terms such as “aggressive misdemeanor arrests,” “stop and frisk” or “mass building searches.”
That “vagueness” is huge hit with police officials. In theory, community policing advocates better collaboration between cops and the neighborhoods they patrol. In practice, it simply means more police, oftimes using them to coax information out of one group of people that can be useful in arresting another. Police can, for example, take their cue to conduct more “quality-of-life policing” (arresting beggars, street performers or teenagers standing on a corner) from a concerned community member. It also frames police as community problem-solvers in lieu of actual problem-solvers, like social workers, school counselors, etc.
As UCLA and Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (The Intercept, 1/25/16) points out, “Cooperation in conditions of extreme disparities in power is what is otherwise known as occupation and oppression.” She described the community policing approach as: “We’re not going to look at the broader context in which police have a sort of unmitigated power here. What we’re going to do here is say, are there ways in which we can get along better in this context?”
The two principle functions of community policing today are to provide better PR at a time when public approval of the police is dwindling and, more practically, to secure more resources for police (i.e., the ’94 omnibus bill). Before his dismissal in Baltimore in the aftermath of protests over the police custody death of Freddie Grey, ex-police commissioner Anthony Batts made his name as a police chief in California who established “community policing.” In New York, Bill Bratton, the godfather of stop and frisk and perhaps the most famous police official in the US, enjoyed the benefits of “community policing” as it led to the addition of over 1,000 extra cops for the department not even a year after Eric Garner was choked to death by a plainclothes NYPD detective.
Marking the anniversary of LA’s Watts Riots, a tense six-day confrontation in 1965 between residents and cops (and the National Guard) sparked by a fight between cops and residents, NBC Nightly News‘ Lester Holt (7/7/15) walked the beat with LAPD chief Charlie Beck. Remarking on how much better police/community relations were today, Holt and Beck talked about how cops were embedding themselves into public housing and how “community policing” was working wonders in LA—confirmed by B-roll footage of cops walking around hugging and greeting locals.
While corporate media have rarely shown a dedication to voices other than those in power, its alignment with police chiefs and politicians who have presided over an unending parade of police brutality incidents makes invisible the grassroots demands being formulated in the trenches of protest by people of color. Instead, they’ve peddling an old policing buzzword that means little in the way of fundamental change, and actually produces more and more boots on the ground for a war we’re all tired of seeing play out on our streets.
Josmar Trujillo, a former Extra! columnist, is a writer and activist involved with New Yorkers Against Bratton.