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Having Police on Foot Patrols Benefits Communities, Experts Say

LANSING – Trust between law enforcement and the communities they police seems to be strained. But why is this happening and what can be done about it?

This topic was the focus of a recent talk in Lansing where law enforcement and criminal justice experts talked about foot patrol policing and how it has helped engage communities. The panelists were Frank Straub, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who served as the police chief of Spokane, Washington, and is now a researcher with the Police Foundation, and Jeff Hadley, who leads the force in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Police Foundation has studied law enforcement agencies nationwide for more than 40 years, seeking to help departments have better police practices. It has helped forces in Orlando and San Bernardino improve their practices after recent terrorist attacks occurred in those cities. Over the past year, the Charles Koch Foundation has asked it to study foot patrol policing in five cities across America, including Kalamazoo, to understand if the practice improves law enforcement.

Foot patrol, or community policing, has officers more engaged on the ground and has seen a resurgence in recent years. While it is manpower-intensive, both speakers at the forum agreed it benefits police and communities tremendously.

Straub said it is important to understand three problems facing law enforcement right now: the increase of crime in some cities, the violence against law enforcement officials and issues related to immigration.

“We are at, I think, a critical stage in American policing,” Straub said. “We have in some of our urban areas — Chicago, Baltimore, Indianapolis — with pretty horrific crime rates. ... We’re trying to figure out how to stop the bloodshed, particularly in those high-crime, low-poverty areas. We are also seeing pretty horrific instances of attacks against police. Dallas and New York. This has caused a fissure between law enforcement and communities.”

He believes having more boots on the ground leads to better relationships with community members and a decrease in crime.

“It allows police to establish baseline relationships with the people they serve,” Straub said. “By establishing those, it gives police departments the ability to do their jobs more effectively. ... If we know someone, we’re more likely to do business with them.”

Foot patrols allow for more dialogue with citizens and lets police hear the challenges people are facing in their communities.

Hadley, who oversees a department in West Michigan that is embracing more foot patrol policing, agreed. While some officers resisted at first, those attitudes turned around in a few months.

“We found it lead to greater job and community satisfaction,” Hadley said. “[And our officers realized] these people out here support us. They like us. I like them.”

He said the enhanced community engagement has meant people in the community get to know his officers and the police get to know the community. This has led to more tips from informants and a better focus on key priorities. Hadley hopes that police work within the community, rather than directed at citizens, eventually becomes natural.

“What I want out of [foot patrols], outside of the trustful relationship, is that this becomes second nature for our officers,” Hadley said. “That officers think naturally, I have to get out of my car and engage with my community. When that becomes more organic, where I don’t have to [enforce it] ... that’s when cultures change. So when problems happen, you can get through them in a constructive way. If you don’t have those relationships, what happens? You’re on CNN and [everyone is talking about it].”

The speakers were asked about how law enforcement has changed and how foot patrols compare to the “broken windows theory” of policing, where officers focus on small issues in hoping that doing so prevents major crime problems.

Straub said that broken windows policing was a good idea and was initially about problem-solving and foot patrol policing. The idea was that if officers knew their communities well, they could work with them to solve the small problems, which led to a more connected neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, this morphed into a zero tolerance policy which has caused a lot of problems,” he said.

Both panelists weighed in on the issue of problematic police incidents around the nation and what to do about bad law enforcement officers.

“I told my officers, [citizens] pay our salaries and give us the authority to do our jobs,” Straub said. “We have the ability to detain someone, take their freedom, and even take a life if we are in danger. Nobody else in American life has that responsibility.”

Straub says he worries that terminology like the “war on drugs,” “war on crime,” and “war on terrorism” has led some police to see themselves as involved in a more literal war.

“We have in departments small groups of individuals that believe, ‘We’re the police and you’re going to conform because I told you to conform.’ In my perspective, that’s 100 percent wrong,” he said. “But there is a fissure in American policing right now … between the ‘warrior mentality’ and the ‘guardian mentality.’”

Hadley said police unions and state laws can be an obstacle to reform.

“One aspect ... misunderstood on officer discipline, is labor and collective bargaining agreements,” Hadley said. “That’s their due process. ... Chiefs might want to take on rogue officers or those they think shouldn’t be part of the organization. … [But] officers have due process rights and they can file a grievance and it goes to arbitration. ... It varies state to state [but] we sometimes joke among police chiefs, it takes an act of Congress to fire an officer.”

Both speakers believed departments need to do more to get police on the ground and integrated into the community. The practice is labor intensive and can often mean more work, but the short- and long-term payoff is worth it.

“We are getting more calls, but that’s OK,” Hadley said. “If they are calling us, they are trusting us.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.