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Can Smarter Police Work Prevent Another Ferguson?

A growing number of police departments are exploring a new model that stresses fairness in an attempt to win back minority communities' trust.
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Kelly McMillin, the police chief of Salinas, California, hasn’t been following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri closely — he’s got plenty of problems at home. But he can relate.

On May 20, Salinas officers shot to death a man who allegedly lunged at them with garden shears, the third fatal police shooting in two months. The next day, protesters in the largely Latino city took to the streets, saying they were victims of a brutal and racist police department. Some threw bottles at the cops, one of whom was knocked out while giving CPR to the victim of a drive-by shooting. The victim died, and the mob overran the crime scene.

“I understand how passions run high after an officer-involved shooting,” McMillin said this week.

But while authorities investigate whether the shootings were justified, McMillin sees the aftermath as an opportunity to improve relations with a community that doesn’t trust the police — something that should have happened a long time ago. It’s part of a larger attempt to change the culture of his department so his officers understand how some tactics can actually undermine public safety.

The reform model encourages police to be more empathetic and less judgmental in their everyday encounters with the public. If done properly, advocates say, it could reduce crime, improve witness cooperation and help prevent the kind of turmoil that followed the police shootings in Salinas and Ferguson, and the choke-hold death of a man in New York City last month.

This new way of thinking represents a slow but remarkable shift underway in American policing. It reflects a growing recognition that the data-driven strategies that gave rise to aggressive “hot spot” enforcement techniques like stop-and-frisk may have driven violence to historic lows, but at a steep price.

The targets of this flood-the-zone approach have been, for the most part, young minority men in poor, high-crime neighborhoods with a deep history of resentment toward a criminal justice system they view as discriminatory. This has sown deep feelings of distrust, making law abiding people less likely to see police as their protectors and more likely to resist them. Many experts believe that sentiment is what drives the “stop snitching” epidemic that prevents police from catching violent criminals. It also breeds the discontentment that fuels uprisings following police-related deaths.

“These individual incidents are understood in a context of, ‘the criminal justice system is not helping us, it’s hurting us,’” said Vaughn Crandall, a senior strategist at the California Partnership for Safe Communities who has helped departments implement the new strategy.

McMillin saw this decay firsthand, as a gang officer in Salinas, a city of 154,000 in a part of central California where the agriculture-heavy economy depends on the work of Latino migrant farmworkers. Latinos make up 77 percent of the population, and 32 percent of the police force.

Gang violence was the city’s most pressing crime problem, and McMillin was on the front lines of an approach that he described as “throw police officers at it and lock them up.” A growing segment of the Latino community felt under siege.

Studying for his master’s degree in public policy, McMillin researched the problem, and realized that the predominant strategy in Salinas’ high-crime neighborhoods didn’t take into account the myriad social problems that boiled beneath the surface. Then he happened upon Tracey Meares, a Yale Law School professor and a leading voice in an emerging field of crime research that advocates a shift from a deterrence-based model to one that emphasizes fairness. In theory, the approach would lead to a heightened sense of “police legitimacy” in which people were more likely to accept police actions, and help them. “A light went off,” McMillin recalled. “I said, ‘This is it.’”

Two major cities were on the vanguard of this new approach: Los Angeles and Cincinnati, both of which drastically overhauled their police departments following riots triggered by displays of brutal force against minorities. Chicago, reeling from a police-abuse scandal and a rise in homicides, adopted a community-policing curriculum in 2012 with encouragement from Meares and other academics.

Dennis Rosenbaum, a Chicago criminologist and executive director of the National Police Research Forum, said he thinks of the new approach as “putting good will in the bank” for use at times of crisis — such as a fatal shooting by police. “It’s about building this long term relationship of, ‘we’re both in this together, and, therefore, we’re going to look at this as an anomaly,’” said Rosenbaum, who is researching the effects of procedural justice reforms across the country. “That’s what legitimacy is.”

Salinas (Calif.) police chief Kelly McMillin
Salinas, Calif., police chief Kelly

Last year, McMillin sent some of his officers to Chicago to learn the new curriculum, which stressed the importance of explaining police actions, listening to complaints and treating people with respect. It also called for eschewing “hot spot” policing in favor of identifying and targeting “hot people” — the relatively small number of troublemakers who commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Oakland and Stockton, California, police have also received training.

McMillin’s officers returned to Salinas and trained the rest of the 136-officer department. For many, it was a hard sell. McMillin told them it would make them better police officers. “It’s a matter of taking a step back and saying it is really important to explain to people why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you’ll build a network around you of people who will support you and your work.”

Not long after the training, officers responded to a poor part of town to confront a man with a gun. They took the man down by force, while onlookers yelled at them. One of the officers, remembering the chief’s words, went back and knocked on an antagonist’s door. He explained what they’d done. A long conversation followed, and the officer ended up taking the man, a seasonal worker with a drinking problem, under his wing. A few weeks later, after the first officer-involved shooting in March, the man called the officer and told him he’d seen it all, and became a key witness.

McMillin tells that story to show how the new approach can work. But the challenges remain steep. In July, there was a fourth officer-involved shooting, another round of demonstrations, allegations of racial profiling, and calls for federal authorities to investigate the Salinas Police Department. Officers still reportedly encounter hostile crowds and uncooperative witnesses.

McMillin says his agency is not singling out Latinos, but has asked the FBI and Department of Justice to review the two most recent shootings. He has resisted demands to release the names of the officers involved, pointing out that the public outrage included threats of violent retaliation against police. “We’re just at the beginning. We still have a lot of work to do,” the chief said. That includes scheduling training with members of the Latino community on the new approach.

He can’t help but wonder how things would have gone if Salinas had started the reform effort years ago. He thinks there would have been “less likelihood” of unrest. “The four tragic shootings we had, regardless of what the outcome is, justified or not, have been a big setback,” McMillin said. “But this is, ultimately, a slow and deliberate process of trust building.”