Skip Navigation

The Importance of Community Policing

In his essay for Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, Joseph R. Biden calls for a renewed focus on community policing.

April 28, 2015

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for many things that still reson­ate in our coun­try today — issues of war and peace, the rights of women over­seas, the future of civil justice in this coun­try. But here, I would like to focus on an area of Dr. King’s teach­ings that sits espe­cially close to home for many Amer­ic­ans.

I know that when you send your chil­dren, your grand­chil­dren out into the world, you worry about them. Will they be safe? Will they be treated fairly? Will they be respec­ted? Can I trust the world with this person I love?

It’s the prayer of every parent and grand­par­ent. When your child walks out the door you have enough fears to contend with — the possib­il­ity that they will get into a car acci­dent, or fall victim to an act of crime, or be hit with a stray bullet from a drive-by shoot­ing.

But in too many neigh­bor­hoods in this coun­try, that fear is compoun­ded by the fear your child may be presumed to be a gang member, or a suspect — the fear of someone in author­ity look­ing at that child and seeing only a profile, not an indi­vidual.

Dr. King wrote, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot commu­nic­ate; they cannot commu­nic­ate because they are separ­ated.” We have to bridge the separ­a­tion between the police and the community.

In an inter­view on “Charlie Rose,” New York City Police Commis­sioner Bill Brat­ton used an expres­sion that I think should be the guid­ing prin­ciple for every effort to rebuild that trust. It is an expres­sion from the Maasai tribe. The expres­sion is simply, “We see you.”

But the ques­tion is: Do we see one another? Does the danger they face prevent the police in your neigh­bor­hood from seeing the people they serve? And does fear prevent the community from seeing and enga­ging with the person behind the badge?

I served in these communit­ies as a public defender, and for 36 years as Delaware’s senator. I know, and I see, the good­ness and decency in communit­ies across the coun­try. And I have also worked with thou­sands of honor­able and decent police officers, some of whom I grew up with and worked with my entire career. And at times I’ve seen reflec­ted in their eyes the uncer­tainty and fear that comes with being asked to put their lives on the line when it’s unclear who has their back.

I had the honor of speak­ing at the funeral of New York City Detect­ive Rafael Ramos. I didn’t know him, but I knew him. He’s like the most cour­ageous and compas­sion­ate guys I grew up with in Clay­mont, Del., the ones who were always there to help. Rafael was an active member of his church, about to be ordained as a chap­lain. He didn’t just keep a Bible in his locker, he lived his ministry as part of his job, reach­ing out to all people. He was a former school safety officer, who joined the NYPD at age 37. He was a father, a husband, and a son.

I was welcomed into the home of his part­ner, Wenjian Liu. A seven-year veteran of the force. He came to these shores from China as a 12-year-old and spoke several dialects. He was a newly­wed.

Both were minor­it­ies. Both were the product of the community they lived in. Both knew the sting of stereo­types, of preju­dice. They had famil­ies. They had stor­ies. They had a human­ity that was denied by an assas­sin, who judged them by the color of their uniform, and not by the content of their char­ac­ter.

We have to start seeing each other. We have to recog­nize that the black male on the corner is also a kid who likes to draw, and maybe has a future as an archi­tect. We have to recog­nize that the cop on the beat is also a mom who plays basket­ball.

It is the respons­ib­il­ity of every community to recog­nize the human­ity of the men and women who volun­teer to put them­selves in harm’s way, to answer the urgent call in the night, to do the best that they can. And it is the respons­ib­il­ity of every officer who takes an oath to protect and serve to respect the dignity of every person that officer encoun­ters, young or old, male or female, black, white, Hispanic, or Asian.

We need to agree as a nation on two basic state­ments of truth. Number one, cops have a right to make it home to their famil­ies tonight. And number two, all minor­it­ies have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Because all life matters. And the fact that all life matters is the reason most officers became cops in the first place. And no one, no matter what their posi­tion, what badge they wear, no one is above the law. There can be no notion of impun­ity for any indi­vidual in soci­ety, regard­less of their posi­tion.

There are changes that Pres­id­ent Obama and I believe can and should be made that can help change the way police patrol their often danger­ous streets without jeop­ard­iz­ing the safety or secur­ity of the community, which is the whole reason to patrol the street in the first place.

One of the things we’re look­ing at is genu­ine community poli­cing. In some ways we’ve lost the mean­ing of that term. I helped insti­tu­tion­al­ize the idea, in the 1994 Biden Crime Bill, to have community poli­cing. When there’s crim­inal activ­ity, the older lady living on the corner knows what’s going on but may be afraid to call the cops because she may become the victim if the offend­ers find out she called them. But if she knows the cop and has his name, she can call and say, “Johnny, they’re outside my door.” And Officer Johnny can take care of it without expos­ing her. That’s what community poli­cing was supposed to be about.

When it star­ted, it worked. But it’s really expens­ive. It takes a lot of cops. In the begin­ning we had adequate resources. The 1994 Biden Crime Bill at the time was a pretty expens­ive oper­a­tion. It put another 100,000 cops on the street, and it cost $1 billion. But because crime was rampant, every­body signed on. And it worked. Community poli­cing costs a lot of money. It’s more expens­ive to have indi­vidu­als patrolling the neigh­bor­hood than rely­ing on tech­no­logy, or up-armored vehicles, or jump squads, which every city in Amer­ica now has.

But since 1998, states, as well as the federal govern­ment, in large part because crime dropped, have star­ted to slash budgets. We acted like the prob­lem was solved. Crime was not at the top of the coun­try’s agenda anymore. As a result, since 1998, fund­ing for community poli­cing has been cut by 87 percent. That means fewer cops on the streets and in neigh­bor­hoods, build­ing recog­ni­tion and trust.

The result is more separ­a­tion, less commu­nic­a­tion, more hostil­ity, and a place for crime to thrive in a neigh­bor­hood full of decent and honor­able people. That needs to change. A lot of other things need to change too. Ulti­mately, there’s no overnight way to make that happen. It has to happen neigh­bor­hood by neigh­bor­hood, block by block, person by person. And there’s noth­ing certain about it.

In his final sermon, Dr. King said: “Some­where we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inev­it­ab­il­ity. It comes through the tire­less efforts and the persist­ent work of dedic­ated indi­vidu­als who are will­ing to be cowork­ers with God.”

Through the persist­ent work of so many Amer­ic­ans we’ve seen progress come rolling down the tracks on a host of issues that once seemed insur­mount­able. If we remem­ber that, we’ll recog­nize that we can solve this prob­lem too. Let’s not forget who we are. Let’s not forget what we’ve done. Let’s not forget that although there’s much more to do, we have come very, very far. And we have come this far because of the spirit and hard work of the Amer­ican people.

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