Elliot Heilman, Program Officer,  Public Policy for Illinois Humanities

In an Envisioning Justice community discussion held in North Lawndale on June 9th, we focused on the difficulty of improving community and police relationships. While, some people had suggestions about how to improve things, but many people felt cynical about any efforts, stating that the distrust was too deep-seated. The Chicago Police Department is in the process of revamping their community policing efforts and reviving the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program that originally launched in the early 1990s. But the question remains, are there any strategies that might help improve community/police relations?

One common refrain that we have heard in discussions in North Lawndale and across the city is that police do not seem to know the people and culture of the communities that they police. This lack of familiarity with the people and social fabric of neighborhoods can have dire consequences in communities of color that are heavily policed. For instance, When an officer receives a call for disorderly behavior and shows up to a scene, they need to quickly assess any potential threats and figure out why a disturbance is happening. If they can not adequately assess the situation, too often police rely on force to make sure that, at the very least, they are safe.


This situation is made all the harder when they have few ongoing relationships with people in the neighborhood and/or folks do not feel inclined to give the police any of the information that might help better assess a disturbance or solve a crime. It is all too common and all too understandable, for instance, to see police canvassing people gathered around the site of a shooting with a half-hearted “Did anyone see anything?” because they already know that they are unlikely to get any answers.

Police departments across the nation understand this dynamic and are trying to find ways to address the distrust between communities and the police that patrol them. For example, a recent The New Republic article details the newly created ROCK program, which promotes officers who live and work in high-crime areas. Such an approach is based on the understanding that a patrol officer does a lot of things outside of arresting people for crimes as part of the everyday job. Police nowadays are required to handle a wide-variety of circumstances, begging the question: should we be relying on police as first responders for such a wide array of situations?

As the article notes, “Nationally, only an estimated 25 percent of 911 calls have anything to do with crime, and just 5 percent of arrests are for violent offenses. In Rockford, a third of the calls were the result of a domestic dispute, and engaging people properly could be the difference in whether a situation ended violently. The police are the boots-on-the-ground government workers who first encounter the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, the homeless, and the unemployed. As cities try to reduce the steep social and economic costs of mass incarceration, police departments are increasingly prioritizing communication skills, patience, and a better understanding of the support services that offer an alternative to lockup.”

Similar to ROCK, Wyatt Cenac’s show Problem Areas covered an effort in Elgin called ROPE, which also incentivizes police to live and work in high-crime areas. Important as these efforts are, it should be noted that each of these are pilot programs with small budgets. Perhaps more troubling, though, is the resistance that such programs potentially face from within police departments. As The New Republic article states:

Many officers in Rockford seemed to distinguish between what Thurmond and Turner did and what “real police” work entailed. “It’s a cushy job; he kisses babies for us,” a veteran cop ribbed Thurmond in front of me. I heard a training officer bark at him as greeting, “You watch Sally Jessy Raphael yet today?” I never saw Thurmond lose his cheerful buoyancy. “Not yet,” he said.

Just as ROCK and ROPE are trying to counteract decades of distrust between the police and communities, these programs must also push forward a new vision of what policing is. These disagreements within police departments can have stark effects – for example, when the ROCK program was announced in Rockford, only two officers (both African American) signed up.

Although ROCK and ROPE are not a panacea, they are important because they represent an effort to acknowledge issues in how we police and attempts to envision meaningful solutions. As we’ve seen throughout Envisioning Justice, great ideas about how to reform criminal justice abound. Too often, however, the issue remains putting sufficient resources behind these efforts to truly make these efforts to re-envision aspects of the criminal justice system a priority.

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