Sep. 18, 2018

Batten Hour's Panelists Tackle the Subject of Community Policing on Constitution Day

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Coinciding with Constitution Day, the Batten School’s weekly Batten Hour speaker series tackled the timely topic of community policing and how it can bridge the disconnect between Constitutional rights and the government’s use of force —in this case, police force.  Moderated by Chief Timothy Longo, Charlottesville’s former Chief of Police, the session featured Rachel Harmon, F.D.G Ribble Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, Tommye Sutton—UVA’s new Chief of Police, and Brian Williams, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School.

In the aftermath of the events that took place in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, the relationship between the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville community, and the police force has been increasingly strained. This is not an isolated development, as police in America have been under heightened scrutiny and criticism since the Aug. 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Black Lives Matter protests, in particular, have shined a light on what many see as an excessive use of force by police, particularly when policing racial and ethnic minorities.

Acknowledging that the relationship between the University of Virginia community and the police force has soured since last year’s events, the panelists addressed how the use of community policing can reestablish cooperation and trust. The discussion focused on how a police force in the aftermath of violence, can regain the trust of the community it polices and work together to reduce crime and violence. Community policing, implemented globally for nearly three decades, was developed to transform police organizations from enforcers into community partners for safety. In effective community policing systems, police and communities work in partnership to reduce citizen insecurity as well as address the causes of that insecurity. Los Angeles, Boston and New Orleans (as well as South Africa and Jamaica) have had success with this approach, although recent violence and police shootings have garnered more attention and raised new questions. 

For Professor Rachel Harmon, the Constitution has its faults—at least when it comes to governing the police. Having once been a prosecutor rooting out bad cops, Harmon was familiar with the reoccurring and rampant abuse of police power but she also saw how police—good or bad—remain deeply committed to following the law.

“The Constitution reminds both officers and citizens of the deep values we are all committed to when police and citizens interact. Freedom is the default and intrusions by the government have to be justified. “

She went on to highlight how dissenters are critical for democracy and that speech has to be treated with respect by the government, even when it produces uncomfortable reactions.

But as for the Constitution, it only tells police what they can’t do not what they should do—and written in the 18th century it can’t possibly take into account the problems that police face in the 21st century.

So, what does the future hold for community policing? How can this once successful approach be resurrected after this period of violence and reactive policing? More importantly, how can the police and the communities they serve regain the trust that has been lost? What must be done differently for it to succeed at this critical juncture?

For Professor Brian Williams, he said the greatest challenge is to go back to the bedrock principles of western policing, which was articulated in 1829 by Sir Robert Peele who said the public and the police are one. For Williams, this is one of the greatest challenges that we face. He asked the audience, “How do we get to this destination that Mary Park Follet kind of described in 1918 as power with—from this current locale of power over and I think this is one of the great tensions that exist within our society right now. A lot of folks want to share power, share governance with law enforcement—when we think of relational policing—and some police organizations are resistant because change is uncomfortable.”

And he’s right—change is uncomfortable, but extremely necessary—as all of the panelists asserted. Unfortunately, it’s not something that happens overnight and requires more legwork than say, a one-time appearance at a townhall meeting—as Harmon pointed out to the audience. To rebuild trust, the police have to face the ugly reality that they are not always wanted—despite their best efforts to overcome deeply embedded distrust.

Nodding in agreement was Chief Sutton, who while new to UVA is familiar with campus policing having been the Deputy Chief of Police at Northwestern University in Chicago. For Sutton, municipal policing and campus policing are similar.

“I think there are certain assumptions that you take into account when you apply to be a police officer at a university. First, it’s a very intentional step. The second assumption is that you will be engaging and working with young people and young minds. I think there is a responsibility to help with the development of students as they matriculate from the first day as a first year to commencement. That responsibility doesn’t solely rely upon professors, residents’ life, and student affairs, we have just as much responsibility in that process of developing students whether that’s assisting them if they want to protest—to let them know how to protest, how you plan for a protest. If you want to protest, contact us so we can make sure the street is blocked so you can move 200 people across the street so we can make sure your protest is held safely.”

He went on to point out how university police can still respect those things that we can’t do in the Constitution, “We support them as they protest, we respect the 4th amendment and we are not stopping them and asking for their IDs or class schedules to prove that they belong at the University of Virginia; we’re not stopping them unnecessarily and seizing them without reason. It’s having that responsibility to help them grow and matriculate.”

For Sutton and all of the panelists, that responsibility—whether in the Constitution or not—is one that must continue.