Community Policing or Homeland Security: Sophie’s Choice for Police?

Sept. 12, 2011

On September 12, 2001, the Dearborn, Michigan Police Department put officers on 12-hour shifts for the first time in years. The purpose was so police could provide extra patrol around mosques, the Arab-American business district and schools with the largest Arab-American populations.

     More than 200,000 (approximately 30 percent) of the Dearborn population was Arab-American at the time of terror attacks the day before. The Dearborn police were concerned there might be retaliatory hate crimes, a well-founded fear. Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims living in the United States increased by 1,700 percent in 2001, according to crime statistics compiled by the FBI.

     “It didn't help when national media figures claimed there were ‘celebrations’ of the attacks in Dearborn by local Muslims, which was completely false,” says David Thacher, a University of Michigan professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning. Thacher says a lot of the people who criticized the police about other things appreciated the extra protection that day.

     The Dearborn Police Department later was recognized in a Human Rights Watch report as the only local police department in the country that had responded appropriately at the time to the threat of hate crimes.

     Thacher says the Dearborn PD example illustrates a larger point: that in terms of homeland security, local police should see their role as community protection — protecting their own community from the threat of terrorism, whether it's through preventative patrol against possible targets of attack, target hardening, investigating suspicious packages that arrive in the mail, or improving emergency response capabilities so they're prepared to minimize the damage if something does happen.

     On the other hand, when the local police get too involved in homeland security, which emphasizes surveillance, identification, and investigation of particular people suspected of terrorism, often this is done at the expense of community policing, Thacher says. In policing, “homeland security” refers to police activities designed to prevent or respond to terrorism, whereas “community policing” emphasizes more traditional proactive policing, problem solving and community partnerships.

     Toward the end of 2001, the Department of Justice initiated a voluntary interview project focused on about 5,000 Middle Eastern males holding temporary U.S. visas from countries where Al-Qaeda was known to have a strong terrorist presence. DOJ asked local police departments like the one in Dearborn to help do the interviews, hoping information would be provided by these males voluntarily that might be useful in the new war on terror.

     “Not surprisingly, that move was a big source of tension between the Dearborn police and the Arab-American community,” Thacher says. Many Arab-Americans believed the interviews were a form of ethnic profiling, and they feared heightened scrutiny from immigration officials might result.

     “Some people in the neighborhood groups found the interviews suspicious because they knew Dearborn police were working with federal agencies,” Thacher says. “The community wondered if they were being spied on. They weren’t, but local citizens weren't sure.”

     The federal request put Dearborn police in a difficult position. Dearborn police officers were in general agreement with the federal plan, although most also understood and sympathized with the community. In response, the Dearborn police organized working groups with Arab community leaders that were instrumental in changing several aspects of the DOJ plan in order to reduce community concerns. In the end, the Dearborn police agreed to help federal agents locate interviewees, and to accompany federal agents when the interviews were conducted But the local law enforcement officers declined to conduct any of the interviews themselves.

     Thacher says terrorism investigation has to be predominantly a federal job because local police have a different job to do, namely focusing on aspects of community protection, such as emergency response, target hardening, and preventative patrols, rather than terror surveillance and investigation.

     In a 2005 paper in Law & Society Review, Thacher says the decentralized nature of the federal government places sharp limits on the ability of national policy makers to mobilize the great majority of the country’s police officers to serve national goals.

     “If policy makers and the public conclude that these national goals have grown in importance relative to street crime, they may find it easier to shift resources toward federal police rather than reshape local policing,” Thacher says.

     Following the 9/11 attacks, many local police departments around the country expressed concerns about their ability to provide for homeland security without compromising traditional community policing responsibilities. Indeed, shortly after 9/11, several U.S. cities, Portland, Ore., among them, refused federal entreaties to interview young male immigrants from those countries believed to be harboring terrorists.

     “Since community protection tasks lie squarely within the interests and competence of traditional police agencies, for most agencies the most promising and likely contribution of police to homeland security is likely to lie in this area,” Thacher says. “The more dramatic and controversial area of offender search, by contrast, may fall more readily to national intelligence agencies like the FBI.”

Terrorism front line

Most local police departments were put in the same difficult position as the Dearborn police following the 9/11 attacks. The attacks changed just about everything in the U.S., including how local law enforcement agencies relate to the communities they serve. Local police departments that had previously embraced community oriented policing policies to address crime suddenly found they were on the front lines on the war on terror. Some local agencies changed their model of policing in order to embrace new homeland security responsibilities, a move encouraged by the federal government. Washington recognized the enormous anti-terrorism resource local police potentially represented. There are more than 600,000 local police officers spread across nearly 13,000 autonomous local police departments in the U.S., but there are only 12,000 FBI agents. Washington’s shifting interests can be seen in funding swings. From 2001 to 2005, federal funding to the local police-first responder community increased from $616 million to $3.4 billion, most earmarked for homeland security.

     The new emphasis on homeland security, however, often resulted in reduced community policing, which degraded community-police relationships, particularly in immigrant and Arab-American neighborhoods like the ones in Dearborn.

     “After 9/11, community policing was shoved to the wayside as all the budgets went to homeland security,” says Robert Friedmann, a Georgia State emeritus professor of criminal justice and a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Community Policing Committee. “Homeland security had immediate, clear, definable needs to protect people and property while community policing was, and still is, perceived more as a soft and complex approach.”     

     Shortly after 9/11, IACP’s Community Policing Committee formulated a resolution adopted by the IACP general membership to promote community policing as an integral part of homeland security. “That resolution wasn't worth the paper it was written on because I doubt there was serious thought given to incorporating community policing as part of homeland security,” Friedmann says.

     That IACP committee provides annual awards to local police for excellence in community policing, with special mention given to those local police departments who try and combine the two. “The awards are few and far between,” he says.

     Friedmann says the problem began with the advent of community policing in the 1980s and 1990s, even before homeland security was an issue.

     “There was always more rhetoric than reality considering community policing,” he says. Friedmann says community policing is not simply being more friendly with local citizens. Community policing means being proactive, developing partnerships, and addressing sources of crime as a precursor to reducing crime.

     “The importance of this to homeland security is that the principles of being proactive and partnership-creation are extremely relevant to minimizing the likelihood of a terrorist incident. If someone in the community has information, you want them to provide that intelligence to you, but in order to do that you have to have developed good relationships in the community,” he says.

Not ‘Sophie’s Choice’

Law enforcement experts generally agree that community policing and homeland security are not mutually exclusive policing philosophies. It doesn’t have to be a Sophie’s Choice of either-or. The mission of homeland security shares a number of commonalities with community policing. Friedmann says the informed local police chief needs to address both the threats of terrorism and provide responses to traditional crime.

     “The desired role of local law enforcement in homeland security policy is more fully realized when an agency employs community policing principles as an integral part of its homeland security efforts,” Friedmann says. “Focusing only on counter-terrorism is no longer enough.”

     Friedmann says countries like Israel and England have found that focusing on terrorism will not suffice, since the public is more interested in traditional police services that address street crime and crimes against property.

     “You can’t just simply say you’re busy with terrorism,” he says. “More people are affected by traditional crime than by terrorism.”

     The most apparent overlap between the two approaches relates to the manner in which they manage the prevention and response to crime and terrorism, particularly if terrorism is recognized as a criminal activity. Through this classification, the function of police departments coincides with the objectives of homeland security - the prevention, detection, and eradication of criminal activity through effective law enforcement.

     “When local police employ a community policing strategy, they not only satisfy the aims of domestic security, but also alleviate many of the known shortcomings that often plague these policies,” Friedmann says.  

     Thacher also believes community oriented policing can be reconciled with the new demands of homeland security.

     “You do this by focusing on what local police do best in this area, which is community protection,” he says.

     Stanley Supinski, director of Partnership Programs at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and an instructor in the Homeland Security Management Institute, Long Island University, says proven methodologies, especially those that serve to develop and improve ties to communities and constituents, can serve to support new law enforcement roles and missions - in this case homeland security.

     “Research is clearly showing that implementing community oriented policing strategies and tactics can assist law enforcement agencies with preventing both crime and terrorism,” Supinski writes in a recent Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management paper titled “Policing and Community Relations in the Homeland Security Era.”

     Supinski advocates a concept he calls “community oriented homeland security” that uses the concepts of community policing to not only support law enforcement, but also to engage the public, with a concept it understands, in all aspects of the homeland security enterprise.

     “It goes beyond the prevention aspect to preparedness, response, and recovery in the aftermath of disasters,” he says. Supinski says the key is to develop and maintain strong, positive community relations that clearly supports law enforcement’s role in homeland security.

     Achieving a balance between the two competing philosophies while preserving civil liberties at the same time can be a delicate matter, but other studies suggest that by adopting community policing principles it is possible to reduce civil rights violations associated with ethnic profiling performed behind the mask of homeland security. The idea is to develop a strong enough communication network between the police and public that false rumors and inaccurate reports of police operations can be prevented.

     “Traditional intelligence methods have limited power to penetrate Middle Eastern communities,” Supinski says. Instead, cooperation, along with solid communications networks and increased trust, allows police to develop sources for information inside the community, which could provide vital intelligence relating to potential terror activity, he says.

     “Otherwise, it will be impossible for intelligence officers to penetrate these communities,” Supinsky says.

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