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A Deeper Look at How Louisville Does Community Policing


When Roger Collins first started coming around the Baxter Community Center, the kids really didn't talk to him.

He's a Louisville Metro Police officer. And a lot of the kids at the community center, which sits in the middle of the Beecher Terrace housing complex near 12th and Jefferson streets—a place with a reputation as a hub of criminal activity in Louisville, are just as likely to view the police as people who snatch up family members and neighbors as they are to see them as friendly faces.

But the more Collins came around the community center—the more he took off his duty belt and picked up a basketball on the street—the more the kids warmed up to him, he said.

Now, nearly three years after he started working the police department's First Division, which includes Beecher Terrace, kids walk up to and actively engage with Collins—even in front of their friends, Collins added.

"That's growth," he said.

When he visited the community center earlier this week with other Louisville police officers to show the kids how the bomb squad works, he lingered around afterwards slapping high fives and joking around.

"Your consistency as a police officer, as a community leader, is very, very important to make this a safer Louisville," he said.

Tensions are high between police and communities around the U.S. in the months following a series of high-profile police shootings. It's no different in Louisville.

Protests in Louisville have erupted in recent months after fatal shootings by police locally and nationally, and the recent letter from the police union's president that several activists viewed as threatening only strained the already stressed relationship.

Louisville Metro Police have hosted a slew of community forums with residents to address community and law enforcement relations. Police Chief Steve Conrad has opened himself up to panel discussions and questions from media regarding police policy and practice in effort to quell tensions between police and residents. And in recent months police and city officials have held show-and-tell styled events at community centers around the city in effort to build relationships with young people.

But are these efforts the best way to go about community policing? It's tough to say, say police officials and law enforcement experts.

It's important to understand that the main goal of community policing is to improve the public's trust and confidence in the police, said Gary Cordner, a Kutztown University criminal justice professor and expert on community policing.

"There’s evidence that when police engage the public, when they form partnerships with the community, when they police with the people rather than do policing to them, then the public has greater trust and confidence in the police,"  said Cordner, who is also the former dean of Eastern Kentucky University's College of Justice and Safety.

Cordner said police need to be present in communities and visible at times when crime isn't occurring. Being present at these times can help police officers see and understand the underlying conditions that lead to crime.

"When police identify the underlying conditions that generate crime and disorder, and work to change those conditions, it has more of an impact," Cordner said. He also said police can rarely address the true root causes of crime, but being present in communities can help build relationships with entities that can tackle those issues.

But the concept of community policing is more than forums and neighborhood meet and greets, for Eddie Woods, a Louisville activists and director of the LIFE Hope Center.

Forums, he said, are "cosmetic--something good for the public eye." The events shouldn't be considered community policing, he said.

He said most people that need to hear what the police have to say, or have something important to say to police, aren't going to the public meetings.

"When you get to talking community-oriented policing, you need to be talking about visibility, you need to be talking about walking streets, meeting people, sitting on porches, that's where the rubber meets the road," he said.

"Help paint a house, mow some grass."

Woods said he believes police should be a constant presence in the community. That means foot patrols, handing out flyers for non-police events and simply talking with residents should be the norm.

As for engaging with youth, something Louisville police focus on, Woods said one-on-one interactions are best. He remembers one specific instance when an officer played a few games of basketball with a kid who Woods said was on brink of crossing the line into a life of crime. After the game, the officer and young man sat down and talked for a while.

Woods said that moment, though seemingly small, was a huge moment in the kid's life.

"I ended up getting that particular kid to Western Kentucky University two years later and I think that interaction with that cop had a little something to do with that," he added.

Police need a concentrated effort of community policing that's "designed to change the landscape," Woods said.

But community policing isn't a concept that hinges solely on jumpshots and small talk.

"What police departments do to engage the community varies enormously, as it should," said Wesley G. Skogan, with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Skogan said a lot of concepts of community policing can work—but to be effective the effort needs to fit the neighborhood.

Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad echoes that.

He said in a neighborhood where the demographic is dominated by older adults, community meetings and discussions about effective lighting methods to avoid break-ins may be beneficial and well attended.

But, that kind of meeting would be ineffective with a group of teenagers, he added.

"It can't be one size fits all," he said.

Conrad said residents typically think about the tactics police use in community policing—such as foot and bike patrols—rather than the underlying philosophy.

That philosophy, he said, is rooted in the idea that police and the community work together to solve problems.

He points to the numerous citizen advisory committees, citizen police academies and community forums as leading efforts of community involvement.

"I think we are doing a lot of community policing, but I think often people, if they don't see those specific tactics, they think you're not doing it," he said, adding that "we can never do enough."

Louisville police recruits spend about 30 hours of their training focusing specifically on community policing, Conrad said.

Police officials have began asking Louisville officers to get out of their cruiser more often during patrol shifts and "get to know the people they serve."

He said just walking a beat isn't necessarily an equivalent to community policing.

"Really, doing community policing is getting to know people and people getting to know us," he said.

He said it is critically important for officers to develop trusting relationships with the community.

"There's no better use of our time than to spend time in those neighborhoods, getting to know people and getting to understand what their problems are," he said. "If the only time we're there is responding to a call it's difficult to have an effective conversation."

Skogan, with the Institute for Policy Research, said the success of community policing efforts depends on the programming.

In some cases, effective community policing will lead to residents making more 311 calls and 911 calls because they trust the police will respond appropriately. In others, police departments will send surveys to people that had a recent interaction with police asking them to provide feedback on police services.

There are no such surveys currently coming from Louisville police. The University of Louisville conducts an annual Citizen Attitude survey, however, Conrad said.

Skogan said effective community policing efforts—whatever they are—are paramount.

"Police need to realize that they need the support of the voters and taxpayers if they're are going to continue to effectively do their work."

Conrad said he expects it to be a "never ending effort" to develop community support and develop a truly trusting relationship between police and the community.

He said residents must feel comfortable reaching out to police about issues. If they're not, then police have more work to do to build that relationship, he said.

"We've got to be engaged with the people we are trying to serve if we are going to be effective in this community," he said.

Whether it's shooting hoops at Beecher Terrace or holding a public forum on the finer points of neighborhood watch, officer Roger Collins stresses that community policing is all about consistency.

"It's all the same, as long as you continue that interaction it's going to breed positive results."


Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.