During a tense confrontation between white police and a black man, officers drew their guns and fired, leaving a mourning mother and an enraged community.
Sounds familiar, right? But it’s not the story you’re thinking of.
In this case, the year was 1987; the place was Memphis, Tenn. And the man killed by cops? Joseph Dewayne Robinson.
His death has a lot in common with that of Michael Brown’s, the black teenager who was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., last month. But while Brown’s passing was followed by the deployment of armored vehicles, rubber bullets and riot gear, Robinson’s led to community dialogue, partnership and, ultimately, a new national model of how police can de-escalate crisis situations. It’s one example of terrible tragedy leading to positive change.
It remains to be seen what will come out of the disastrous events in Ferguson. Brown’s death — and its turbulent aftermath — exposed a deep disconnect between the local police force and the community it serves. As the tear gas clears in the Missouri town and analysts consider how things went so horribly wrong there, here’s a look at five instances where police and communities have worked together successfully, building trust and making neighborhoods safer for both cops and the people they’re supposed to protect.
1) Memphis calms things down
Robinson, mentioned above, had struggled with mental illness and was just 27 years old when he was killed. On the day of his death, his mother had called the cops because her son — high on cocaine — was cutting himself with a large knife and threatening people around him.
The Memphis police arrived and, after a confrontation, shot Robinson 10 times.
The community was deeply disturbed, and people started coming together to look for solutions. “Family members meeting in the kitchen said there’s got to be a better way to deal with these things,” says Veronique Black, a family and consumer advocate at the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonprofit mental-health advocacy group.
Two members of Memphis NAMI approached the police department with a plan: Let’s train cops to safely defuse tense situations involving people with mental illness.
In response, the city’s mayor formed a task force and police met with families and mental health professionals. Together they came up with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT): a 40-hour training program that teaches police to respond to mental illness emergencies in a calm, safe, caring fashion.
“The CIT officer is working very, very hard to slow things down,” says Maj. Sam Cochran, a former member of the Memphis Police Department who oversaw the city’s CIT program for 20 years. CIT members are trained to respond coolly and carefully in all situations — talking down agitated people using a clear, slow voice, defusing conflicts that might otherwise end in injury or death, and finding ways to reduce anxiety while avoiding the use of force.
They’re also specialists in controlling fear, whether it’s the person in crisis, others who happen to be around or even the officers, Cochran says. People who are afraid can be dangerous: “If you don’t get a handle on that fear, it can cause some very difficult challenges,” he says.
The training gives cops a safer way to respond not only to mental health emergencies, but also high-pressure situations of all kinds, like domestic disputes or confrontations between police and a suspect.
The program has worked well in Memphis. “We had something like a 40 to 50 percent decrease in officer injuries on call events related to mental illness,” Cochran says. And although the department didn’t keep statistics on civilian injuries stemming from those kinds of calls, he says, “we felt very confident that if officers weren’t getting hurt, people with mental illness weren’t getting hurt.”
Based on its success in Memphis, CIT has since become a national standard, adopted by about 2,800 police departments nationwide.
2) California cops chat over coffee
While police departments have been arming themselves in recent years with surplus military equipment from the federal government, there might be a much simpler way to make communities safer: over a cup of coffee.
Hawthorne, Calif., police detective John Dixon tried that tactic back in 2011. He convinced his department to set aside a single morning for Coffee With a Cop, an event where officers would sit in a local McDonald’s and talk with anyone who had a question or concern. The event was so popular that the department started holding it in a different area of the city every six weeks.
These coffee talks allowed Hawthorne police to connect with their neighbors on a more personal level. The idea, Dixon says, is to reclaim “the small-town feel of knowing a cop on the corner.” They are also a way to break through the barriers that can separate cops and civilians (like the bulletproof glass at the front desk in the police station), Dixon says. “It opened up a lot of lines of communication.”
Previously, cops might only interact with civilians during calls for service, Dixon explains. “Officers tend to go to the call, handle the call and then leave.” But Coffee With a Cop lets officers and neighbors relate as people, to see each other as more than just a robbery victim or a law enforcer.
After the program’s initial success, Hawthorne police Sgt. Chris Cognac wrote about it in a federal newsletter on community policing, and the idea caught fire. The department received a grant and started training other police departments how to commune over a cup of joe.
Some 680 departments in the United States as well as forces in Canada, Australia and Nigeria have held Coffee With a Cop events, Dixon says.
Dixon says police departments often ask what kind of return, in numbers, they’ll get from holding a Coffee With a Cop event — How many arrests will it lead to? How many guns will be seized? But the effect of the events isn’t quantifiable in that way, Dixon says. It’s about relationship-building, not crime stats.
At the events, people often talk about problems that they wouldn’t think to call 911 about, but that add up to diminishing a neighborhood’s safety, Dixon says. One neighbor, for instance, complained to a cop about an abandoned couch in an alleyway, where people were hanging out and doing drugs, he says. The officer immediately pulled out his phone and called the city to have public works haul away the sofa.
3) Boston makes a miracle
Cops and neighbors can bond over a hot beverage — or they can come together to confront violent gang members and convince them to put down their guns.
That’s what the work of David Kennedy, criminologist and author of two books on crime prevention, has shown.
Kennedy is the mastermind behind the so-called “Boston Miracle,” which drastically reduced youth homicides in the city in the 1990s. The method is one of the most high-profile models of police and neighborhood leaders working together to end street violence.
Kennedy’s approach is based on the understanding that most urban violence is caused by a small number of people. Therefore, police shouldn’t treat whole communities as problematic simply because some members are violent, and residents should work with cops who are willing to focus on tackling the troublemakers.
Under Kennedy’s model, cops, probation officers and others identify the people responsible for most of the shootings. These people are invited to a call-in, where they’re given straight talk by neighbors, police, prosecutors, street-outreach workers and clergy. The message: Keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll come down on you hard, prosecuting you in federal court if possible. Or, put the guns down, and we’ll help you secure jobs, find housing and access other social services.
At a call-in, gang members learn that the cops and the community already know who they are and what they’re up to — and most important — that they want to help them make a change.
This tactic, which has since spread to dozens of other communities, isn’t a silver bullet. Boston’s homicide rates crept back up in the 2000s, but Kennedy argues that his approach needs to be an ongoing process with continued investment on both sides.
4) New Haven welcomes newcomers
Almost 10 years ago, leaders in the city of New Haven, Conn., noticed a problem. Undocumented immigrants, who can be among the most vulnerable to crime, were afraid to talk to police.
The solution? A new ID card for all city residents — regardless of their citizenship status.
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“Prior to it coming out, undocumented immigrants were often afraid to report violations for fear of deportation,” says Luiz Casanova, New Haven’s assistant police chief. “We had a number of crimes go unreported. Witnesses of crimes did not come forward. Horrific crimes — sexual assaults, rapes, home invasions.”
And while immigrants were avoiding police by not reporting crimes they witnessed or experienced, they were often the ones most in need of police protection. Why? Many undocumented immigrants couldn’t open bank accounts, so they carried around large amounts of cash, leading to a reputation among muggers that they were “walking ATMs.”
In 2007, New Haven addressed these problems when, under the leadership of former Mayor John DeStefano Jr., the city council voted to create the Elm City Resident Card. Additionally, New Haven issued a general order prohibiting police from asking victims or witnesses of crimes about their immigration status.
The ID card helps people open bank accounts and access public services. It also imparts to immigrants a sense of belonging, leading to a new feeling of trust with the police. After the card was introduced, Casanova says, crime went down in immigrant neighborhoods by about 20 percent — despite the fact that more people were reporting crimes.
Other cities, including San Francisco and Trenton, N.J., have since followed New Haven’s lead, rolling out their own municipal identification cards.
5) Detroit tries to bring cops home
Sometimes cops and communities feel disconnected because they actually are, geographically speaking, far away from one another. Many police officers don’t live in the cities they serve, but commute from other towns.
In an effort to encourage members of the force to live in the communities in which they work, Detroit began offering tax-foreclosed homes to cops for $1,000 and grants of up to $150,000 for renovations in 2011.
Programs like this stem from the theory that cops may be more invested in a community if they see it as their home not just their workplace. They also increase the likelihood that community members develop stronger relationships with officers who also happen to be their neighbors.
It’s difficult, however, for a city to force cops to live in town. Courts across the country have struck down lots of residency requirements. And police officers argue that, in an already dangerous job, it’s safer for them to live away from the people they arrest.
That hasn’t stopped cities like Detroit from trying, though. Atlanta offers discounted apartment rentals to cops, plus incentives to buy homes and bonuses for those that relocate. And Baltimore also offers cash to police officers who buy homes.
The latest town to consider such incentives? Ferguson, Mo.
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