A New Way of Policing

In her essay for Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, Washington, D.C. police chief Cathy L. Lanier revisits the nation’s immense success at reducing crime and pinpoints stronger relationships between police and communities as being core to that effort.

April 27, 2015

It was not long ago— as recently as the early 1990s when I first began my career as a police officer— that the number of homicides in the District of Columbia regularly topped 400 a year. Violence and disorder were taking a severe toll on the city. The street gangs and cold brutality of the associated drug trade seemed to consume entire neighborhoods, and the violence soon grew to epidemic proportions. The city had quickly gained a notorious reputation as the “Murder Capital of the World” and the “City of Unsolved Homicides.” The unacceptable levels of crime not only resulted in needless suffering for numerous families, but opened a large divide between the police and the community, who felt the police were doing little to curb the violence. The city was reeling, with the perceived lack of public safety driving both residents and businesses out of the city, which only further hampered the city’s ability to address the public’s concerns.

Times have certainly changed. In stark contrast to the violent days of the 1990s, the last several years have seen historic reductions in crime. From 2008 to 2012, we reduced homicides by more than half — to a level the city had not seen in nearly 50 years. We ended 2012 with 88 homicides, and the annual number has remained near 100, an almost unimaginable notion when compared to the 482 lives lost in 1991.

This progress did not occur overnight. It took several years and a concerted effort to implement an effective policing strategy for combating violent crime and rebuilding the relationship between the police and members of the community. Even now, we do not consider the success of the last several years as the end of our important work.

There are four fundamental tenets of our “crime reduction” policing philosophy: strengthening trust with the community, cultivating relationships to encourage information from community members to the police, increasing the flow of information from the public, and increasing the flow of information within the department. Other cities may be able to build upon this policing philosophy to both reduce crime and strengthen ties with communities. With minimum cost and the opportunity for flexibility, our approach has resulted in historic low levels of violent crime and fewer homicides in a city with a notoriously violent past.

Many cities drove down violent crime through a combination of “hotspot” and “zero tolerance” policing. Police identify specific areas through the density mapping of violent crimes and then flood those areas with extra officers who are instructed to use a zero tolerance approach to any criminal offense. We tried this in Washington. While the theory is valid, it unfortunately did little to curb the violence in the District. In fact, these approaches had almost the opposite effect. Because officers had to manually process each arrest and respond to court to present every arrest, many of the best officers were being pulled off the street for minor arrests, thereby leaving the neighborhoods in the hands of the more violent predators.

The  other problem with employing a zero tolerance approach: The tactics drove a wedge between the police and the members of the communities. The residents, who were often the victims of violent crimes, felt betrayed by their own police department. Not only did the police label their neighborhoods as essentially “bad,” but officers would charge in and arrest neighbors for minor offenses, while the truly violent predators continued to victimize the community. The community perceived this as officers being too afraid to go after the real criminals or simply not caring about the community. Even worse, some community members began to believe that the police may even be conspiring with violent gang members who were known to be involved in violent attacks but were never held accountable. These attitudes only served to further distance the community from the police, thus making it nearly impossible for police to obtain critical information when crimes did occur.

To fix this real fear of crime and distrust of the police, the philosophy inside the department had to shift. Merely responding to crimes and increasing the number of arrests are indications of failures of policing. Rather, the primary task in policing must be to prevent crime, not merely respond to it. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, officers and administrators began to believe they could neither stop crime nor prevent homicides. Neither belief is true. Everyone from the lowest ranking officers to the highest level executive has an important role in preventing crime. The transition in thinking is the first step to a more modern and effective system of policing. This is the first principle: You must strengthen ties with the community in order to achieve the ultimate goal of preventing crime.

Next, we sought to define “community policing” in Washington and educate the officers responsible for carrying out the mission. This proved challenging as zero tolerance policing had actually been used as a community policing technique in other cities.

We developed principle two: what we call “developing sources.” This involves cultivating members of the community to be sources of information on future and past crimes. Historically, source development was primarily the function of specialized units such as narcotics, and sources were often developed through arrest or the threat of arrest. This stands in direct conflict   with and threatened to undo what our department had accomplished through principle one. To initiate a change in those methods, we deployed uniformed patrol officers on foot in the most violent areas, where they focused on developing sources within the community. With more than 300 officers on foot, mountain bikes, and Segways, this shift in policing was instantly recognized by residents. Their skepticism began to truly subside as residents got to know the names of the officers who routinely stopped to speak to them as they sat on their porches.

In the past, officers would arrest people for minor crimes, such as an open container of alcohol, alienating the very community we relied on for information. Officers instead developed new approaches to those situations, and began to build trust among all segments of the community. Since officers had established a positive relationship with the residents, they would often get tremendous amounts of information when a crime would occur. Within a short period of time, the uniformed patrol officers became the primary sources of information about serious crimes, gang members, and violent repeat offenders.

The shift in the public’s trust of the police officers led to the development of the third principle: finding more ways for the public to get information to the police. While sophisticated technology in law enforcement — such as mobile computers, license plate readers, and gunshot detection — are all important tools, there are often simple and low cost tools that can have the biggest impact in a department’s ability to receive, share, and use information to reduce violent crime. We began with automating the report-taking process and eliminating mandatory court appearances. This allowed officers to spend more time in the community rather than dealing with burdensome administrative matters. Each patrol district established a community listserv, which established a forum for neighborhood residents, with more than 16,000 members and growing, to communicate and engage with police around the clock. Detectives started using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to investigate and communicate issues regarding crime. We created an anonymous text tip line to expand opportunities to develop sources. This approach proved effective, and we gained a flood of new information.

 This led us to the fourth principle: The sharing of information within the department needed a not-so-subtle, persuasive shove forward. Vital information that should have been shared lingered in individual units. Patrol officers   had information on violent offenders that had to be shared with detectives, the gang unit had information on newly validated gang members that needed to be shared with patrol officers,  and homicide detectives often had information about potential retaliation that had to be shared with patrol officers — but none of this necessary information sharing was occurring.

In order to close the loop, we established a system of accountability within the department. We ensured that officers were charged with this responsibility and bore consequences if they failed to do so. Supervisors were tasked with working with subordinates to develop processes to rapidly disseminate the most critical information at all levels. The gang unit began analyzing information from numerous reports and sources to produce a daily gang conflict report that was shared among all units. Within minutes of gunfire in an area with an active gang conflict, uniformed patrol and gang unit members started to deploy to rival gang territory to contact gang members. Homicide detectives routinely alerted district commanders to any potential retaliation associated with active homicide investigations. This resulted in dramatic reductions in retaliatory violence in the most violent neighborhoods.

The department’s philosophy to reduce violent crime has paid off tremendously. Our officers have garnered trust with the community, which ultimately led to more sources, an increased flow of information from the public, and more useful intelligence within the department about criminal activity. We were able to further our fundamental mission of reducing crime and building safe, thriving neighborhoods.

Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.