Community policing: 'Here with you, here for you'

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | May 27, 2016

Local crime is at its lowest rate in 40 years. Some of this decline mirrors a national decline; some is a product of Walmart’s defection to Thomaston. A large part is because the police department proactively cultivates a community policing mindset.

Over the last few decades, police departments nationwide have transitioned to community policing models, responding to concerns that aggressive police tactics alienate the community. While community policing models differ significantly nationwide, the general philosophy behind community policing is to proactively address community concerns rather than constantly reacting to problems. The U.S. Department of Justice describes community policing as going beyond “traditional law enforcement” to include “prevention, problem-solving, community engagement, and partnerships” so that police are “balanc[ing] reactive responses to calls for service with proactive problem-solving” that prevents criminal behavior and strengthen the community.

When presenting the department’s work, Bruce Boucher, the chief of police, routinely discusses it as proactive community policing. The department’s core mission, he explained when I spoke with him last week, is that when the community encounters a situation where resources are lacking, officers step in. “They’re a part of the community,” he continued, “here with you and here for you.”

And, looking at the service numbers represented in the budget, this becomes quite clear. Department calls are broken into three tiers: emergency service or arrests, follow-up to crimes, and crime prevention/community engagement. Nearly 60 percent of the department’s work occurs in that final category. These calls involve anything from leading classes for business owners about how to prevent robberies to going to schools and interacting with students or leading workshops with them on how to address bullying or online harassment or how to avoid drugs.

This proactive, problem-solving approach reduces calls in the first two tiers because it specifically addresses issues immediately affecting the community — everything from an increase of burglaries in town to addiction issues — and because the police proactively develop relationships with community members, establishing trust and working relationships.

This community-centered philosophy is at the core of a few specific programs the department currently has adopted or is looking to expand. Locally, one of our biggest challenges is addiction in the community, and the police department has been actively involved with local working groups to target this issue as well as in applying for grants to support this work.

For example, last October, Chief Boucher, representatives of addiction recovery groups in the area, and other stakeholders formed a working group to identify strategies to address addiction problems. The department is currently applying for a CDBG grant that will enable to department to implement a program similar to Operation Hope in Scarborough, which situates the police department as a key community resource for addiction. In this way, police become a “conduit” to services that are available to help those who are ready to recover from addiction; the goal is to reduce the need to enforce drug laws by connecting people with local recovery options.

Another strategy that the chief would like to implement is increased engagement between police officers and local schools. Previous programs, such as DARE, have been victims of budget cuts, and Chief Boucher describes current efforts to work with students as “informal.” Each day-shift officer adopts a local school and regularly visits the school; they talk to students, read books, dress up to join students in a Halloween parade, go sledding or play basketball, and so forth. These informal interactions with students help them see the police not as authoritative figures in the community, but as an additional adult looking out for them. But it’s a brief moment of interaction, which doesn’t leave time for students or staff to discuss problems they might face with officers.

Nationwide, many schools have School Resource Officers, a program that Chief Boucher hopes to implement in Rockland’s schools. This would formalize and expand the current adopt-a-school program and allow an officer to be available to staff and students for both educational programming and informal counseling. This officer would undergo rigorous training and certification, through the NASRO program, which emphasizes a “triad” of responsibilities: education, informal counseling, and law enforcement. One benefit to such a program is that an SRO can help students practice how to proactively address issues they face, such as bullying and online harassment. Nationwide, some SROs are active with Restorative Justice programs, such as the ones the current superintendent is integrating into the school culture.

Nationally, we’ve seen some disturbing videos of out-of-control SROs who prioritize obedience and punishment over engagement. But when done carefully, with a clear Memorandum of Understanding and strong training and community policing underpinnings, SROs can enhance a school culture that proactively addresses student and staff concerns. This would reflect the current practices and philosophies of the police department.

These programs reflect the police department’s goal to be a community partner and help solve problems rather than merely treating the symptoms. We can see the effect of this through the numbers — crime rates dropping and crime sprees being cut short — but we can also see it through the kinds of stories we hear about the police: We read about how officers personally fund a scholarship for local students, that they train other officers statewide, that they save lives, and so forth.

Recently, the department requested an external review from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, which chose three police chiefs and a police supervisor who had no previous knowledge of the Rockland Police Department. They conducted a thorough review of the department and concluded with a survey of their impressions: “Overall, the committee members were impressed with the professionalism and reputation of the Rockland Police Department and the amount of community support they garner.” This is a testament to the proactive, community-focused approach the department emphasizes.

 

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