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Better Policing


James Nolan


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In 2014 the killing of two unarmed African-American men by the police became international headline news. Both Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City were killed by police officers attempting to arrest them for relatively minor criminal offenses.

The incidents themselves – along with the justice system’s determination of no wrongdoing on the part of police – ignited widespread protests in many U.S. cities and led to the murder of two on-duty New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, in revenge for the deaths of Brown and Garner. These kind of incidents have continued, including the recent North Charleston, S.C., shooting of Walter Scott. 

Media coverage of these incidents has highlighted just how differently many Americans view the police, a difference that seems to follow racial and political lines. 

Around the time of the riots in Ferguson, I had just returned to West Virginia University from a yearlong research sabbatical at the Wilmington, Del., police department where I once worked as a police officer. Dubbed “Murder Town USA” in a December 2014  Newsweek piece, Wilmington has a higher crime rate and is a bit larger than Ferguson, but the racial dynamics and tensions between the police and community in both cities seem similar. 

The explanations being debated about who to blame for violent crime and for the failures of the police also seem similar. The police blame a few “bad officers” for the problems inside the department and they blame “bad people” for the problems in city neighborhoods. But blaming “bad cops” or “bad people” severely limits our ability to see the social and organizational conditions that give rise to this behavior in the first place. 

There is a growing body of research in sociology and criminology that helps us get beyond the “bad person” focus. Specifically, researchers have found that in neighborhoods where residents watch out for each other and are willing to intervene for the common good, crime generally cannot flourish. Additionally, in communities where the police are viewed by residents as just and legitimate authorities, residents are willing to work with them to prevent crime. Finally, the research shows that unilateral heavy-handed police action – whether in patrol cars or on foot – to curb violence by enforcing minor “quality of life” crimes can be effective in the short term but its benefits are offset by the fear and distrust it creates. 

Today, many police departments in the United States still use this approach   to crime, taking control over neighborhoods in a manner that some compare to an external occupying force. But this strategy – albeit well-intentioned – can destroy police-community relations and prevent residents from getting involved in the kind of common action that can restore order in their neighborhoods over the long term. 

My own experience in policing has shown me that when police officers are embedded in neighborhoods for long periods of time, working closely with residents to solve problems, the issues that typically divide them, such as race and ethnicity, simply disappear. The bonds created in these types of situations are long-lasting and effective but take time and effort to develop. But time is what political leaders often don’t have. They need quick results and often trade long-term community-building strategies for aggressive police action that is expedient. When a community policing initiative was discontinued in Wilmington this year and replaced by mobile enforcement teams that focused on minor crimes, a community leader told me in frustration, “Everybody wants the ‘microwave minute’ solution to crime. Those things just don’t last.” 

This is why a sustained public dialogue following the Ferguson, New York City and North Charleston incidents is so important. It may force us to temporarily suspend judgment, listen to each other and consider situational factors often ignored when quickly assigning blame to individuals. 

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Jim Nolan is associate professor of criminology at WVU where he researches police procedures, crime measurement, hate crimes and homicide. He was a police officer in Wilmington, Del., where he directed a community-policing program. After graduating from the FBI National Academy he directed a unit at the FBI that oversaw the National Hate Crime Data Collection program. He holds his PhD in pscyhoeducational processes from Temple University.