Monday, September 9, 2013

They just won't get involved - part 2

In Philadelphia they show free movie nights to activate neighborhood handball courts - photo Handball Court team report,  2010 SafeGrowth Training 
Judging by recent e-traffic, my last blog struck a chord! Especially the contention that community engagement in policing has been a dreary failure. I conclude that, except in problem-oriented policing or when mentored by non-profits (see below), it seems a lost cause.

Truth is, aside from trite historical footnotes (“the police are the public, the public are the police”) most police-community engagement today is little more than political optics. Of course, as in all polemics, that isn’t true everywhere.

I was impressed to discover the Dallas Police Community Engagement Unit. Then I read it is three policing teams who do evidence-based analysis, work with apartment owners to deal with crooks, and attend community meetings where they "gather information first-hand that can be relayed to other teams in the department."


There’s nothing wrong with asking the community for information on criminals. That’s good police work. But let’s not pretend it is community engagement.

Ultimately I don’t think any of this explains our engagement flop, at least not the version where residents take an active role planning and working towards their own public safety. Perhaps police are not the best agency to do that anyway.

Governments hardly do any better. National Crime Prevention Councils rely on national "night outs", neighborhood watch schemes, or education about existing crime prevention programs. In other words walk around at night, watch out for crooks and call the cops.

I know I’m simplifying and yet a critical thinker must ask, Who is really "engaged" when that engagement amounts to little more than walking around, calling the cops, or going to meetings?

CPTED history offers some hope. Consider Oscar Newman’s dictum in Creating Defensible Space; Always include grass roots participation in prevention planning!

We use a similar approach in SafeGrowth though our message is conveyed in a different way. For example, one lighthouse shining brightly on community-policing partnerships is the LISC - CSI  SafeGrowth programs.

Residents and police conducting night time safety audits in Milwaukee - photo Sam Carlsen

When the message is engagement we need a messenger who is appropriately staffed, resourced and most of all, trained in engagement tactics. The last time I checked the Engagement Toolkit I counted over 60 tactics. That messenger must master them all.

Who is that messenger? Probably a non-profit like LISC or AARP, a philanthropic organization, a municipal planning department (as in Saskatoon), and an active community association. It will require municipal executives, particularly police chiefs and city managers, who know how to advocate for and implement such a model. They must be properly trained how to do that.

Every time I’ve seen successful engagement in places like San Diego, Milwaukee, Saskatoon, and Philadelphia I get the feeling that is the shape of the future. At least I hope it is.

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