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How Community Policing Endangers Black and Muslim Communities

The protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have catapulted police brutality and criminal justice reform into the mainstream. The routine killing of Black people at the hands of police officers can no longer be plausibly attributed to a few bad cops. The issue is now understood to be systemic and requiring structural reforms. But as demands for defunding and abolishing the police have become the rallying cry for activists, liberal politicians are instead offering community-oriented policing initiatives as a solution. 

In an op-ed for USA Today, the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called for “an additional $300 million to reinvigorate community policing” in the United States. Like many liberal politicians, Biden believes in “the power of community policing — getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect.”

Community policing has become the default response to charges of racism and excessive use of force being leveled against police departments across the country. The Obama administration was at the forefront of promoting community policing initiatives. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, for example, suggested that community policing must be “a guiding philosophy for all stakeholders” and law enforcement agencies must work with “community residents to identify problems and collaborate on implementing solutions that produce meaningful results for the community.” In 2016, the Obama White House convened a meeting featuring 300 local law enforcement agencies to start a “conversation” on community policing. 

In fact, community policing is such an appealing approach that the Obama administration even advocated for its implementation in Countering Violent Extremism programs. The National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States notes that “community-oriented policing provides a basis for addressing violent extremism as part of a broader mandate of community safety.” 

This focus has baffled some experts. For Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD Officer, community policing is “ill defined and amorphous” and “advances the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine.” Indeed, much of the appeal of community policing has been deliberately cultivated by law enforcement agencies through feel-good initiatives such as “Coffee with a Cop” and “Adopt a Cop.” While the term may allude to heartwarming images of police officers and community members coming together to solve problems, its reality can be far from benign and result in significant harms to Black and Muslim communities. 

The first requirement for any kind of policing is cops and community policing is no different. For most of its existence, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office has “prioritized the placement of more cops on America’s streets.” In concrete terms, this means hiring more than 127,000 new police officers and $1 billion in hiring grants. Under May Bill De Blasio, the New York Police Department (NYPD) hired 1,300 police officers to “get closer to the community.” 

Many communities, however, would rather keep their distance and for good reason: increased encounters with law enforcement officers coupled with a lack of accountability makes police brutality more likely. A cop who is aware that he will face no consequences for his actions is not a welcome sight for many communities, particularly minority ones. Community policing requires an increased presence of law enforcement officers without giving communities at the receiving end of police violence any reason to feel safer. In fact, there is every reason to believe that this can only breed further mistrust and make violent encounters more likely.

This erroneous focus on community policing distracts attention from the lack of police accountability and can even grant a fig leaf of unwarranted legitimacy to law enforcement agencies involved in aggressive and questionable policing practices. This is obvious from the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s (HSAC) Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Working Group’s discussion of community policing.

According to internal meeting notes obtained through a public records request, the NYPD boasted about the relationships its Community Outreach Division had formed with local communities. It had sponsored a soccer league for Muslim groups and cricket for South Asian groups. It gave away free “stuff” such as “soccer balls, shirts, etc.” to community members. These boasts came at the same time that the NYPD’s Demographics Unit was engaged in what the ACLU called “religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance” of Muslim communities in New York and beyond. 

While one unit of the NYPD was developing relationships and building trust with local Muslim communities, another was secretly engaged in extensive surveillance of these same communities, designating entire mosques as terrorist organizations, and lurking in restaurants, cafes, and barbershops to collect files on innocent citizens. This pattern has been repeated as various law enforcement agencies attempt to develop relationships with Black communities under the aegis of community policing while secretly monitoring Black Lives Matter activists and treating nonviolent protesters as terrorists. 

In these cases, community policing involves the use of relationships that have been developed to shield the police department from scrutiny and accountability. This is a point repeatedly made by local groups focused on police violence. Chicago-based group We Charge Genocide (WCG) found that the city’s community policing program superficially involved “select community members in providing police with legitimacy.” Community policing, it continued, “acts as a shield for police” and as “a group of empowered community members [who] work with police to deflect criticism and build local support for policing.” 

The Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) representative said as much to HSAC’s CVE Working Group, confiding that “outreach efforts build ‘credits in the bank’ with the Muslim American community for the force to use later when it needs it.” 

There is also a disturbing frequency with which initiatives masquerading as outreach efforts have turned out to be intelligence gathering operations. St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) in Minnesota, for example, received a $670,000 grant from the Department of Justice in 2009 to promote the department’s involvement with local Somali and Muslim communities. But the grant proposal obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice notes that SPPD’s outreach efforts were intended to “identify radicalized individuals … who refuse to cooperate with our efforts” and increase “law enforcement’s ability to maintain up-to-date intelligence on these offenders.”

Since then, intelligence gathering operations have evolved to become an explicit component of community policing initiatives. In their current iteration, these operations “empower” select community members to become the eyes and the ears of police, becoming an extension of law enforcement, and engaged in constant surveillance to identify supposedly wayward community members and refer them to the police. 

In Chicago, according to WCG, “police effectively deputize a small group of residents to engage in surveillance.” These residents are disproportionately white homeowners whose complaints “reflect their implicit biases” about who and what is suspicious. 

These strategies were also incorporated into the Obama administration’s CVE programs. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the local police department views the “community-led” CVE program as a way to gather intelligence which it can then share with state and federal agencies. According to Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Darryl McSwain, community members it has developed relationships with are “conduits of information” while schools and cultural centers are “access points” where law enforcement officers can connect with locals. Much of the same pattern has unfolded under the Trump administration’s CVE programs.

HSAC’s CVE Working Group had a similar outlook on community policing. “Specific points of contact” should be established in communities with “imams or organization leaders,” read the meeting notes, who can let law enforcement leaders know “the pulse of what is happening on the ground.” This expansion of surveillance through community members has the predicted effects of quashing dissent and political expression, cultivating fear and paranoia in targeted communities, and lead to baseless racial and religious profiling.  

As protesters are rallying for defunding the police, community policing is being proposed as a solution to police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement. But far from being a panacea to pervasive police violence, community policing is yet another approach which seeks to contain and undermine challenges to the status quo. Worse than a distraction, it is a method of neutralizing the radical tendencies of the current revolt and redirecting its energies into rehabilitating the current system.

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