Should Communities Control Cops?


Communities want some control as to how they are policed.

Why is police-community cooperation the role of government? Why aren’t communities taking the lead?

Let communities police themselves. They will let us know when they want that to change.


Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.


I ride my four-wheel drive vehicle (a Polaris Razor) on the roads in my Appalachian community and wave to the deputy sheriffs as they go by. It’s illegal for me to do this, but it’s accepted.

We elect sheriffs to maintain civilian control. Most cops ignore marijuana use. We take a lot of youthful lawbreakers home to their parents (my first introduction to the criminal justice system). Two friends who assault each other are asked if either want to press charges; an arrest is not automatic.

I could go on forever regarding the discretionary options of police officers, but the point is that communities want some control as to how they are policed. They don’t want every violation to end in an arrest.


Providence, RI wants to set guidelines for how their police officers conduct themselves. After reading remarks in a variety of police forums, you would think that the world is coming to an end. But maybe, just maybe, this is exactly what we need to take the pressure off of cops and to restore some sense of an agreement between law enforcement and the public.

From the Providence Journal

Edited excerpts from the Providence Journal:

The Community Safety Act covers a lot of ground. It details how police must report on their interactions with the public, deals with access to video from police body cameras, specifies what types of identification can be sought from people police encounter. It sets up procedures for seeking translators for non-English speaking suspects.

It also allows parents of juveniles on the department’s gang database to be notified when their juvenile is put on the list and requires the department to establish a system for people to challenge such designations.

It would also forbid the department from holding a suspect of another agency, such as the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, unless that agency had a criminal warrant for the suspect.

Police work is dominated by procedures and rules, Fraternal Order of Police President Robert K. Boehm said, and the FOP is concerned about how any new rules would work. “The ordinance requires reports for ‘pedestrian stops,’ Boehm said, but doesn’t define the term. Police have conversations with numerous people every shift, he said, and the ordinance, as worded, would require a report on each of them.

The ordinance would also limit police to asking someone under 18 years old for an ID once. Boehm said that could prevent an officer from double-checking the spelling of a name or prevent a second officer, new on the scene, from making a similar request. And what if the person is under 18 but looks older, he said.

The attorney general’s office advised the city to delete a section that would ban so-called ‘pretext stops,’ of crime suspect for traffic violations. That section was cut from the Monday version.

The office also recommended against enacting an ‘exclusionary rule’ where evidence gathered from a search that violated the ordinance couldn’t be used in court.

Detractors state that the bill will turn the city into another Chicago where restrictions on cops (and lack of support) led to massive increases in violent crime.

Providence Journal

Should Communities Control Cops?

I used to think that elected sheriffs was one of the silliest ideas. “What we need are proven professionals,” I used to think. “Not a popularity contest.”

But is community control of cops such a bad thing?

Back in my day as a cop, the focus was making good arrests, thus stopping people for endless minor transgressions was discouraged. We were warned that every stop meant danger for both the officer and suspect, thus minor interactions were discouraged. We never arrested for pot. We arranged rides for many drivers who had “one too many.”

If the people of Providence want less aggressing policing, so be it. If this makes the jobs of cops safer and easier, isn’t this a good thing?

A National Perspective

We have a problem where police officers are leaving their jobs in droves over a perceived lack of community support. If recent newspaper articles are to be believed, thousands of cops are getting out, and few seem willing to take their place. According to the head of the FBI and many additional commentators, cops feel reluctant to do their jobs.

But why is police-community cooperation the role of government? Why aren’t communities taking the lead?

We need to focus on specific, achievable actions. Calls for dialog produce little beyond more mistrust.

Communities Control Crime-Not Cops

Every student of criminology is taught that communities control crime, not cops, not the criminal justice system.

“Think about it,” my criminology professor once said, “Can you stop someone from using drugs or beating their spouse or buying stolen goods or engaging in an act of violence. No, of course not, thus the limitations of the criminal justice system.”

It’s true. I’m not suggesting that the justice system is powerless. We can arrest. We can incarcerate. We can offer counseling to teach a man not to beat his wife. We can drug test. We can offer job training or substance abuse services.

There are endless strategies we can employ, but in the final analysis, any community (or the larger society) decides what’s acceptable behavior, and what isn’t.

Societal pressure brought down drinking and driving, child abuse, drug use and probably crime itself. The criminal justice system played its part, but it’s peer pressure that causes you to take someone’s car keys when they had too much to drink.

Friends don’t let friends beat the hell out of an adversary. We need to understand and depend on the power of peers and communities to control crime. To do that, communities need to take responsibility for their own safety.

A Written Contract with Communities

This is what we said previously on this site, there need to be rules of engagements in every community in the Unites States as to what we want cops to do and how we want them to do it. It’s not time for a dialog, it’s not time for an understanding, it’s time for action.

Let every city and community spell out what it wants done on their behalf. Let it be in writing.

Too many confrontations start out as police enforcing minor traffic or criminal violations. This needs to stop unless communities tell cops otherwise. Let the community tell police when enforcement should change. Let the community create a list as to what it wants.

I understand that this flys in the face of proactive or broken windows policing and that many police commanders and mayors will profoundly disagree, but we are past the time where we get to say that we know better than community residents.

It may (and probably will) lead to an increase in crime, but that’s a choice for the community to make. In many cities, it couldn’t get much worse than what it is now.

We’ve literally ignored the murder and injury to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens in high crime neighborhoods, and cops are quitting in large numbers. It’s time for something different.

So let communities decide their levels of enforcement. There are an endless number of online tools to gain a consensus. Let there be community meetings.

Don’t like “stop and frisk?” Wa-lah, done. Disagree with marijuana arrests? Over. The guy who gets drunk and passes out? Sent to a place where he can peacefully sleep it off. Minor DWI? Take his keys and call a cab. Minor domestic violence? Send them to counseling if both agree. Traffic violations? Short of 15 miles over the speed limit or reckless driving, ignore it.

Many Cops Would Love This

Many cops would love this. When the complaint for noisy kids comes in, they don’t arrest, they get out of their patrol car and talk. No one runs, no one mouths off, why run the risk when the likelihood is that you’re not going to be arrested?

Police officers could spend the majority of their time (now that they have time) talking to residents and being good guys, and getting leads as to major crimes (the essence of community policing).

And most importantly for cops, they end the majority of confrontations, and they come home safe; their psychological scars are fewer. They are happier.

Maybe now they won’t quit in droves, which is what’s happening now (and no one wants to take their place). Maybe they will go back to proactive policing now they have defined rules of engagement.

There will be detractors who will say that if you “…take care of the small stuff the big stuff will take care of itself” (broken windows). I’m not sure that business will appreciate drinking or drug use close to their buildings. Advocacy organizations will strongly disagree as to drinking and driving and domestic violence. But they are not the ones enforcing all this.

Not all communities will proceed down this path, and that’s fine. Most won’t. The overwhelming number of communities in this country will want things to stay as they are, so we’re not risking much.

Why aren’t communities taking responsibility for their own safety?

But it’s cowardly to tell cops to enforce the law without acknowledging the physical and psychological dangers (on both sides) in communities that feel they are being over-policed. You are not an occupying force if your only role is to deal with the big stuff, the crimes everyone want addressed.

Police officers need some level of support if they are to do their jobs with precision and compassion. They need encouragement if we expect them to continue to do their jobs.

But why is police-community cooperation the role of government? Why aren’t communities taking responsibility for their own safety?

Let communities police themselves. They will let us know when they want that to change.

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