Mistrust between the police and the communities they serve has exacerbated crime, according to two West Virginia University sociologists who hope to reimagine and reshape policing techniques in American communities.
James Nolan and Henry Brownstein, of the WVU Department of Sociology and Anthropology, in partnership with Morgan State University, have collectively received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to break down those walls and build a healthier rapport among police and citizens.
The research team will study the implications of a situational policing approach in real-life neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, home to MSU.
People need to feel safe in their neighborhoods, and the key may be Nolan’s concept of situational policing, which shifts the primary focus of policing from law enforcement activities, such as making arrests and seizing large quantities of guns and drugs, to helping residents create the conditions in their communities where crime and violence are less likely to thrive.
While Nolan, sociology professor and department chair, had considered situational policing in the past, he said he recently began challenging the efficacy of the law enforcement approach itself. Rather than an adversarial, outside force, police might come into, or emerge from, a community as partners, seeking to solve problems and make places safer together. This is different from previous versions of community policing that emphasized friendly police-community relations while the “real police” continued its law enforcement mission. Situational policing shifts the primary police mission from law enforcement to building safe and strong communities.
“What keeps communities safe are these levels of connection,” he said. “The cohesion and trust within the community where people are supporting each other.” Situational policing considers how to forge such connections and, collaboratively, build the needed resources.
Nolan served as a police officer for 13 years, working in an undercover unit on wiretap investigations, surveillance and conspiracy cases. Rather than making the streets and neighborhoods safer, he found the increased law enforcement served only to further divide police from residents. When community members complained about the number of shootings in the neighborhood, police responded by increasing the frequency of arrests, weapons seizures and drug busts. Nolan believes this was misguided and counterproductive.
“The idea that drives the law enforcement approach to policing is that if you could get the small percentage of people that are bad, that are criminals, that it is going to make places safe,” he said. “That's just a completely wrong way of thinking about things. No matter how many people you take off the street, if conditions in the neighborhood create distrust, and there are no resources to help those struggling, no jobs and lots of poverty, the problems are going to continue.”
Nolan and Brownstein, distinguished research professor, said despite the recent killings of Black Americans like Tamir Rice, Philando Castille and George Floyd by police in the last decade, the problem isn’t a new one.
“People in underserved communities, people on the fringes and borders of society, are not being treated the same as other people,” said Brownstein, who studied such attitudes toward police discretion in the 1970s.
Success in police work has traditionally been quantitative, and advancement goals focus on arrests, drug busts and the seizure of weapons.
During a period of zero tolerance in the late 20th century, police “went after everybody,” Brownstein said of traditional policing methods. “Every little thing, every public nuisance, somebody getting drunk on the street. They arrested them all.”
The MSU component of the project is led by Natasha Pratt-Harris, a former student of Brownstein’s, who will conduct the hands-on research and provide essential connections in the area. She is accompanied by fellow faculty members Kevin Daniels and Paul Archibald. Faculty at WVU and MSU will be equal partners in designing and conducting the research.
“We don't know Baltimore,” Brownstein said. “Our colleagues at Morgan State know everybody who has any authority, interest or knowledge of the police in Baltimore. They're connected. We're not, but we have the data analytic capabilities, the theory. It's a great partnership.”
Besides analyzing data, “We’ll ask questions of the police and of the local people,” Brownstein said. For example, “What would it take for you to talk to each other? What would it take for you to trust each other? What would it take for you to respect each other?’ And let them tell each other those things while we're sitting there. The people we would be talking to will be part of our research team. They help us figure out the answers to the questions we have and what questions we have yet to ask.”
This type of data collection is known as participatory action research, a method in which community members work as partners with the research team to help gather and process data and use it to create the desired change.
Researchers will use the collected data to assess each neighborhood based on criteria like the amount of crime, types of crime, number of arrests, levels of trust in local government and the police, levels of cohesion among neighbors and the willingness of residents to get involved to help others and keep the community safe.
“That way, residents and police can change the local neighborhood conditions which often give rise to crime and violence,” Nolan said. “And once the conditions are changed in a way that fosters larger and stronger alliances with added resources, participants are better able to affectively reduce crime and keep it that way.”