Columns » Jay Barth

'Proactive' policing

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RIOT GEAR: Police in Washington, D.C. image
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  • RIOT GEAR: Police in Washington, D.C.

On Monday, after six months of study, President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its 100-plus page final report. The task force — consisting of representatives from law enforcement, civil rights organizations and academia — was formed in the aftermath of the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., (but before last month's riot in Baltimore) and charged with "offering recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust."

Obama followed the report release with an announcement that he was employing an executive order to ban the transfer of a variety of military implements to local police departments because such armaments too often "alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message." In Little Rock, however, just that sort of "wrong message" was being sent by the headlines in the local newspaper on Monday highlighting the city's move toward purchasing riot gear for 500 additional LRPD officers, meaning that such gear would be available for nearly every member of the force.

The balanced federal task force report is grounded in six "pillars" of policing in the contemporary era. At the heart of the report is the notion that police officers must see themselves — and be seen — as "guardians" of their communities, rather than warriors with their communities. To achieve that goal, police departments should engage in community-oriented policing that builds real relationships between police and those whom they serve, particularly the young people of their communities. Along with recommendations that community members be involved as key policing policies are established and that communication is fundamental to ongoing successful policing (especially during crises, when social media can be particularly beneficial), the report states that better training of police must occur so that officers know how to build relationships across the diversity of their communities and are more prepared to make the right decisions under pressure. The phrase that repeats itself across the pages of the report is "public trust."

Little Rock is one of many cities where a public trust crisis shows itself in the relationship between citizens and police. It is especially pronounced among the city's African-American and Latino citizenry. Two years ago, the annual UALR survey of racial attitudes in Central Arkansas focused on views of the criminal justice system. More than eight in 10 white Little Rock residents (83 percent) expressed a "good deal" or "quite a lot" of trust for the local police. Among African-Americans (at 47 percent) and Latinos (53 percent), sharply smaller percentages of persons of color in the city expressed those levels of support. While a trust gap between those on either side of I-630 shows itself in various ways, it is the gap in perceptions of the LRPD that are the starkest.

Rather than responding with a full-scale focus on building bridges between the LRPD and the city's residents, the LRPD moved forward last week with the proposal to purchase riot gear for all its officers (it must be green-lighted by the city's Board of Directors). In defending the expenditure, Police Chief Kenton Buckner said, "We can't protect life and property until we are able to protect ourselves. This is a proactive measure."

What would be truly "proactive" is an embrace of the community-oriented policing strategies specified in the task force report that provide hope for undoing the mistrust that many people of color have for their police and for avoiding unrest in the city. To be clear, the safety of law officers is essential. Indeed, one of the pillars of the report focuses on what can be done to enhance the safety of being on the streets; as such, everyone in a police force should be equipped with anti-ballistic vests. But, that is not what is at work in the LRPD purchase of riot gear that includes shields, gas masks and helmets. As quoted in the report, which embraces "soft look" uniforms as an alternative to the militaristic gear proposed for Little Rock: "When officers line up in a military formation while wearing full protective gear, their visual appearance may have a dramatic influence on how the crowd perceives them and how the event ends."

Little Rock has shown promise to live up to its potential as a city. However, until the hard work is done to build public trust between the LRPD police and the community, any progress is continually at risk of being undone by a single mistake that turns into urban unrest.

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