Expect to hear the term "community policing" a lot this year in the run-up to the September primary and the November general election. The fields for Rochester mayor and City Council are just beginning to gel, but the two challengers who have officially announced — the Green Party's Alex White for mayor and the Rev. Marlowe Washington, a Democrat, for City Council — have put community policing at the top of their platforms.
It's not like community policing is a new idea for Rochester. For years, the deep divide between the police department and residents of the inner city, blamed for everything from the "no snitching" code on city streets to the police department's difficulty solving homicide cases, has had elected officials, law enforcement, and others searching for ways to repair that trust. Community policing is often discussed in that context.
There is no formal definition for community policing written down anywhere. The closest thing seems to be a paper by Community Oriented Policing Services, part of the US Department of Justice, which calls community policing a philosophy of using community partnerships and other proactive techniques to address conditions that give rise to public safety issues.
In Rochester, however, community policing often gets tied up with the controversial reorganization of the police department several years ago; for more than a few people, community policing essentially means going back to the seven-section model. Under former Police Chief Bob Duffy, the RPD reorganized into two sections in a bid to save money, increase flexibility, and improve response times. (A third police section, to be located downtown in the Sibley building, will open this summer.)
City Council member Adam McFadden, chair of Council's Public Safety Committee, is one of the loudest and most consistent voices advocating for a return to the old seven-section model. The reorganization damaged the relationship between the community and the police, he says.
"It's made policing the responsibility of the police department and not of the community and the police department," McFadden says. "The only time people come in contact with the police is if they're calling them or having the police called on them."
But Mayor Tom Richards says those advocating for the old model are caught up in nostalgia. The seven-section system is cost-prohibitive, inefficient, and was created for a city that was much different geographically and demographically than it is now, he says. And don't forget, Richards says, that the highest crime rates in the city's history happened when Rochester had seven police precincts.
"It was not a nirvana, is my point," he says.
John Klofas, professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology, says community policing is like apple pie in a no-one-can-say-it's-a-bad-thing sort of way. It's an easy promise for politicians to make because it sounds good, he says, and by itself, doesn't really mean anything.
"I think it's the 'chicken in every pot, pot in every tent,' kind of thing," Klofas says. "It rolls off the tongue easily, without much specificity. You can only be in favor of this sort of stuff, you know?"
At the core of community policing is the idea that police cannot solve public-safety problems alone, says the COPS paper. Law enforcement must form partnerships with other government agencies, nonprofits, private businesses, media, and others. More responsibility for decision-making must be given to front-line officers, the paper says, and the entire structure of the police department must be aligned to support the community policing philosophy.
Klofas and Mayor Richards say the RPD is already doing many things that can be considered community policing: more officers are walking beats instead of using their patrol cars; the number of officers stationed in the Neighborhood Service Centers has been bumped up; and Police Chief James Sheppard has engaged in numerous outreach activities, including media appearances. He's a frequent presence at community meetings, works closely with youth groups, walks city streets in a regular "chief on the street" event, and has been holding weekly Twitter town halls, inviting the public to ask him questions over the social media forum.
"Sheppard has done more than anybody in recent years to reach out [to] the community," Klofas says. "You do have to sort of hand it to him for reaching out in new ways."
But Council member McFadden says that while Sheppard is well-known and well-liked, it doesn't make up for the overall distrust of the police department.
"It's not the same as when I call somebody and deal with that person," he says. "The chief is not going to deal with disorderly conduct. The chief is not going to deal with drug dealing on the corner. Do people like the chief? Absolutely. But it has nothing to do with the relationship that we should have with our police department."
McFadden says the seven-section model should be the foundation for community policing in Rochester, not least because it represents a commitment to the public.
But Richards says and Klofas agrees that a precinct system isn't required for community policing. Rochester has more police officers — about 750 — than at any time in its history, Richards says, and the cost of policing the city works out to about $125,000 per person.
"We shouldn't have a situation where we're already spending $133 million a year on the police department — more than we're spending on anything else — and make it more expensive and less flexible," Richards says. "The people proposing this stuff — more police officers, more officers on the street — they have to be specific about what they mean and how they're going to pay for it. Two police officers equal one rec center. Two police officers equal one library. We can't have the police department eat the city."