For the past 40 years, I have worked for public safety, with a quarter-century spent on the beat as a police officer in Washington, D.C. This is the experience I will bring with me when I travel to Boston next week to talk about a misguided program that police are introducing in Boston and in Washington. In both cities, it goes by the name of the Safe Homes Initiative.
Here is what I plan to tell the Boston City Council, which is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Safe Homes Initiative on June 3:
I will say that Safe Homes is the opposite of a community policing strategy. It’s not acting in partnership with the community when police officers respond to tips by asking people to give up their constitutional rights and permit their homes to be searched without a warrant.
I will tell them that as a police officer myself, I wouldn’t let police into my house. Why? Because I don’t know for sure what is in there. Who knows for certain what might be in their house at any particular time? People come in and visit and you have no way of knowing what they might leave behind.
I will also tell them that I have more than enough reason as a black police officer not to trust police to come into my house, in whatever city I happen to be living. Unfortunately, not enough has changed in our country to make me feel otherwise.
There is another message I want to give to the Boston Police Department, the Boston City Councilors and everyone interested in enhancing public safety: There is simply no substitute for good community engagement. And Safe Homes threatens to undermine, not build, the relationships of trust that are necessary for there to be a real partnership between the police and the public.
I would have thought Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis would understand this. For years, he has been known as one of the most progressive police officers in the country. It makes no sense to me that he would come to Boston and want to implement something like the Safe Homes Initiative.
I know what real community policing is. From the mid-1970s on, I lived in the community where I was worked. Like the other residents and the businessmen in the neighborhood, I had a vested interest in public safety. I realized how important it was to form partnerships in which community members felt empowered and able to take on different roles. It wasn’t a matter of me as the police officer having all the power. To be effective, police had to share not only information with residents, but also the responsibility for keeping the community safe.
From my own experience as a community-minded police officer, I realize it probably takes 15 years or more to change the culture of a police force and implement community policing. Part of it is the mindset of the officers. You have to attract people who think of policing as a social service that improves the quality of life for everyone, not people who have a “cops and robbers” mentality and want to savor the street adrenalin and adventure.
Real community policing is not just about reacting to crime and rewarding officers for the number of tickets they give and arrests they make. It has to be proactive in nature, with officers being rewarded for the absence of crime. That is a major shift from traditional police roles.
For some years, many police departments were trying to make that shift. But then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. After that, federal funds were shifted from community police programs to strategies that have effectively militarized policing. Police officers often now act like they are patrolling war zones, and the relationships they should be building with communities are a major casualty.
In my experience, there can be no shortcut around what must be done if we are going to solve crimes when they occur and prevent new ones. Police officers must earn the trust of community members and work in partnership with them. Police departments must be transparent and accountable to the public they serve. If we are serious about public safety, we need to step back from quick-fix programs like Safe Homes.
Ronald Hampton is the executive director of the National Black Police Association. He will speak about the Safe Homes Initiative at the Boston City Council’s June 3 hearing, beginning at 3:30 p.m., and at a “community speak-out” event at Freedom House entitled “Come Get Your Rights On!: What You Need to Know about Police Searches,” from 6-8 p.m.