For law enforcement agencies across the nation, 2015 has been a year of intense soul searching. Faced with a mandate to adopt a new mindset of civilian engagement that is often at odds with existing practices and procedures, police officials scrambling for a foothold have found a comfortable fit in the familiar language of community policing.
Unfortunately, two decades of marginal success demonstrate that community policing as usual is ill equipped to effect lasting change in an environment marred by entrenched feelings of mutual mistrust. But there may be a tool, dubbed “RespectStat” (it’s a twist on the oft-touted and also controversial numbers-focused CompStat program pioneered by the NYPD), that could be useful in building trust.
A consensus among policing experts is that an overemphasis on crime reduction has led to the subversion of other important goals of community-oriented policing, such as establishing positive relations with constituents. Yet quantifiable measures to evaluate how policing practices impact community perceptions are lacking, even though social scientists have a pretty good idea what contributes to positive engagements with police — including a perception among civilians that they are being treated with fairness, courtesy and respect. The disconnect, says Dennis Rosenbaum, a leading community policing researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is that there’s legacy of misunderstanding about what citizens want out of their police.
“For decades all [departments] kept was crime data, because officials thought that that’s all the public cared about,” he says. “We now understand that the public cares about the process of policing even more so than the outcome. They care about crime and disorder, but they also care about how they’re being treated.”
Rosenbaum recently completed a multiyear trial of the RespectStat tool, and he believes it can support current reform efforts by offering the context and accountability needed to repair decades of community distrust.
Whereas CompStat crunches the numbers on fluctuations in crime by district and holds precinct commanders to task for levels of crime in those districts, Rosenbaum says RespectStat incentivizes positive interactions over arrests. In that way, the program can begin to change policing culture from the inside out.
“Through advances in social science and survey research we now have the ability to give the public a voice in matters that are important to them,” he says. “We just have not paid enough attention to this.”
The engine of the RespectStat system is a new polling metric — the Police-Community Interaction (PCI) survey — that rates civilian encounters with police based on indicators such as an officer’s level of respect, helpfulness and competence. According to Rosenbaum, the survey differs from most existing community satisfaction surveys by zeroing in only on people who have had contact with police in the past two weeks.
More than 50 municipalities tested the survey last year, but it got its first workout as an accountability tool under a pilot program began by Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy of the Chicago Police Department.
According to McCarthy, RespectStat data provided the CPD critical insight into community perceptions of police, enabling researchers to map “hotspots” of citizen dissatisfaction and identify differences in community attitudes based on hour, shift or CPD unit, among other things. RespectStat is now fully operational in Chicago, with CompStat-style precinct reports on community trust expected to be released twice annually.
While components of the RespectStat model have been under development for more than a decade, its debut could hardly be better timed. Law enforcement officials who are committed to reform are eager to embrace more evidence-based approaches to the practice of policing, and say tools like RespectStat are a critical resource.
“Mutual trust, respect and confidence between the public and the police is fundamental to effective policing … and surveying the public to develop good evidence of where this relationship stands is an important part of the process to enhance the police-community relationship,” says Daniel Wagner, a lieutenant in the Cambridge Police Department and vice president of the newly formed American Society of Evidence-Based Policing.
Wagner cautions that one challenge of a customer satisfaction survey like RespectStat is to accurately capture feedback from communities where residents feel most disenfranchised. Rosenbaum acknowledges that the system’s reliance on police encounters that generate official paperwork, such as car stops, risks excluding marginalized communities that experience the most strained relations with law enforcement from the data.
He says he is currently working on methodologies to address those limitations, but emphasizes that the mere existence of a system like RespectStat can begin to influence officer behavior.
“We’re not completely there yet and there’s a lot of ways this can play out,” he says, “but when something is measured, it begins to matter.”
Christopher Moraff writes on politics, civil liberties and criminal justice policy for a number of media outlets. He is a reporting fellow at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a frequent contributor to Next City and The Daily Beast.