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This police chief has a smart idea for improving police-community relations WTNH/YouTube Screenshot

When you think of your local cops, do you think of a specific officer or a faceless police department?

In my case it’s definitely the latter. The most “contact” I have with my city’s police typically consists of seeing them slowly cruising down the streets of our neighborhood while I’m out for a run. Their windows are tinted and I have no idea who’s inside the car.

I suspect many Americans have a similar experience. Unless there happens to be a police officer in our family or circle of friends, we are more familiar with cops en masse than any particular person.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf shared an excerpt of remarks made by Dean Esserman, the chief of police in New Haven, Connecticut, at a recent conference about criminal justice reform. Esserman’s proposal—which he’s partially implemented in his own department—is to require all cops to walk a beat.

Before I share his comments, some quick context. As Friedersdorf notes, New Haven is a pretty high-crime city. The population is about 130,000 within city limits and more than 800,000 in the county. This is important because it means that Esserman’s idea, to the extent that it’s been tested so far, can work outside of safe, small-town situations.

Here’s what Esserman had to say:

In New Haven, we’re the only city in America where, when you graduate the police academy, everybody walks a beat for a year. It doesn’t matter who you are. Everybody walks their same beat every day. And I wear a uniform everyday and I walk a beat every week myself.

Every month or two, I bring these young rookies into my conference room alone with the door closed. And we go around the room and I say, “Tell me a story.” I’ve been doing this now for the four years that I’ve been chief in New Haven. And the stories are always the same. The first week it’s a quiet walk. Everybody is kind of eyeballing you and you’re eyeballing everybody. By the end of the month you can’t get down the block without a half-a-dozen conversations and honking their horns. People know your children’s names and you know their children’s names.

They know your days off.

By the second or third month I almost always hear this story:

Chief, you gotta explain this to me, I don’t get it. I’ve walked this beat everyday with my partner for three months. And I say hello to this lady every morning. Yesterday, she asked me if I could stay a minute. She wanted to talk. She told me something horrendous had happened to her three or four months ago. I said, Ma’am, why didn’t you tell me then? She said, “Because I didn’t know you then, officer.”

Esserman’s beat idea is fantastic—and it has to be on foot. If the police officers who cruise my neighborhood were walking instead of driving behind tinted windows, we might be able to get to know each other. They might be able to connect with the kids playing on the sidewalk. And when they show up because someone called in a noise disturbance on those same kids setting off fireworks at midnight in the summer, they’d have a better idea of how to approach the situation.

What Esserman has realized is that mending police-community relations is a tall order, but it’s easier if officers and citizens are able to interact as individuals:

I know people who don’t believe in organized medicine, but they believed in my father as their doctor. I know people who don’t believe in the organized church, and believe that Dan Brown books about the scandals in the Vatican are all true. But they believe in their parish priest. I know people who don’t believe in Congress—it seems everybody—but they believe in their Congressman. What we’re realizing is that we’re in the relationship business.

The only way you get past that barrier of a uniform or skin color is through relationships. So we have people who don’t believe in the New Haven police department, and God knows they don’t believe in the chief of police.

But they believe in their cop. That’s what we’re going back to—we’re going back to a cop that has to earn their trust in the neighborhood, and that takes time. We’re going back to when the community embraces their officer. Not necessarily their department, but the person they know.

Read the rest of Esserman’s remarks here.

It goes without saying, of course, that this beat idea would not be a magic bullet. Police misconduct is a systemic problem and won’t be fixed by good individual relationships alone.

Indeed, as I’ve noted at The American Conservative, a “Department of Justice study revealed that a whopping 84 percent of police officers report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they don’t always report ‘even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.'”

Yet even in this light, there’s promise in requiring officers to walk a beat. If an officer sees a colleague mistreating someone he meets every morning, he may well speak up for justice.

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