Police-community partnerships offer way to improve neighborhood safety

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 that controlled the street. 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 park.
While LISC worked with community members to clean up the park, 26th District police captain Michael Cram and his police force dedicated their efforts to keeping away criminal activity. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones 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 the 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 have followed are a stark reminder of the tension between law enforcement and the communities they police throughout our country.
In June 2014 Gallup reported that just 53 percent of the U.S. population have 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 rates and arrest rates and inappropriate use of force have been driving new discussions about police behavior. On December 1st, 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.
Farther from the spotlight of media attention, however, neighborhoods around the country are joining with community development organizations, local law enforcement and municipal authorities in efforts to overcome the distrust of police, decrease crime and revitalize neighborhoods. These collaborative efforts are making community-based policing work.

Since 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has tried to support police forces that are doing it well 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 and for 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 says. “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 cities, but they serve as important examples of successes that could be replicated.
Building partnerships

In Philadelphia, Captain Michael Cram has moved on from the 26th District, home to Rainbow de Colores Park, to the neighboring 25th district. But 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 police force 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 community members who showed 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,” says 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 attention to the local police, a group that had been involved with responding to the break-ins but not in the community’s prevention efforts. When the police and community went to city government to present the multitude of problems caused by the historical regulation, the city agreed to change it.
“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 like 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,” says 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 following community-led protests.
In another particularly surprising case, the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood of Northwest Detroit is volunteering to pay more taxes to support a wider range of safety measures in the community. After community members circulated petitions and received support from at least 51% 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 district, 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 is moving forward, with support from LISC, 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. That’s the most important thing,” says Cram. “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 volume 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 leadership 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 the downtown portions of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Along with the opening of the light rail line and the convenient access to both Minneapolis and St. Paul came a number of community development projects. 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,” says 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.”

The proof of whether community policing efforts will be effective, he says, lies in whether police forces are engaged in the best practices related to hiring, training, policing, and engaging with the community.

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 community are being met – not outputs, like the number of arrests or citations.

“Most police chiefs are going to tell you they engage in community-based policing,” says Bueermann. “The issue, though, is do they really understand it? Are they really committed to it?”
However, the opportunity exists not just to reform the use of force, but to reform the way we police our society, Bueerman stresses. 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.