Opinion: Community policing

POSTED: 05/18/12 1:53 PM

Here is something that may actually work: community policing. Understaffing has been the name of the game for a very long time. It also has been the usual excuse for anything that went wrong in our communities. But now we see slowly but surely more police officers appearing in the streets.
They’re not driving along comfortably in police cars, blaring their horns (as some people have long suspected; on their way to lunch or some other pleasurable activity), but they appear on bicycles and sometimes even on foot.
We just happen to witness last Wednesday a scene involving two of these officers who were patrolling Front Street. Dressed in their partly bright green colored polo shirts they were not to be missed. The officers approached a man who was sleeping on a bench along the shopping street. They talked to him calmly and in the end the man, who seemed to be homeless, muttered something (though he definitely did not use the Dutch mierenneuker-insult) and went on his way.
That was, in a nutshell, a piece of community policing. Shortly afterwards we attended a press briefing by Hector Garcia of the Miami Dade School of Justice at the Justice Ministry.
Garcia put the scene we described to him in the context of the broken windows-theory. If somebody breaks one window in a deserted building and nobody does anything about it, soon all windows will be broken. If there is one homeless man sleeping in a shopping street and nobody acts, soon all homeless people will be sleeping on Front Street. Soon after, Garcia said, they will be drinking beers.
The picture is clear: after the beer drinking, arguments will follow and before you know it, Front Street is a no go zone.
This is just one of the reasons why community policing is beneficial to the community. Garcia labeled the sleeping homeless man as a “quality of life offense.” It’s not really a crime, but it is a situation you want to keep under control before it turns into something ugly.
The community policing project Justice Minister Duncan has embarked upon is a valuable initiative that deserves everybody’s support. The neighborhoods that will get their own neighborhood police officer – like Middle Region and Dutch Quarter – will slowly but surely experience a difference in their daily lives – though this will only happen if neighborhood residents are willing to participate.
The officers need to build a neighborhood coalition – a team of people who are willing to improve the neighborhood they live in. Neighborhood policing is per definition pro-active, Garcia said; it’s a big difference from traditional policing whereby people only start calling the police after something has happened.
Neighborhood policing works like a sensor: before something happens, there are always warning signs, Garcia says. Community cops are trained to recognize these signs and to act upon them.
But maybe the most important effect community cops will have on the crime levels in St. Maarten flows from their ability to build bridges and to restore people’s trust in the police. As things stand now, somebody could get murdered with two hundred people standing around. When they are interviewed by the police, they all just happened to look the other way, so nobody has anything to report.
This attitude stems from the fact that people do not trust the police and from fear for retaliation once someone finds out they’ve been snitching.
Community cops play a vital part in tipping the balance the other way. Malcolm Gladwell notes in his book The Tipping Point that bad things start to happen when the number of people that favor breaking the law in a neighborhood reaches a certain level. Before that moment, the law breakers are kept more or less under control by the majority that prefers to stick to the law.
If community cops manage to bring more people over to their side, we may see in the long term a decline in crime. Maybe it’s better to put it this way: community cops will bring about a change to the environment they operate in that will stop young people doing things they later come to regret.

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