New Police Approach Could Help City

Problem solving policing used in Cincinnati could improve police-community relations.

By - Aug 22nd, 2016 11:50 am
Police Line Do Not Cross. Photo by Devante' Coleman.

Police Line Do Not Cross. Photo by Devante’ Coleman.

I began this Op Ed with the thought that I would discuss the Sherman Park disturbances from an African American perspective. That is because blacks and whites often have clashing perspectives on many issues that are puzzling to both races. One of these clashing perspectives, of course, is with respect to differing perceptions as to the causes of and even the nature of violence. After all, is the fact that Milwaukee is the worst city in the nation in which to live for African Americans (as has been pointed out repeatedly by social scientists based on economic and social indicators) not a form of violence?

But I wondered about the value of this sort of discussion at this time. It occurred to me that a much better discussion would be to offer a detailed ameliorative remedy for a substantive problem that afflicts us all, one way or another. The problem is police misconduct. And this misconduct is notwithstanding the fact that many Milwaukee police officers serve with valor and distinction. But did you know that the city had to pay out at least $32 million last year alone for police misconduct? That amount of money affects us all because it limits what the city can do for us all.

On the other hand, let’s step into the shoes of a typical police officer for a bit. Some of you may be old enough to recall the movie, The New Centurions, staring George C. Scott and Stacy Keach. That movie was very effective in demonstrating the burn-out and alienation that afflicts police who must work, day in and day out, with dangerous criminals, with people who are seriously mentally ill, and with those who commit heinous crimes. Imagine the catastrophic circumstances that police officers, having witnessed them, must live with thereafter. That can lead police officers ultimately to be more vulnerable than most of the rest of us, leading to alcoholism, depression, suicide, divorce, and interpersonal violence, among other maladies.

So what is the tool that can attack burnout and alienation among police officers and police misconduct while at the same time moving Milwaukee forward? Succinctly put, it requires the police to adopt a “guardian” disposition rather than a “warrior” disposition. It requires them to utilize what is referred to as collaborative police-community problem-solving.

One example of collaborative problem-solving policing, used in Cincinnati and reported in the May, 2015 issue of The Atlantic, involved a neighborhood where copper piping was increasingly being stolen. The police didn’t focus on arresting the perpetrators as much as they focused on working with residents of the community to solve the problem. What they came up with was for homeowners to paint their piping green accompanied by posting signs stating that the pipes had been painted green. The police also informed scrap yards about the piping being painted which led to a reduction in copper theft. Hence, a victory for the police and for the community, working together.

Another involved a commercial establishment where it was common for disputes outside the establishment to end in homicides. The police intervened, not by arresting supposedly suspect people standing outside the establishment but, instead, by decreasing the number of people at the establishment. They did this by moving a bus stop further away and by moving a phone booth further away. All told, this city’s problem-solving policing was associated with a reduction in 2008 from 6,367 felony arrests to 3,735 such arrests in 2014.  Misdemeanor arrests also dropped dramatically. Fewer arrests means fewer people in jail, fewer crimes, and greatly improved police-community relations.

But, what of the police? After much initial resistance, the police in Cincinnati finally started to buy into the collaborative problem-solving approach. But this required the mayor and others to be absolutely steadfast in their support of the approach during the “push-back” period. The outcome? Police now report that problem-solving policing makes their jobs more pleasant. There’s something in this approach for everyone.

R.L. McNeely is chair of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board.

2 thoughts on “Op-Ed: New Police Approach Could Help City”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    So former MPD officers are now working for the state DOJ and investigating the Sylville Smith shooting. Is it par for the course for independent agencies like this to be staffed with former police officers? What are best practices for these independent agencies when it comes to staffing?

  2. Paula Penebaker says:

    Thanks, R.L. for the thoughtful piece!

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