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Justice Department aims to rebuild trust in police with community engagement initiative

September 18, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
In the wake of the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department is launching a $5 million initiative to foster better relationships between communities and their police departments. Gwen Ifill talks to Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity and Ronald Hampton of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.
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GWEN IFILL: When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted after the police-involved shooting of an unarmed black teenager, the rift between the town and its protectors was laid bare. Ferguson is not the only community forced to bridge that chasm.

Today, the Justice Department announced a nearly $5 million plan, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, designed to better train police departments against bias and examine law enforcement procedures. The approach is known as community policing.

We are joined by two people who have studied it for years.

Tracie Keesee is the co-founder of the UCLA Center for Policing Equity, which is receiving some of the Justice Department funding. She’s also a 25-year police veteran. And Ronald Hampton, former executive director of the National Black Police Association and for more than two decades a community relations office for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. He now teaches criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia.

Welcome to you both.

Tracie Keesee, today, the attorney general said that the goal of this new initiative is to ensure fairness, eliminate bias and build community engagement. You were there today at that announcement. Maybe you can tell us what exactly that means.

TRACIE KEESEE, Center for Policing Equity: Well, what it means is that the consortium that they have put together under the initiative, under the initiative, will look at and work with five different cities to actually enact and evaluate those five things that he’s pointed out.

GWEN IFILL: What is — but for a lot of people who are thinking about their own towns and their own neighborhoods, what does that mean? Does that trickle down in any way, or is it only targeted to places where they have been problems?

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, it’s not targeted to just places that have problems. So, it will be a voluntary call for folks who want to actually participate.

And so what this means for us is that most police chiefs will be progressive in saying, we want to get ahead what we think is going on or we just want to be progressive. So, this is not punitive in any way. And I don’t want it to come off that way, that somehow this consortium of folks is going to come into a problem area.

It’s actually there as a resource to help police officers and police departments to look at those issues of biased policing and legitimacy.

GWEN IFILL: Ronald Hampton, why is that important, and why shouldn’t police departments be a little bit defensive about the idea that the federal government sees that they are a problem that needs fixing?

RONALD HAMPTON, Former Executive Director, National Black Police Association: Well, primarily, the federal government is an enormous resource for police departments.

And community policing is a strategy that has several components to it. First, it’s supposed to be a community-based strategy, one that gets the community and residents involved in developing strategies for public safety. Number two is, is that it’s collaborative. Not only are citizens and neighborhoods going to be involved in that, but there are going to be other partners that’s also going to be working with them to develop strategies around public safety.

And then, thirdly, it’s about changing the police department, not only on the outside in terms of what it does every day and how it does it, but, more importantly, it’s about changing the police department to facilitate what it does on the outside.

An example — one of the quickest examples would be that a police department, a traditional police department measures performance by, say, tickets and number of arrests and all of that. Well, in the community policing model, tickets and the number of arrests don’t necessarily mean that a community and the people who live there feel safe.

So it’s a more comprehensive approach to developing public safety strategies.

GWEN IFILL: The attorney general, Tracie Keesee, also spoke to this idea of mistrust. I’m not quite certain how $5 million from the federal government speaks to that issue.

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, it speaks through the initiatives that we will be implementing in the different areas.

And so it’s about building community trust. In some cases, it’s rebuilding community trust. And as Ron said, this is about, how do you measure that? How do you know when a community feels safe? And that’s really what this is about, is what initiatives are in place or should be implemented where the community, it not only feels safe, but it trusts the enforcement that’s happening in their community.

GWEN IFILL: Well, how do you measure that? It sounds awfully hard.

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, and that’s — absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons why we have the consortium of researchers that we have and the partnership between the community and law enforcement to begin to ask those questions. How do we know when there’s trust, mistrust, or how do we know when we have built that partnership? So…

GWEN IFILL: Ronald Hampton, is this a new idea? Is this a new approach, or is it just something that’s being reapplied again because of the latest incidents?

RONALD HAMPTON: Well, it’s not new. Police departments for some time, those that are really serious about doing community policing and have really dug down deep to challenge the culture and the institutional nature of policing, have begun to change in terms of how they measure performance, have changed how they measure customer satisfaction.

In order to measure customer satisfaction, you have to ask the customer. If you ask the police officer, is policing doing what it’s supposed to do, of course they’re going to say yes, because they’re doing it every day. But the real customer, the citizen, the person who lives in the community, the businessperson on the corner, they’re the person who actually has to be asked and be a part of the evaluation about whether or not the public safety strategy is being used.

And that is not always the case, but, in community policing, that must be a part of it, because, at the end of the day, it’s the customer who rates and has to be satisfied with what public safety looks like in their neighborhood. And that could be different demanding on the neighborhood, the city, as well as the state.

GWEN IFILL: Tracie Keesee, it is possible — take a step back from our noses to the glass, I suppose — is it possible to heal a fracture after the fact in this kind of case, in which there are so many preconceptions and there’s so much defensiveness and basic misunderstanding?

TRACIE KEESEE: Well, I think that’s going to take time.

And I think that it is possible to heal. And that’s how you build that trust. The problem is, is, once you spend the resources, not just with the community and the police department, to make and build that trust, the question is how quickly it can erupt and break again.

So, for me, building that resiliency on the ground to make sure, when things happen, that trust is not completely broken — but can it be healed? It can be healed, but it takes time. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Hampton, there are 18,000 police departments across this country.

RONALD HAMPTON: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a consistent way of being able to start this process, or is it something that is going to be ground-up and addressed in each individual place?

RONALD HAMPTON: Well, it’s going to be — some of it is going to be ground-up, because the police departments are going to have to reach out to the very people that they serve every day to talk to them about, how do we build that relationship? Who are the collaborative partners that should be involved in that process in order for — to make it work?

And there are some examples. I mean, I have been around for an awful long time, and in my day of policing, I have seen — I remember in Philadelphia when Willie Williams was there, and they used community policing and the mini-city hall approach, where they decentralized the police department.

But they also decentralized government, and they had government representatives in the little city halls. They did it in Newport News. They sort of came up with a community — a community governance process, where government again was decentralized, because not every public safety issue is, foundationally, public safety. There are a whole lot of other factors that come into play in terms of the kind of things that are going on in our society, whether it’s social justice, economic issues, housing.

All of those issues come into play. And if a police department is going to be serious about doing community policing, then they have to be serious about also what they can affect, what they can’t, and who their partners are going to be when it comes time to work on those issues, because problem solving is a part of community policing.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like biting off an awfully big chunk, but perhaps that’s where you start.

Tracie Keesee, Ronald Hampton, thank you very much.

TRACIE KEESEE: Thank you.

RONALD HAMPTON: Thank you.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct an error. The original description of the video stated that the Justice Department is launching a $5 billion initiative. It should be $5 million.

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