Local chiefs react to report on proactive policing

It wasn’t too long ago, historically speaking, that police officers were reactive in nature, responding to calls and working on investigations but taking few steps beyond that to combat crime.

Over the past few decades, however, departments across the country increasingly have incorporated tenets of proactive policing, or policing that strategically aims to prevent or reduce crime.

In a report released last week, a committee appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that many of the techniques successfully reduce crime in the short term and don’t significantly alter residents’ opinions of cops.

That’s welcome news to local police departments, most of which have embraced at least some proactive policing methods over the years.

The report, it should be noted, says there is too little data to determine the long-term impacts of proactive policing. It implores researchers to explore whether police, aggressively searching to deter criminal activity, now are more likely to violate the Fourth Amendment. And it doesn’t form an opinion on whether racial biases impact where and how police employ such techniques. Authors said the lack of evidence in that regard is “startling.”

Four approaches to community policing are listed in the report: place-based, problem-solving, person-focused and community-based. Some of the more commonly known methods include hot spots policing, a place-based method in which officers focus on high-crime locations; and stop-question-frisk, a controversial, person-based practice in which police stop, question and frisk people — sometimes because of who they are, sometimes because of where they are.

Most if not all southeastern Connecticut departments don’t use stop-and-frisk. To do so, New London Acting Police Chief Peter Reichard pointed out, a department would need enough officers to staff walking beats.

But many departments, including Reichard’s, use some variation of hot spots policing.

For New London, that can mean sending two officers to an area that’s seeing higher reports of crime, or making it so an area has near-constant police coverage.

Officers assigned to the city’s quality of life patrol also have specific properties and areas they have to check on several times a day. There are the commercial areas at 1 Ocean Ave. and on Colman Street. There’s the Blackhall Street-Prest Street-Connecticut Avenue block, the site of multiple recent high-profile crimes. Officers keep an eye on Bank Street, too.

“Instead of just randomly putting officers out there and having them drive in circles, we direct patrol,” Reichard said.

With crimes like car burglaries, sometimes an officer’s presence is all it takes to deter would-be thieves.

City police also use a technique called problem-oriented policing, where officers attempt to stop crime by addressing its underlying issues through property improvements and the like. Reichard pointed to McDonald Park as an example of that: Officer Ryan Soccio worked frequently with FRESH New London as the group revitalized the green space.

“We get a lot of positive feedback from people when they see enforcement taking place in their neighborhood,” Reichard said. “They’re the ones who usually are the victim (of crimes). It’s not often people from outside a neighborhood who are the victims.”

In Ledyard, Chief John Rich said his department draws on the same two techniques, although it doesn’t have a formal program for either.

One of the department’s first initiatives upon becoming independent in February 2016, for example, was to target stretches of road that were prone to crashes.

Officers also use the problem-solving approach at places such as the Gray Farm House, a group home for teenage girls to which police frequently are called.

“We have proactively sent an officer there to actually interact with the staff and the girls who are placed there to try to mitigate some of the problems that may happen,” Rich explained.

“Some of these concepts come and go,” Rich said. “But I think the bottom line is the principles of community policing are always effective. The theme of the whole thing for us is doing everything we do with respect for everybody’s rights.”

Waterford is unique in that its heavy retail presence draws visitors from across the state. Rather than targeting certain neighborhoods, officers target particular stores or times of the year. They work both to prevent theft and to attend to distracted shoppers who’ve rear-ended the car in front of them.

Chief Brett Mahoney said he can’t remember a time in his 29-year career when proactive policing concepts didn’t exist. Even back when he was a cop at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, his boss regularly informed him of areas seeing a rash of suspicious activity where he should make his presence known.

In Mahoney's eyes, the practice has grown with technology. Years ago, if he wanted to learn what day of the week was bringing the most crime, he would’ve needed to spend hours going through his shift activity. Now he can gather that information in seconds.

Technology also allows residents to more easily report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods. And it allows police to more easily perform another proactive technique: procedural justice policing. That’s when police, using things like social media and citizens’ academies, offer behind-the-scenes looks that bring legitimacy to their work.

“I think that’s important,” Mahoney said. “We try and break down the police-citizen barrier by showing that we’re people, too.”


Proactive Policing (PDF)


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