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Legitimate Community Policing: How Citizen Participation Creates a Successful and Collaborative Enterprise

By Norm Stamper

“Community policing” is a fiction, existing in name only. If substantive community policing were the norm across the country, if America’s police officers had internalized community policing’s original values, principles, and practices, the institution would not be embroiled in never-ending controversy. In fact, it’s reasonable to ask whether so many young men, as well as women and children—like Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (Staten Island), Akai Gurley (Brooklyn), Sandra Bland (Waller County, Texas), Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Walter Scott (North Charleston, South Carolina), John T. Williams (Seattle), Laquan McDonald (Chicago), and others—would still be alive today if the officers responsible for their deaths had been truly and effectively community oriented. For cops who internalize the principles and practices of community policing, lethal force is the last resort, used only to protect lives—including their own. Such cops want to make it home at the end of every shift, to be sure, but they also understand the power of de-escalation techniques, of calming rather than inflaming passions. In my experience, true community-oriented cops tend to operate at elevated levels of competence, maturity, and self-confidence. They’re more perceptive, less impulsive. Less dangerous to the people they’ve been hired to protect and serve.

The reality is this: In the United States, there are more guns than people, and many of these guns are in the wrong hands. It is within this society that cops are called upon. The situations are tense, and officers have to make split-second decisions, sometimes saving lives, sometimes taking lives. But a police organization committed to the sanctity and the preservation of human life, the safeguarding of civil liberties, and working in authentic partnership with its citizens will produce far fewer awful outcomes. Further, the organization will have established enough trust and goodwill that, in the aftermath of a contentious incident, its citizens will be more likely to await the results of a deliberate (preferably independent) investigation rather than take to the streets. Speaking of which, a true community-oriented agency is less likely to react to street protests with overly aggressive, militarized tactics, which is something to my everlasting regret I authorized during 1999’s “Battle in Seattle.”

What Is Community Policing?

As the principal architect of the country’s first community policing program (San Diego Police Department, Police Foundation grant, 1972–74), I believe the concept of community policing has been grossly misconstrued. Many chiefs and sheriffs point to walking beats, bicycle patrols, or compartmentalized “community police teams” as evidence of their commitment to community policing. They’ve defined the concept superficially, if not cosmetically—and, to make matters worse, they’ve done so unilaterally. And that is not community policing.

What is community policing? It is the citizens policing themselves—with systemic, organized help from all members (not just a specialized few) of their local police department, as well as other criminal justice and government agencies, neighborhood businesses, and community-based organizations.

This definition is predicated on the belief that the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. Indeed, in a democratic society, the citizens are the senior partners; and they participate fully in all police operations: recruitment, hiring, training, policymaking, program development, crisis management (co-managing with their uniformed partners both planned and spontaneous demonstrations), performance appraisal, and official oversight of police misconduct investigations. Citizens—unarmed—work alongside commissioned officers, yielding to their armed and armored partners only in exigent, dangerous situations, and in accordance with rules and guidelines that are mutually agreed upon.

Abolition of Policing Is Not the Answer

When police officers convey an attitude of “We’re the cops, and you’re not,” particularly when representing an agency known for bigoted, heavy-handed, trigger-happy patterns of behavior, they fuel citizen indignation and exasperation. And they destroy any chance of a mutually trusting relationship. Which is why a growing number of critics, including distinguished African American scholars and social activists (most notably Mychal Denzel Smith), advocate for the abolition of policing. The impulse to abolish policing is understandable given the depressing history of institutional and individual racism, oppression, neglect, and physical cruelty that dates back to slave patrols.

Abolition is not the answer. There is too much violent crime and there are too many emergencies. But, consider another radical alternative, an evolved version of community policing that holds great promise. The police don’t go away. Under my system, they don’t even fade into the background. Instead, they become a true people’s police—fully partnered with the people who pay their salaries.

Employing Our Representative Democracy to Effect Change

Are we a republic? A direct democracy? A representative democracy? All of the above? None of the above? The debate rages—between perhaps the one percent of Americans most aligned with ideologues from left and right and whose intellectual arguments are generally ignored by the masses. Yet how we choose to govern ourselves is an important question and, in the context of community policing, a critical one.

I believe the framers made clear (though I did not check with the late Justice Scalia for confirmation) that the United States is, indeed, a representative democracy. The people elect representatives—from town and city councils and special districts (water, fire, utilities, and the like) to state legislative bodies to the U.S. Congress and the presidency. Case-by-case exceptions to representative democracy can be noteworthy, a way for people to exercise their will under the rubric of direct or pure democracy. For example, the “people” have recalled governors and mayors; they have passed marijuana legalization statutes; they have reduced state taxes; they made gay marriage a reality before the Supreme Court’s historic 2015 decision.

But even in California, where the people in 2003 recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the representative approach to lawmaking is far more common than the direct approach. In fact, fewer than half the states (including Washington, D.C.) allow some form of direct democracy.

Why and how is this important to the furtherance of a bona fide people’s police? Because in both small and large jurisdictions, the people face formidable legal and political challenges in changing the way their local police department is organized and run. If they want to be part of a successful change movement, something I argue is both necessary and urgent, they have to figure out a way.

One such path follows.

Imagine interested citizens within a city’s or a county’s census tracts electing individuals from within those boundaries to represent them in all police matters. (The population of a typical census tract is about 4,000, though tracts can range from 1,000 to 8,000 people.) These individuals would work, in an official capacity, part-time and unsalaried, at least at first, but supported by tax-funded stipends to cover expenses. The individuals would function as members of official police boards and participate in all significant police operations.

Given that census tracts generally align well with recognized neighborhoods, it’s reasonable to expect a level of grassroots community representation in critical police activities that is both fair and meaningful.

By the way, at least a few police agencies were headed in this direction back in the 1990s. Then the terrorists struck, and the barriers went up, and community policing took a backseat to homeland security. And a certain military madness crept into the thinking, vocabulary, policies, and tactics, and the equipment, vehicles, and weaponry of law enforcement agencies from coast to coast and border to border. Of course, this military mentality has been present for decades in the form of law enforcement’s prosecution of the drug war; picture those ubiquitous pre-dawn, shock-and-awe drug raids that terrorize sleeping citizens, fracture families, and too often leave family pets and innocent people injured or dead. It’s a topic for another time, but putting an end to the drug war and replacing prohibition with a strong regulatory system would be the single most effective step our nation could take to reduce police militarization, enhance public safety, and improve community-police relations—particularly among young people, poor people, and people of color.

My own sense is that the San Diego Police Department and Seattle Police Department did not retreat as much as other law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of 9/11. But the bunker mentality was evident throughout the land, and doors slammed shut. Although it’s crucial to maintain smart, effective security measures, it’s also vital that police departments reopen those doors and keep in mind that in the best of times and the worst of times, the police belong to the people.

Preparing Citizens for Community Policing

And if the people want to patrol their own neighborhoods? The police have no right to deny them. Indeed, as I see it, the police have an obligation to help.

I’m a fan of the admittedly controversial practice of citizens patrolling their own streets. I’m not talking about armed George Zimmerman–like zealots, but rather everyday citizens dedicated to making their communities—from the streets to the schools and workplaces, to churches, temples, and mosques, to daycare facilities, parks and recreation centers, private dwellings, and public housing—“safe and fair everywhere,” in the language of the New York Police Department’s new “community policing” rebranding.

I recall a group of San Diegans in 1992 organizing and mobilizing themselves to challenge those who were committing vicious gay-bashing robberies, a series that peaked with the beating-stabbing death of a 17-year-old kid. Long story short, citizen patrollers (whom my department had trained and equipped with cell phones) spotted the suspects and called it in. From a safe distance, they kept an eye on a small gang of murderous skinheads. Moments later, their cop partners swooped in and made the bust. A neat division of labor.

I can’t help but think that if Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney and his parishioners had been more attuned to the potential danger posed by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof at the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015; had individuals within the prayer group that horrible night taken reasonable precautions as they observed Roof’s escalating agitation; had individuals, in addition to Tywanza Sanders (who dove in front of his 87-year-old aunt and took the first bullet), acted en masse; had they swarmed Roof as he reloaded—five times (with hollow points, designed to cause maximum damage)—that some, perhaps all, of the nine massacred would have been spared.

I realize how ridiculous, if not unfeeling, all this might seem: innocent citizens,—six women, three men, inclusive Christians (accustomed to welcoming strangers), in a house of worship, engaged in prayer and Bible study—pitted against a twisted racist with a .45 caliber semiautomatic, a fanny pack full of extra clips, and a fervent desire to start a race war. How could they have known? How could they have been prepared?

Well, given what this country has witnessed throughout its history, particularly in attacks on black churches (the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing deaths of four girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the torching of black churches throughout the mid- to late 1990s, the racially motivated burning of a black church in Massachusetts the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the country’s first black president), Americans of all colors must be ready to stand against violence, and to protect themselves, their families, and other members of the community.

This is what the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) national church has done in the aftermath of the Charleston slaughter. All member churches throughout the country have been given copies of the newly crafted “12 Considerations for Congregational Security,” a sensible how-to plan for both personal safety and for buildings and grounds security.

The “security zealots” of the world (think Mr. Zimmerman) can be a problem, to be sure. In San Diego, the Hillcrest citizens understood this and worked with the police to create rules and guidelines for participation in the citizens’ patrol. Further, they asked for and voluntarily agreed to submit to a rudimentary National Crime Information Center (NCIC) background check. Communities can do many things to ensure the success of grassroots policing, enhancing public safety and protecting human rights. The police have a key role in helping to provide structure and training for this effort. But so, too, do the community’s other partners: community-based organizations, academics, subject-matter experts, other branches of local government, and neighborhood activists.

Of course, it all starts with the right attitude.

On August 22, 2015, Spencer Stone was in a deep sleep on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris when his friend Alek Skarlatos hit him on the shoulder and said, “Go!” Joined by a third friend, Anthony Sadler, the three Americans sprinted up the aisle and jumped a man who had come out of a bathroom with an AK-47 and opened fire. A radical Islamist, the shooter was also packing a Luger pistol, a box cutter, and eight magazines of ammunition—enough firepower to kill dozens of passengers. Stone tackled the man, sustaining significant wounds to the back of his neck and the near-loss of his left thumb. Joined by a British businessman, the three Americans, pals since middle school in California, were able to subdue the suspect and hold him until authorities arrived.

Stone, who later said he barely felt his own injuries, turned his attention to a wounded fellow passenger who had taken a bullet to the throat. He stuffed two fingers into the wound and stanched the bleeding until paramedics arrived. Two days later, French president François Hollande awarded the men the Legion of Honor, France’s highest form of recognition.

Community policing, on a speeding train.

I know, I’ve heard it: but two of these guys were military—young, fit, trained. How would regular citizens have fared if they’d attempted to disarm the terrorist? Given what the man was packing, the carnage he could easily have exacted, maybe the better question is what would have happened if all the passengers had remained in their seats?

I know it’s tough to wrap our minds around the horror of mass murder and rampage violence. But what does it say about us, as a people, that we cede to law enforcement the sole authority to exercise 100 percent responsibility for the safety of our bodies, our well-being, or our rights for that matter? What’s wrong with citizens taking prudent but direct action in the face of threats to their own lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Or to their loved ones, their neighbors, their co-workers?

Not a damn thing. And done well, eschewing the pitchforks-and-torches mentality, everyone’s safety is enhanced.

Not all forms of communal initiative are heroic or life-saving: citizens can band together to help a mentally ill homeless person get shelter and medical attention, escort a potential assault victim from an office or classroom to a car, help an aggrieved citizen file a complaint against alleged police abuse, patrol a park to let a would-be child sexual predator know he’s not welcome there, lend moral and other support to a victim of domestic violence, and so on.

It’s Time to Collaborate

A true community-oriented police department could make policing a genuinely collaborative enterprise. To become truly community oriented, a police department will most likely have to undergo the long, arduous job of organizational reengineering to make its structure, workplace culture, policies, and procedures conducive to building a partnership with its citizens. The department will need to make room for civic-minded volunteers who are pro-police and critical social activists alike. It will also need to find ways—legislative, administrative, and political—to ensure organizational accountability and transparency and union contracts that reflect the department’s commitment to true community policing.

If a local law enforcement agency is resistant to collaboration, an aroused and organized citizenry can break through that resistance. The timing is right. Controversial police actions over the past two years, most involving excessive or questionable force, have focused the nation’s attention on the institution’s deep flaws: excessive physical force, unjustified shootings, militarism, corruption, racism, sexism, homophobia, and violations of civil liberties and human rights.

Good cops deserve better, and so do the citizens they’ve been hired to serve.

Norm Stamper


Norm Stamper was a police officer for 34 years, the first 28 in San Diego, the last six (1994–2000) as Seattle’s police chief. He has a Ph.D. in leadership and human behavior, and is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing (2005) and a new book To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police (both by Nation Books).