Editorials, Opinion

Refocusing on ‘to serve and protect’

In a past life, West Virginia University sociology professor James Nolan was a Wilmington, Del., police officer. In his 13 years on the force, Nolan noticed something: “The root cause of criminal behavior isn’t in the character or decisions of a person committing a violent or illegal act. Instead, it is more directly related to the context and conditions in which the behavior emerges. I was keenly aware that the same problems were happening in the same neighborhoods since I started as an officer.”

Which is part of the reason Nolan is now working on a National Science Foundation-funded situational policing project aimed at breaking down barriers between police and citizens in select Baltimore neighborhoods.

In that past lifetime at Wilmington PD, Nolan worked on something similar: a “weed and seed” strategy funded by the U.S. Department of Justice that focused on “weeding” out some of the entrenched actors participating in illegal activities and “seeding” in social and human services to help individuals and revitalize the neighborhoods. And it worked — “We learned that the strength of neighborhood relationships made places safer,” as Nolan said.

But Nolan also noted the success could never last, because the department never saw the community policing he and his six fellow officers did as “real police work.”

It seems that in modern policing, the emphasis lies on “discipline and control” to the detriment of “serve and protect.” Building relationships with community members and helping people — not just responding to crime — doesn’t seem like “real” police work.

We’ve previously said that police shouldn’t have to act as “social workers with guns.” We stand by that statement and continue to support adding licensed social workers to the force. If anything, putting too much pressure on law enforcement to wear so many different hats — police officer, first responder, medical professional, mental health professional, social worker, addiction specialist, etc. — forces them to double-down on the thing they are actually trained to do: exert control over a situation and enforce the disciplinary letter of the law.

Stretching our officers too thin — mentally and physically — leaves no time or mental space to build relationships with individuals and with the community as a whole. When almost everyone in an institution is burnt out and cynical, an institutional apathy takes hold that will eventually wear down even the most enthusiastic altruist.

It’s that apathy that lets patrolmen see individuals not as people, but as a problem. It’s that apathy that leads supervisors to stop making sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed and to take shortcuts. It’s that apathy that can make it feel like police and the community are on different sides, working against each other (or at least separate from one another) instead of working together.

We look forward to learning the results of Nolan and his fellow researchers’ Baltimore situational policing study. We hope it proves to be as successful as Wilmington’s “weed and seed” strategy, if not more so, and that it can provide a guide for policing nationwide.  

Our law enforcement officers are part of our community. That’s why it’s time for us — not just as a city or a state, but as a country — to get back to the kind of police work that puts the emphasis back on “to serve and protect” and makes our communities stronger and safer.