Talking Turkey About Inner City Police

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It is not a happy time to be a police officer in America. Recent highly publicized incidents of police brutality have tarnished the reputation of our nation’s men and women in uniform. And while I firmly believe that there needs to be a concerted effort to stop police abuses where they are an endemic problem, I also recognize that the majority of police officers are brave and responsible men and women trying to do a difficult and dangerous job.

So how do we change things? How do we change the feeling on the part of inner city residents that they are under siege? How do we change the reality of high crime statistics in inner city neighborhoods that lead police to assume the worst about the residents there?

An interesting idea on this subject was posed by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2013 book David and Goliath. In the book, Gladwell cites the success of Joanne Jaffe, a New York City police chief, in dramatically reducing crime in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.

What Jaffe discovered was that the police force in the Brownsville public housing projects may have been feared, but it was not seen as legitimate – that is, the residents did not see the authorities as fair or consistent, nor did they feel their concerns were being heard.

How Jaffe set about changing that was to keep close tabs on juvenile offenders, offering to help them and their families obtain educational, medical, and employment opportunities as long as they stayed on the right side of the law.

But she went further than that, most memorably by delivering a Thanksgiving turkey to every household in the Brownsville projects. Not only did the police force personally deliver the turkeys, they delivered the message that they cared about the residents and their concerns.

In addition to the Thanksgiving gesture, officers started setting up recreational activities with the youth in the neighborhood. They helped residents get to doctors’ appointments and took them out for dinner. Jaffe organized toy giveaways and Christmas dinners for the community.

The result? The robbery rate plunged from about 125 in 2006 to about 25 in 2011.

The Brownsville experiment most certainly took planning, effort, and money. But think of all the tax dollars and time saved on arrests, court appearances, and incarceration of offenders. Most importantly, imagine the sea change in public opinion about the police if more local departments were to operate in this way.

The mission of law enforcement has always been “to protect and serve.” Maybe by thinking outside the box, we can restore the image of our men and women in uniform.

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