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Police body cameras alone won’t build trust

Crime drops, respect grows when officers and community know each other

Suffolk_Slogan_360x300Brenda Bond was talking with the manager of a Lowell rooming house in a first floor hallway when she came upon the biggest issue in American law enforcement today: trust in the police.

“She didn’t speak specifically about any one problem she had with the police, but she talked about the perceptions or assumptions officers can make about the people who lived there,” said Bond, who was researching community-police relations. “She didn’t have regular access to police or a good relationship with them, so it creates a divide.”

BrendaBond2Suffolk University Professor Brenda Bond.

Bond, a professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service in Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School, has spent the last 20 years working closely with the Lowell Police Department examining the relationship between residents and those who serve and protect them.

As she has done repeatedly over the decades, Bond and a graduate student were going door-to-door that hot summer day, getting opinions at street level, working to document the concerns, experiences and perceptions of city residents.

“My work includes capturing community voice and bringing it to the policing conversation,” she said.

The issue of police trust exploded in August 2014 when Michael Brown, 18, an African-American, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Widespread demonstrations roiled the suburb of St. Louis for weeks and again when a grand jury decided three months later not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson. The deaths of unarmed African-American men in incidents with police in New York City, South Carolina, and Baltimore have followed. The events have sparked high-profile protests in many cities, including Boston.

“The public problem of trust in the police has really manifested itself dramatically since the Ferguson shooting,” said Ed Davis, former Police Commissioner for the City of Boston and former Superintendent of the Lowell Police Department who now does private security consulting.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 10.50.54 AMLowell police officer stops to talk with local.

“Actually, the police business has been working really hard on improving our relationships with the community. But unfortunately, incidents that have been happening over the last year or two have really driven a stake in between the community and the police,” said Davis.

One heavily promoted solution for greater accountability and transparency is police body-worn cameras.

Support has come from the White House to the ACLU to many law enforcement experts. President Obama asked Congress to allocate $75 million for technology and police training. The Department of Justice swiftly allocated the first $20 million in grants.

The American Civil Liberties Union surveyed police departments in America’s 100 largest cities and found that 63 either are currently using body-worn cameras or have plans to, while 30 are not using them. The remaining communities did not respond.  Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said in September that the BPD will soon begin a pilot program. “It’s gonna happen,” he told WGBH radio.

brendapoliceProfessor Brenda Bond talks with Lowell PD Superintendent William Taylor.

The cameras present challenges: how to balance the need for accountability against the need for privacy and confidentiality. There are also pragmatic issues – the cost of buying and maintaining cameras, managing data storage, training and establishing protocols for use by officers and public disclosure.

“I think body-worn cameras are a useful tool in some situations, but I think the big picture is, we need to have interaction – and positive interaction – between the police and the community. That is going to make the difference,” said Bond.

Davis, who joined Bond and his successor, Lowell Police Superintendent William Taylor, for breakfast at the Owl Diner in Lowell one recent morning, said, “The community policing sound byte is relationships. The community reaches out to the police and the police reach out to the community. There can be mutual respect there. And that’s what this comes down to, mutual respect,” said Davis.

Later, Bond touched on a strategy that has drawn sharp criticism in some American cities – the “broken windows” theory of policing. Many inner-city residents and social justice advocates believe it has been unfairly applied in poor and minority neighborhoods and has led to widespread harassment, especially of young African-American males, and fueled deep police distrust in those communities.

“The research I’ve done here in Lowell around ‘broken windows’ theory – specifically if you pay attention to the little things and low-level crime – shows that you can impact higher level crime generally. In that study, we found that crime had been reduced by 19 percent,” she said.

“There are a number of critics of the ‘broken windows’ theory and I think it’s important to have critics out there who ask questions about its effectiveness,” she continued. “‘Broken windows’ is not about zero tolerance or about mistreating any members of the community.

“What ‘broken windows’ is about when it is implemented correctly is paying attention to those crime and disorder issues that plague neighborhoods, and dealing with them and tailoring those responses so it does improve the quality of life in that neighborhood.”

Lowell bikeLowell officers are using bikes to better community relations.

Taylor said in addition to cruisers, Lowell officers patrol on foot, bicycles and Segways to get closer to residents and build relationships one at a time. The department also has substations in neighborhoods. “The genius of it is that civilian crime analysts, uniformed police officers and the community get together literally on a daily basis in some informal conversations, identify problems and try to find solutions to correct them,” said the superintendent.

Bond, who soon will deliver an updated survey to the LPD, said the trend is clear.

“What police are learning and going back to is that the principles of community policing – prevention, partnerships and problem-solving – are the kind of foundation that are necessary in any changing environment around policing,” she said.

“While we need to think about body-worn cameras and social media as tools in today’s policing, we can’t lose sight of those fundamental community-policing partnerships as a way to prevent and solve today’s crime problems.”

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.