Community Oriented Policing Under Fire

by Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

In the days leading up to the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, word began to spread across the executive branch that significant cuts were coming to many domestic programs. However, reducing funding and resources for law enforcement could present challenges for established and future community-oriented policing efforts.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso headshotThe Hill newspaper reported on 19 January 2017 that the incoming administration’s “blueprint” outlined cuts that would reduce overall federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years. One program identified for elimination is the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Community Oriented Policing Services Program (COPS), which provides grants for the hiring of community policing professionals as well as training and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to support, “building trust and mutual respect between police and communities.” Since its inception in 1994, the COPs Program has provided over $14 billion in grant funds nationally, though the amount of funding has been declining steadily over the past decade.

Potential Challenges Facing Law Enforcement

The goal of increasing engagement between law enforcement officers and the general public they serve on a consistent, day-to-day basis (and at the local “street” level) has been touted for decades as means to improve the relationships between citizens and public safety officials and to support the reduction and/or resolution of crime in a given area. Although many people understand this idea, the realization of this vision is no simple task and requires time, training, and ultimately, human resources – including, in many jurisdictions, the hiring of additional police officers. In addition, events of the past two decades have made it challenging to further develop this trust relationship.

The events of 9/11 brought a new and near constant threat of international or “home-grown” terrorism throughout the nation, and the challenge for protecting the newly defined “homeland” fell squarely upon the shoulders of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Other factors, including the donation of military grade equipment – for example, armored personnel carriers to local law enforcement agencies – resulted in questions regarding the potential militarization of public safety, even at the local level. Finally, the high-profile, police-involved shootings of the past few years have increased tensions between the general public and law enforcement in nearly unprecedented ways.

Regardless, the goal of improving relationships in their communities remains a key objective of most law enforcement agencies. As Baltimore Police Department Special Operations Chief Melissa Hyatt noted in her 8 February 2017 DomPrep article, “actions and decisions are now formulated collaboratively based on a working partnership between community-oriented officers and the traditional operational officers.” Noting the need to ensure the safety of her officers remains paramount, Hyatt acknowledges that care must be taken even with the type of gear that an officer wears to ensure that it fits the context of a given situation. The chief also noted that the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 has created a significant challenge for the city agency to build/rebuild the trust it has with its citizens.

Eliminating Community Oriented Policing Services & Other Factors

Community policing in action photo contest winners (Source: DOJ COPS 2017).

Going Forward as a Community

Beyond the funding constraints that the COPS Program may face in the new administration, other factors may also create challenges to the goals of community-oriented policing. For example, “sanctuary jurisdictions” implement local policies/ordinances preventing local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws, while still ensuring that immigrants regardless of their legal status have access to local services. President Donald Trump has stated that he would pull funding from such cities, and even entire states, that fail to support the objectives of his executive order signed on 25 January 2017, entitled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which calls for the local law enforcement to voluntarily perform immigration duties.

Although the call for “voluntary” support is consistent with the previous policy of the Obama administration, the threat of funding cuts may put pressure on jurisdictions to comply with the executive order. For this reason, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued a statement on 30 January 2017 expressing its “strong opposition” to any future initiative that would mandate local or state law enforcement from playing any role in federal immigration law. In its statement, the IACP noted that this is, “an inherently local decision that must be made by law enforcement executives, working with their elected officials, community leaders, and citizens.”

The IACP is a staunch supporter of community-oriented policing best practices, and works collaboratively with the DOJ COPS Program to highlight successful programs taking place around the country that embody these principles. A 3 February 2017 post on the IACP website includes a summary of successful efforts by the Louisville, Kentucky, Metropolitan Police Department to “build trust and legitimacy” noting that, “exemplary community policing requires actively building of positive relationships with members of the community.” In addition, the group “Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration” issued a report on 13 February 2017 recommending to the current administration that funding for the COPS Program not be eliminated. Rather, the group is calling for an increase for COPS in the new fiscal year. Additional information regarding the group’s report and recommendations are covered in a New York Times article released the same day.

As the Trump Administration continues to roll out its strategic and funding priorities for the coming years, law enforcement at all levels will face new challenges on many fronts. Hopefully, law enforcement agencies have the resources to ensure that the relationship with the citizens they protect remains a priority. Doing so will certainly be a “community” effort that all may have to engage in. Of course, that would be the point.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.