The District’s program to create and maintain strong relationships between the police department and the community has been credited by city leaders with avoiding the tense situation taking place in Ferguson, Mo.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) said that what is going on in Ferguson is “an enormous tragedy,” but he thinks the District has the right idea to avoid flare-ups between police officers and the residents they serve.
“In the District we place an emphasis on community policing, which is the police department’s relationship with the community,” Gray said. “It is important that law enforcement officers look like the people they are policing and that’s what we have in the city.”
Community policing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies supporting the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder and fear of crime.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier is recognized nationally as a community policing expert and has indicated that the community policing philosophy could have prevented the volatile state of affairs in Ferguson.
“Community policing means that police officers are part of the community and feel comfortable in the community,” Lanier said on the Aug. 20 edition of NewsChannel 8’s NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt. “People will feel that the police officers are not occupiers. In the District, we try to bring the right people on the police department and particularly those who are problem solvers.”
In an article titled “Policing Our Nation’s Capital Using 21st Century Principles” in the August edition of The Police Chief, Lanier outlines four principles for success from community policing that have worked in the District: reduce crime by improving community ties; developing sources while building relationships; maximize use of technology and ensure accountability at all levels of information sharing. She notes that because of the District’s community policing program, there have been significant increases in the homicide closure rate from 75 percent in 2008 to 95 percent in 2011.
“The national average for cities of comparable size to Washington, D.C., is about 56 percent,” she said in the article. “Regardless of numbers, one should not forget that police managers are judged by community satisfaction and quality-of-life issues.”
In 1991, the Mount Pleasant section of the District exploded when a District police officer shot a Latino man who had been drinking in public. Sharon Pratt, who was the District’s mayor at the time of the disturbance, said that the city invoked a strategy similar to community policing with the Latino community as a result of a report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“I don’t think we had been aggressive enough in embracing this new population that was developing in the city,” Pratt said on WAMU 88.5 on Aug. 20. “We did not have enough officers who could speak Spanish, not enough officers attuned to the cultural differences that may exist.”
Pratt said that the city established a Latino task force and worked to recruit Latinos to the police department’s ranks.
The District’s police department is currently 56 percent Black, 33 percent White, seven percent Latino and three percent Asian, which Gray and Lanier agreed “mirrors the city’s population.”
Dorothy Brizill, the executive director of DC Watch, a watchdog organization that focuses on the District government, said that she was involved in meeting the concerns of Latinos after the Mount Pleasant disturbances and thinks that community policing has made the difference in keeping the Washington metro area relatively free from racial disturbances.
“Because Washington, D.C. is the nation’s capital, area police departments are well trained, equipped and experienced in responding to large demonstration,” Brizill said in a Aug. 20 posting on her e-mail discussion newsletter. “Moreover, since the early 1990s, community policing has been the operating model for all police departments in the metropolitan area.”
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, has indicated that in the spirit of the unrest in Ferguson, he will soon announce the date and location of an oversight hearing reviewing the District’s police department’s methods for stopping and detaining people.
Anthony Wright, a community activist who operates in Ward 7, said that the hearing is needed but supports community policing.
“We don’t want what happened in Ferguson to happen here,” Wright said. “We understand that the police operate differently east of the [Anacostia] river as opposed to Connecticut or Wisconsin avenues. The police need to understand their communities.”