Police and community can solve problems. Or cause them.

Former U.S. attorney shares lessons learned

 In a series of articles, I’m looking at questions about criminal justice: “Are we safe?” “Are we smart?” “Are we fair?” “What is the best way forward?” I’ve discussed Peoria’s police-plus-community effort, similar to the effort beginning now in Springfield and Champaign-Urbana, to deter people who appear likely to commit gun violence.

Let’s look at examples of police-community problem-solving, both good and bad.

We now expect law enforcement to do more than simply show up after a crime. We now expect -- and should expect -- law enforcement to work along with the community in order to address and reduce significant concerns about safety and security, as well as economic and property crimes. In Springfield, law enforcement does substantial work with the community, including efforts to deter gun violence and to reduce damage from opiates and addiction.

As United States attorney, I did a lot of police-community work in Peoria. For examples, we -- the mayor, police chief, sheriff, state’s attorney, U.S. attorney and community leaders -- engaged in extensive community education, in order to gain public support before we even began our gun violence reduction effort. We invited community members, including media, to witness our “call-ins” of potential gun offenders. We helped organize Peoria Citizens Against Violence, community members who work with neighborhoods damaged by gun violence. We assisted with “Don’t Start,” an innovative attempt to reach young people who appeared to be headed toward unfortunate outcomes, before these young people began to damage themselves or others, and before they needed a formal “call-in,” as a person likely to commit gun violence. We worked to establish understanding and earn the community’s trust—just as the Springfield Police Department does. This is good problem-solving, and is the basis for modern law enforcement.

There is a contrast: Ferguson, Missouri. After Officer Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and produced two reports, one about the shooting (concluding that the officer should not be prosecuted) and the other about policing within the community. This second report concluded that, “Ferguson law enforcement efforts are focused on generating revenue [and] violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African-Americans.” The city set a revenue goal for the police, increasing each year, and the police department communicated individual revenue goals to each officer and tracked each officer’s “collections,” often from ordinance violations instead of criminal activity. Illegal stops and arrests? Yes. Excessive force? Yes. Harsh fines? Yes. Jail for nonpayment? Yes. Targeting African-Americans for charges, fines and jail? Yes. Officer-to-citizen contacts? Often negative. Systems and procedures? Causes of further harm. In Ferguson, the police worked against the community, creating problems and mistrust, rather than working alongside the community, solving problems and earning trust.

The events in Ferguson and other places taught me that I underestimated the potential and reality of tension and distance between police and the community, and that I needed to recommit to easing the tension and bridging the distance. We as a community should recognize the potential and reality of tension and distance between law enforcement and community. And we should choose whether we will work to ease that tension, bridge that distance, and commit to the trust and partnership that we truly need, if we (police and community) are to solve our criminal justice concerns.

Jim Lewis is a former civil rights worker, civil rights lawyer and law schoolteacher. Jim and his family came to Springfield in 1983, and he worked in the United States Attorney’s Office, becoming U.S. attorney for central Illinois in 2010. In late 2016, Jim retired, and he now teaches and volunteers.

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