By Marisa Helms
Charges of police misconduct and excessive force continue to make headlines, and in these difficult times, many communities around the country may find it nearly impossible to create trust between police and citizens.
But one answer to the country’s way forward may be found in Minnesota’s own Brooklyn Park, a large and diverse Twin Cities suburb with 78,000 residents.
The city’s police department is the subject of a research project to test a new policing theory called “collective efficacy.” Proponents say if the model succeeds in this city, which has one of the highest crime rates among Twin Cities suburbs, then collective efficacy could become a new paradigm for the future of policing in the United States.
The collective efficacy theory suggests that police and citizens can build trust and bond through personal relationships, and that, through that trust, police can facilitate cohesion among citizens in high-crime “hot spots” by empowering everyone in a community to watch out for each other and solve problems together. The end result of collective efficacy should be more trust and less crime.
“This is really different from the way policing has been done, but so was community policing in many respects when that was first implemented,” says Officer Derek Zielin, who has been with the Brooklyn Park Police Department for four years. “This is an evolution. We’re looking to find out if this works or not. I think it will.”
How theory becomes practice
The intervention phase of the Brooklyn Park Police Department’s research project, called “Brooklyn Park—ACT,” began in the summer of 2015. But the idea for the initiative came in 2012, when Brooklyn Park’s then-Police Chief Michael Davis attended a Harvard Executive Session on Policing and met researcher David Weisburd, a faculty member at George Mason University’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society.
At the Harvard session, Weisburd and Davis discussed collective efficacy. That conversation led to Brooklyn Park applying for a federal grant to field test Weisburd’s theory. And in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded Brooklyn Park a $687,000 Smart Policing Initiative grant to do just that.
“Brooklyn Park is the only agency in the United States working on this model—we are it,” says Bill Barritt, an inspector with the Brooklyn Park Police Department and the grant’s project manager. “And I can tell you there are a lot of eyes in the federal government that are awaiting the outcome of our research project.”
Brooklyn Park’s three-year grant period officially started in March 2014. For the first 14 months, Weisburd’s researchers at George Mason University crunched crime and geographic data provided by the city. Weisburd then supplied the Brooklyn Park Police Department with a map of 42 “micro hot spots”—areas in the city where crime is most concentrated. These geographically tiny street segments are about one block in size, and may be home to just 10 to 15 homes or a single apartment complex.
Since July 1, 2015, half (21) of these hot spots have become research “treatment” areas where officers are putting Weisburd’s theory into practice. The other 21 areas act as the control group, and are receiving regular policing methods with no additional services.
How ‘Brooklyn Park—ACT’ works
Working in teams of two and three, the entire Brooklyn Park patrol force of 48 officers is testing Weisburd’s theory through a three-stage process called ACT:
A: Asset Identification (Stage 1) Officers spend discretionary time (also called “downtime”) in their treatment area, getting to know people: residents, business owners, and others working in the area. Officers take the first step by simply introducing themselves. They shake hands, smile, talk to people about the research project, and invite them to learn more about each other and the community. Officers are encouraged to be creative in each of the engagement stages, and some have even stopped to play basketball with youth—not as a way to surveil them, but solely to engage them in a genuine, personal way.
C: Coming Together; Coalescence (Stage 2) Having spent a few weeks or months (the time frame is fluid) establishing a personal connection with residents, business owners, apartment managers, and others in their treatment area, officers then begin to organize meetings where neighbors and police come together in homes or community centers to talk about issues. At the meetings, officers continue to share ideas with residents about collective efficacy, and the importance of building relationships with each other and being willing to intervene and watch out for their neighbors.
T: Take Action (Stage 3) The third and final stage of the intervention period is designed to empower citizens to create an action plan to work with police to solve neighborhood problems.
Most Brooklyn Park officers are still engaged in the first two stages of ACT, but some officers, like Officer Zielin, have already introduced elements of the final Take Action stage. For example, Zielin got the city to conduct a speed study in a treatment area in response to residents’ concerns about cars driving too fast down their street. Zielin says, so far, other issues in his treatment area include problems with loud music, street lighting, and barking dogs.
In addition to face-to-face interactions, citizens in Zielin’s treatment area also communicate with him—and each other—through their own Facebook page, and Zielin says it’s not uncommon for officers to receive friendly text messages or emails from residents, even on an officer’s days off.
A cultural shift
This kind of engagement with citizens has its challenges for some officers, says Inspector Barritt, a 19-year veteran of the department. He says about 20 percent of the officers on the force don’t understand the project or don’t like it. He says those officers will keep receiving more training and be urged to try harder.
One point of soreness for some is that officers are expected to use their discretionary time in ways they may not be accustomed to. Typically, discretionary time—about four hours, or 32 percent of a 12-hour shift for a Brooklyn Park police officer—is used for enforcement activities, including making arrests, conducting traffic stops, and serving warrants. So, by participating in the ACT initiative, the department is requiring officers to switch their focus from enforcement to engagement. And doing that demands a departmentwide cultural shift, says Project Coordinator Win Moua.
“A lot of agencies have a special force focusing on community-oriented policing,” says Moua. “But what we’re doing is making it a departmentwide responsibility—a philosophy—that everyone should know how to engage with the community. And I think that in itself is a culture change, from reactive to proactive.”
The intervention phase of the research ends in July 2016, but Inspector Barritt says he can already see that the increased officer involvement is having an impact. He says he can clearly see relationships between officers and residents reaching a “level of trust and friendship,” and he says the latest statistics show that Brooklyn Park is on track to have the lowest crime rate since 1986.
“It’s exciting because everything that was predicted that should be happening behind this theory, is happening,” says Barritt. “Is crime going down in the treatment areas? Yep. Is it going down substantially? Yep. Are we seeing [crime going down] in the control areas? No.”
Admittedly, Barritt says the decrease in crime in the treatment areas could simply be the result of increased police presence. The extent to which Brooklyn Park police officers have succeeded with increasing trust and building collective efficacy among neighbors will be determined when Brooklyn Park’s research partners from George Mason University analyze the data from the control and treatment areas. That final analysis is expected to take place later this year.
Barritt says though there are a lot of ways for police to build trust, he believes this research project will show that Brooklyn Park’s “up close and personal” approach is a model that works.
“This type of policing, this type of community engagement, is what is imperative for law enforcement agencies across the country,” says Barritt. “We need to do this. It is time.”
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer
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