Lessons from Ferguson

Community engagement is key; disruptive protests are OK

FOR MONTHS WE’VE all watched the travesty in Ferguson, Missouri, unfold from the death of Michael Brown, to the militarized police response to public protest, to the Department of Justice report detailing the Ferguson Police Department’s racist attitudes and policies. The temptation is to treat it like someone else’s problem, as if a similar situation never could occur where you and I live. Yet, difficult as it may be to do, Ferguson demands every city and town take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether its police force is solving problems or if it’s part of the problem. Ferguson could happen here in Massachusetts, and I suggest it provides one clear universal lesson: You can’t police a community you don’t care to know and to which you refuse to listen. Community policing has become an imperative in the United States.

At its core level, what we see in Ferguson is a police force separated from its community. It had moved far away from the mission of “to protect and serve,” onto something more like “to harass and punish.” It turned into a heavily armed, occupying force that had little connection to its community outside of mutual disdain. When the killing of Michael Brown finally pushed Ferguson residents to the point where they took to the streets demanding justice, the police responded as an adversarial force. It was the inevitable consequence of an entrenched us-versus-them dynamic created by the city’s political and law enforcement establishment.

Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone

In contrast, community policing places a premium on citizen engagement, problem solving, and decision-making at every level. It puts police on the beat in our neighborhoods with the idea that they can keep the peace rather than just show up when a problem has arisen. It keeps the lines of communication open between the community and the police, and it uses data to assess vulnerabilities. It operates on the model that effective police officers should spend vastly more time talking to people than arresting them. Best of all, it works.

In Somerville, we have adopted a community policing model during the past decade and our crime rate has dropped steadily. This has happened despite Somerville being the most densely populated city in New England, with a sizable low-income population and an immigrant population that speaks 52 different languages. We’ve got a low crime rate because we’ve built a strong community around factors that contribute to high crime in other places. A big reason for that is our police force is an organic part of our community. We operate at the neighborhood level and we value things like good communication skills and good judgment in our officers.

Our involvement at the community level was a driving force behind our decision last year to opt out of the federal Secure Communities program, which turned local police into de facto immigration enforcement officials. Simply put, it drove a wedge between our large immigrant community and local police, making people reluctant to speak with officers when crime happened in their neighborhoods. In classic Orwellian fashion, Secure Communities actually made our community less secure. It was antithetical to the goals of community policing. Months later the Obama administration came to the same realization and cancelled the Secure Communities program.

Yet that’s just one example of how we are pursuing ill-considered policies in this nation that pit police against citizens. Perhaps the most glaring trend is the continued militarization of our police forces. Federal programs have made it easy for police departments to buy military grade weapons and armored vehicles. Initially, it was to fight the war on drugs and more recently for homeland security. I’m all for preparedness, but a police force most crucially needs to be prepared to do the job of policing its community, not to operate as a quasi-military unit. Militaries fight wars. They don’t calm tensions, rather they identify an enemy and engage it in armed conflict. Who exactly is the enemy here? Our citizens? Are we fighting us? Nobody wins that fight. We just get more Fergusons. We need to stop before we go any further to ask whether we want our militarized police forces fighting a war against our citizens.

If you really want to curb crime in your community, rather than buying a military assault vehicle or beefing up your riot squad, try placing a neighborhood substation in an at-risk community. Build some parks and playgrounds, plant some trees, make sure every department in the city (not just the police) is responsive to the needs of every section of the city. Respect and engagement should be our first line of response to communities that have been marginalized. We also take a proactive stance with people suffering from addiction or mental illness, giving them assistance in order to prevent them from turning to crime. Our police are out on our streets looking for people who need help, not for people to arrest.

This brings me to protest. We do not live in a perfect society. Nationally, people of color are incarcerated too easily, and shot, choked, or beaten far too often. We are not immune in Massachusetts to the attitudes that create that condition. I’m sure people remember a few years ago when an off-duty Leominster police officer hurled racial epithets at former Red Sox player Carl Crawford while he was on a rehab assignment. It does happen here and it is high time people began to speak out on this subject in the tradition of the Selma to Montgomery March, which 50 years later has come to represent Americans at their finest (the marchers) and their worst (the police who brutalized them). Black Lives Matter is an important message that deserves to be heard.

Massachusetts can stand to improve when it comes to enabling meaningful public protest. In December, protesters took to the streets of Somerville and Cambridge. They held a die-in right in the middle of Davis Square. In fact, the T station there had to be temporarily bypassed. Because we believe so strongly in community policing, our law enforcement officials worked with the protest organizers to ensure public safety, and they escorted the demonstration through our streets. We did this despite the fact that it was decidedly inconvenient for anyone who lives, works, or travels through that area.

In January, many of those same protestors were involved in the Interstate 93 demonstration. Many of our political leaders were quick to castigate them. Only days later, those same political leaders spoke at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, never once noting the irony that they had just expressed outrage at the sort of protest in which Dr. King might have been involved. They should hate injustice more than inconvenience.

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Maybe it’s because we have gone decades without large public demonstrations and that we have gotten really good at pushing protests into easy-to-ignore places, so we’ve forgotten how truly disruptive they can be. To a degree, disruption is the point—not allowing us to blithely ignore the injustice taking place in our society. We’ll put up with all sorts of traffic gridlock for sporting events and parades. We should be at least that tolerant of it for meaningful public protest. Our police should be serving the protesters, attentive to their safety and making sure they can be heard.

Having watched a police force do almost everything wrong in Ferguson, we need to rethink how we police our own communities. We need to listen as well as we enforce. We need to demilitarize. Most of all we need to embrace the best traditions of public service rather than rush to assert authority at every opportunity. In Somerville, we’ve learned that effective community policing helps to build a stronger community. We hire and promote officers based on their decision-making skills. Our police force works alongside our schools, inspectional services, and public works to identify and solve problems in our community. Our police force is committed to providing our residents with a better quality of life, which should be the goal of every police force in the Commonwealth and the nation. If you’ve got the best riot squad, you’re doing it wrong.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.