Moving Police Officers From Enforcers to Protectors

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pennchief-king“I hate the police” and other comments, profanity-filled, are shouted to Houston Police officers as they enter a classroom filled with teenagers. This is week one of the 11-week Teen and Police Service (TAPS) Academy. Mistrust is high as these adjudicated youth meet their TAPS officers for the first time.

Through a Texas Education Agency-approved curriculum that grants one high school credit to students upon completion, TAPS Academy officers and teens alike learn about conflict mediation, police interaction, drugs avoidance, bullying, safe driving, date violence reduction, bullying and other subjects to create mutual understanding and respect among each other. In breakout sessions, one officer and six youth give each other feedback.

Recently Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, proposed legislation to require a civics course that would teach improved youth and police interaction for all Texas ninth graders. The cities of Houston, Galveston, El Paso and LaMarque have already implemented the TAPS Academy as a way to build bridges and create mutual respect for both officers and teens. We believe TAPS Academy works well as the foundation for the course as we move officers from warriors to protectors.

Started in 2011 through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, the Houston Police Department and the University of Houston-Clear Lake teamed to implement the very best of police practice and evidence-based research to reduce the social distance between the most at-risk youth and police. Since its beginning, TAPS Academy has been quantitatively evaluated. The results are found in scholarly publications, research reports and media outlets including the Journal of Juvenile Justice (Winter 2015) and the Houston Chronicle (Aug. 7 and Aug. 22, 2016). The findings demonstrate TAPS Academy’s success. TAPS Academy increases “respect,”, “like,” “connectedness” and other aspects of fair and impartial policing, 30 to 50 percent, moving graduates to state: “I respect the police and the job they do.”

TAPS Academy moves youth and police to understand each other and appreciate the worlds in which they exist. TAPS Academy moves past the warrior model of policing through community policing to a 21st-century protective model of policing in which positive contact with all citizens is required for public and police safety.

Some police officers will argue that they are only warriors by training, and that practices such as stop-and-frisk, zero tolerance and saturation patrols have reduced crime, they say. They cite the broken windows theory of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which linked the prevalence of petty crimes and disorderly conduct with high-crime areas known to police as hot spots.

The reality is that when police cast a wide net in these hot spots they catch the “dolphins with the tuna.” Average citizens are questioned along with career criminals. Indiscriminate suppression of criminal activity and alienation of local residents caught up in these crackdowns begin to undermine police authority, credibility and respect. Thus an us versus them mentality and practice is the result.

People who could escape from these hot-spot areas fled to new neighborhoods, taking with them a wariness of police. Those leaving for greener pastures would be replaced by a new generation, plagued by crime and distrustful of police. William Julius Wilson calls these citizens the truly disadvantaged. In these areas, nothing changes, except the faces. The good people of the community try to mind their own business, staying away from criminals and police alike. Criminal activity flourishes, unrestrained by social convention or police activity. In the absence of citizen input, police find no reason to abandon their tried and true methods of stop-and-frisk, zero tolerance and saturation patrol. So, the cycle continues.

To turn the tide, police must concentrate on those within the community who pose the greatest threat to public safety, such as violent offenders, domestic batterers, burglars, gangs and others involved in criminal enterprises. Nuisance offenses should not be ignored, but a protective approach can yield greater benefits than the traditional enforcement model.

For example, a warrior police officer seeing a group of teens hanging out in public before the nighttime curfew will circle back after midnight for some easy citations. A protector engages the teens before they are in violation, seeking a dialogue before warning the teens of the looming curfew. Officers can gain important information from both contacts, but the protective approach is less adversarial and more likely to yield a positive outcome.

Police must understand that Ferguson was not born of one flashpoint event, but thousands of negative police encounters that chipped away at legitimacy, trust, respect and fairness. The Justice Department report on civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department showed that “Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation.” If these actions were lawful, the effect was awful.

As protectors, officers tackle crime and disorder issues to enhance the quality of life for all residents. No longer confined to select officers assigned to specialized community outreach programs, the protective model requires street officers and investigators to be engaged with school officials, business owners, religious leaders and civic associations. Officers must become part of the neighborhood fabric, protecting their constituents from criminals and those who seek to harm others for their own gain.

This paradigm shift moves policing away from a prosecution-centric purpose to a collaborative community protection model. The difference is clear. Protectors are proactive. Enforcers are reactive. Protectors build relationships by acting in the best interest of all stakeholders. Enforcers use authority to gain compliance. Protectors do their best. Enforcers do their job. Protectors keep us safe. Enforcers keep us in line.

Shedding a warrior identity and focus will help police evolve new strategies and tactics designed to protect rather than simply enforce. Programs such as TAPS Academy increases officer safety.

Police legitimacy is at the core of the pillars of procedural justice (voice, transparency, fairness and impartiality). When people believe police officers have legitimacy, then there is more buy-in to the social contract. Youth will follow when he/she believes the police will be fair in their practices.

Everette B. Penn, Ph.D., is the director of the Teen And Police Service Academy and a professor of criminology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Vicki L. King is retired from the Houston Police Department, where she was assistant chief.

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