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Could police keep the peace by walking more beats?

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The case for getting out of the patrol car

Baltimore Police Department Officer Ken Hurst, center, chats with residents as he walks a foot patrol
Patrick Semansky/AP

The shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of police have spurred a nationwide movement calling for law enforcement reform. In nearly every tragic incident, the same strikingly universal image is presented as evidence—one victim, usually on foot, surrounded by the strobing lights of dozens of patrol cars.

Cops roving cities in police cruisers have become a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. But having law enforcement officials monitor cities in glass and steel bubbles has proven problematic. Not only does a patrol car further isolate police from their communities, it sets up an undeniable us-versus-them hierarchy on American streets.

New policing programs that encourage cops to walk instead—called “foot beats”—are proving that walking can be transformative for neighborhood safety. In fact, this style of policing was endorsed by Hillary Clinton at last night’s debate; by contrast, Donald Trump embraced the controversial tactic known as stop-and-frisk, where officers must essentially engage in racial profiling.

While the traditional concept of walking the beat has never disappeared from denser cities like New York and Boston, it has become less and less common in most American cities over the years. One reason is the way our cities have grown—the distance that some cops would have to cover on foot would make it statistically impossible to keep the peace.

A training session for the Urban Peace Institute’s Urban Peace Academy
Urban Peace Academy

Take Los Angeles, where the police force is tasked with patrolling almost 500 square miles, much of it long, sprawling blocks that are certainly not considered to be “walkable” terrain. LA’s geographic challenges, as well as the lingering racial tensions after the protests and riots of 1992, made it a prime candidate for a new policing approach promoted by the Urban Peace Institute. The nonprofit was founded by civil rights attorney Connie Rice, an early advocate of what’s become known as community-based policing, and a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing.

Community policing—also known as relationship-based policing or partnership policing—aims to engender a trusting relationship between officers and the people they’re meant to protect, two groups which, in big cities especially, can have strikingly different social, racial, and economic backgrounds.

Walking the beat, engaging with residents at a personal level, is at the heart of that initiative. “If you understand the culture and you respect it, you’ll be able to police it more effectively,” said Fernando Rejón, a director for the Urban Peace Institute who helps to train law enforcement officials in community-based policing and gang intervention.

In 2011, the LAPD launched its first Community Safety Partnership (CSP) in partnership with the Urban Peace Institute and the city’s housing authority. Officers selected for the pilot program received a different set of skills than most cops. They were shown how to spot signs of post-traumatic stress and mental illness which could cause violent behavior. They were specifically trained to work with kids and teens, as up to 40 percent of all residents of public housing are under 18. And they agreed to devote five years to the same neighborhood—long enough to learn residents’ names.

The first CSPs began with officers patrolling a handful of densely populated public housing communities in Watts. One of those officers was LAPD Lieutenant Emada Tingirides, who recently spoke about the effectiveness of the program at a race and justice summit sponsored by The Atlantic. She had grown up in South LA and believed she understood the community’s challenges—until she started walking in Watts, she said. “I thought I was an expert on my job until I let my community teach me.”

Foot beats changed the community dynamic. Not only were smaller issues like graffiti and vandalism easier to see and fix on foot, police could have daily check-ins with elderly residents and small business owners. Cops on foot helped kids get to school on neutral paths that didn’t cross into contested gang territory. Soon, police officers found themselves taking on new roles, like coaching sports teams and leading Girl Scout troops.

Most notably, over the first three years, homicides plummeted by 50 percent.

The program now includes several neighborhoods throughout South and East LA. Foot beats probably won’t be implemented in every single LA neighborhood, but they can be introduced where tensions are running high to diffuse a potential flashpoint long before it becomes the next viral video. “The CSP is intentional about building trust and relationships,” said Gilberto Espinoza, senior associate of prevention programs at the Urban Peace Institute. “Getting out of the car is something you have do.”

Other cities are also seeing success with community policing. Homicides dropped in New Haven, Connecticut, after police started walking their beats. The community policing program in Dallas, Texas, has been credited for keeping the peace after five police officers were shot and killed at the end of a previously peaceful protest in July. Similar foot beat initiatives are underway in Milwaukee, Portland, Oregon, and Baltimore. And two years after Ferguson’s civil unrest spurred a global movement, the city is building a new neighborhood policing program built around walking.

While applying community policing to a city’s most dangerous neighborhoods can have a positive impact, walking the beat needs to be part of a more comprehensive, reform-minded strategy. Critics say that police departments must first work to hire officers who fit the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the communities they’re patrolling. Reform would also mean an end to incentivized arrest rates and decriminalizing minor drug offenses.

At least one aspect of foot beat data is irrefutable. Cops who practice community policing are statistically less likely to draw their guns, something that Tingirides confirmed personally—she had not shot or killed anyone in her 22 years on the force.

Especially in neighborhoods still reeling from social unrest, foot beats might even give officers a chance to repair the relationship in one way that only face-to-face, sidewalk encounters could. As she walked her beat, she found herself apologizing, said Tingirides. “Saying I’m sorry, not for what I did, but for what this badge and uniform means for so many people.”

Maybe the best way to repair the broken relationships between police and the people they protect is to get out of the car and rebuild that trust, block-by-block, step-by-step.