Community Developer Helps Police and Neighbors Find Common Cause

"We have to do a back ground check," Officer Cermak said. My heart skipped a beat.

"What exactly are you looking for?" I nervously replied.

He gave me a half smile. "Why? I bet there is some protesting in your background..."

I don't know how he knew, but he was right. It was years before, I was 30 and working as a hospital cook in Portsmouth, NH, when my friends and I decided as part of a larger peace agenda to protest the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Next thing I knew the cops were clamping on those plastic handcuffs and I was getting hauled to the station.

I didn't care much for police then--they were from a different world as far as I was concerned. I was destined to be a community organizer, someone who believed in working with residents of failing neighborhoods, not hassling them.

And, yet there I was, standing before Officer Cermak, applying for a job as a crime prevention specialist at the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota. I got the job all right--I was afraid to tell my activist friends at first that I had crossed over to the dark side.

It wasn't long before I was working side-by-side with my improbable comrades, drinking countless cups of coffee and brainstorming new ways to outsmart crime. They had an attitude, no question--that "my way or the highway" air of authority that most of us read as arrogance. But when I looked past the badge, to understand their culture, I realized most of them wanted what we all want--a community where kids can walk to school without being propositioned by prostitutes, where a mother can push her stroller without being solicited by drug dealers from a passing car, where there is a line for the swings at the local park.

A few years later I was living in Providence when I read about a job opportunity at the Rhode Island office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. LISC helps drive almost $1 billion of investment into reviving some of the poorest neighborhoods in America. In Rhode Island , they were looking for someone experienced in community organizing and working with police. The job--Community Safety Organizer--was so tailor-made for me that the human resources person looked at my resume and thought I had made it up--a graduate degree in Community Organizing from the University of Connecticut and 5 1/2 years at the St. Paul P.D.

It was as though everything in my life to that point had prepared me to join in a unique mission that LISC was helping to spread: to change the way police and neighbors work together and build trust between people who generally look sideways at each other, all in the service of making communities better.

Providence is plagued by the same problems as any big city--prostitution, gangs, drugs, street muggings, gun violence. But we know you can't arrest your way out of problems that big. The cops can't fight it alone. So where does a community organizer who makes her own granola come in?

The idea is pretty simple: community developers are trusted in poor neighborhoods and police officers aren't. We leverage that trust to bring everyone to the table so neighbors and police can get to know each other not as adversaries but as comrades searching for solutions--parents, bankers, faith-based organizations, and business owners and cops working as partners to make their community safe and vibrant.
It's a foreign concept for cops at first, responding to a call where a good idea comes in handier than a gun. But once you break down the barriers--help the community and its police see each other as equals on the same side--remarkable things happen. Even adversaries lock arms.

I once saw a police chief interview an ex-drug addict and prostitute for a job as a community outreach worker to help wipe out prostitution on Barton Street. He hired her.

I also saw one officer attend one of our trainings purely because his lieutenant ordered him to--it was called Crime Prevention Though Environmental Design (no wonder he didn't want to go.) But once he understood what it was about--building houses across the street from a park so all eyes are on the lookout for crime, moving a bike path away from a secluded stretch of river toward the road where passing patrol cars could see it--a light bulb went on. Today, that reluctant officer is a leader and national trainer on police/community partnerships.

And it is not just the police who have their eyes opened. I have seen residents, particularly in minority communities where police relations are strained, to say the least, shoot the breeze with local officers while they all worked to clean up a neighborhood park. It isn't about power anymore, it's about problem solving.

Those kinds of relationships don't happen overnight. They take time. But to be there when someone "gets it" for the first time, is amazing. The energy and the ideas just come bubbling forth.
One of the initiatives we are working on now is a "mapping project" in the city of Woonsocket, R.I.--we will bring police, neighbors and others together to map not just the neighborhood's crime spots, but its resources. We'll study the data to figure out where the real problems are and possible solutions. Then we will set about solving them--together.

This is what LISC's Community Safety Initiative does across the country, and Rhode Island has long been a model. How do we know it works? Just look at Providence's Olneyville neighborhood--one of the most dangerous places in the state 15 years ago with crumbling buildings, shuttered shops, and drug dealers who wrote the rules. Today, cross-country skiers glide through once-crime infested Riverside Park in the winter, and residents hoe long beans and leeks in the summer. Businesses are growing, schools are on the mend, crime is down.

When the police see those kinds of results, they are glad for a place at the table, and we are glad to have them.

I've been with LISC nine years now and in many ways I'm still that young peacenik activist maybe in plastic handcuffs and a homemade t-shirt with origami peace cranes hanging off of it. The cops I work with are still authority figures in starched shirts and guns on their hips that I always find a tad frightening. But we know each other enough, trust each other enough that we can rise above our separate worlds and meet in the middle, where things get done.

In my work at LISC, I have been honored to help bring police and neighbors together to help communities grow. Because when you fight crime, you fight poverty. When adversaries come together as advocates, the result is a stronger, safer community. And whether or not we wear a badge, isn't that what we all want?