In Extreme Community Policing, Cops Become the Neighbor

One of the most dangerous small cities in the country, an hour outside Chicago, is paying officers to live where their relationship with residents is most broken.
by | July 2017

North Winnebago Street doesn’t look like a high-crime area. The tidy homes in this Rockford, Ill., neighborhood are well cared for. Kids walk to and from nearby Welsh Elementary School. In May, the neighborhood turned out to welcome two new residents, Patrice Turner and her 17-year-old daughter, Paris. It was a beautiful spring day, with neighbors grilling hot dogs and a woman serving frozen treats to enthusiastic kids out of her ice cream truck. A group of girls were dancing to a hip-hop remix. It was like a scene out of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry -- if Griffith had better dance moves.

This may have looked like an ordinary housewarming party, but it wasn’t. Turner is a police officer. The house she is moving into on North Winnebago is, unlike neighboring homes, owned by the Rockford Housing Authority. The plan is for Turner and her daughter to live there -- rent free -- for two to five years. During that time, Turner will take the lead in coordinating the police department’s response to violent crime in the neighborhood. She’ll also attempt, as a friend and neighbor, to address the problems that give rise to crime.

It’s a daunting challenge. Rockford, the state’s third-largest city, is one of the nation’s most violent. “We have low education attainment levels and we have high poverty,” says newly elected Mayor Tom McNamara. “It’s a horrible combination.” He’s planning to respond with initiatives targeting education and jobs. But Priority No. 1 is addressing violent crime.

A year ago, Rockford hired a new police chief, Daniel O’Shea, to lead that effort. He has moved quickly. He made peace with the police union and improved morale in the department. He also reached out to the county sheriff’s department and to federal law enforcement agencies. Together, the Rockford police are hoping to disrupt violent street gangs and drug traffickers with traditional investigations and prosecutions. However, he’s also focused on building trust and encouraging problem-solving. Having officers like Patrice Turner live in troubled neighborhoods is a first step toward building that trust.

 Some of Turner’s neighbors are skeptical. Dennis Carr and Tammy Berrios, who live around the corner, have seen violent crime firsthand. Earlier this year, Berrios witnessed a shooting in her front yard, and isn’t ready to turn to her new neighbor for help. “We all mind our own business,” she says.

But whether it’s Rockford or another city struggling with violent crime, policing has a trust problem. Distrust -- and the code of silence it can engender -- is a familiar problem in high-crime neighborhoods. After years of experimenting with such high-profile ideas as CompStat, quality-of-life policing and predictive policing, police departments are revisiting an old approach: community policing. Rockford hopes its plan to embed officers in neighborhoods, which is based on a program that took root in Elgin, Ill., in the 1990s, will mend the broken relationship between the police and communities.

Last year, the Urban Institute ran a carefully designed survey that focused on citizen perceptions of police and their willingness to engage with them. Respondents lived in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in six cities -- Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Ind.; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and Stockton, Calif. What the survey found was sobering. More than half of the respondents thought the police were racially biased. Only a third believed the police “tried to do what was best for the people they were dealing with.” Fewer than a third agreed that police “always or almost always” followed the law.

 

Rockford is one of the country's most dangerous small cities. It's now starting its own resident officer program to build trust and address the city's violent crime problem.

 

Such beliefs have consequences. According to the FBI, homicide clearance rates -- that is, the rate at which murders are solved -- have fallen from 90 percent in the 1950s to just 60 percent today. In high-crime cities such as Chicago, the rate is only 30 percent. The perception that the police act arbitrarily and unfairly hinders cooperation on both sides. According to the Urban Institute survey, only 42 percent of respondents agreed that the police “were legitimate authorities.”

Yet despite these worrisome findings, the survey also contained some welcome news, says Nancy La Vigne, who directs the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center and was the lead author on the report. Residents expressed a strong belief in enforcing the law, and 60 percent said they were willing to provide information to police.  A solid 40 percent said they were willing to participate in neighborhood patrols.

How to explain this apparent dichotomy between residents’ critical view of police practices and their openness to cooperation? Another survey question suggests one possible answer. Only 28 percent of surveyed people in the six cities agreed that their police department “prioritizes problems most important to community members and is responsive to community concerns.” What’s missing, in short, is one of the key ingredients of community policing: a willingness to partner with neighborhoods and act on their priorities. “You can have individual officers who engage with community members, but that’s not enough,” says La Vigne. Police departments “need to transform their culture to view residents in high-crime communities as crucial partners in problem-solving and crime control. That’s the key to both reducing crime and enhancing the legitimacy of police in the eyes of residents.”

Thirty years ago, community policing was an idea that many police chiefs and academics expected would transform law enforcement. The movement, which included deploying police officers to walk neighborhood streets rather than ride in police cars, enjoyed some notable successes in crime reduction in the 1990s. But in the aughts, many departments shifted to other approaches. The financial crisis of 2007-2008, with its widespread cutbacks in police officer levels, further diminished community policing, which was dependent on having more cops on the beat.

Now violent crime is rising again in many cities. At the same time, videos of police shootings have reinforced suspicions of law enforcement. Techniques such as flooding crime “hot spots” with police officers no longer seem feasible. In response, police departments are returning to the past, in particular to variations on community policing.

That’s just what is happening in Rockford, as well as in a handful of other Illinois cities, including Peoria. It’s community policing taken to its logical extreme. Police officers don’t just walk the beat or go to meetings in troubled neighborhoods. They move in. Officers get free housing and flexible schedules. In exchange, they commit to living in the neighborhood for up to five years.

These cities’ programs are all modeled on an approach first developed in Elgin, a city of 110,000 residents an hour west of Chicago. The Resident Officer Program of Elgin (ROPE), implemented in 1991, is an example of old-fashioned community policing with newfound relevance. Police in Elgin believe they have learned some important truths. One is that the problems neighborhoods want to solve are sometimes different from the problems police focus on. Another is that helping a neighborhood address what it sees as its most pressing problems may be the best way to reduce serious crime and restore confidence in policing. 

 

Jonathan Rustay is currently a ROPE officer in one of Elgin’s mixed neighborhoods -- a place with an ethnically diverse group of lifelong residents, newer homeowners and renters. It’s hard at first glance to see why this neighborhood needs a ROPE officer. The lawns are green, the hedges trimmed and the houses well maintained.

 

After two years in the neighborhood, Officer Jonathan Rustay knows residents well enough to recognize when a truant child is dealing with more serious problems. "If he needs to talk to anyone," says Rustay, "I'm here."

 

Two years into his stint as a ROPE officer, Rustay, who previously had been assigned to Elgin’s gang unit, is still adjusting to the ROPE pace. “The challenge here is not like what it is with the gang unit, where there is always something to do,” he says. “Here you could be doing so many things -- talking to landlords, visiting the school -- and then there is nothing to do.”

For an officer accustomed to high-stakes action, the change can be disconcerting. It’s also fueled suspicions among some police officers that community policing is not “real” policing. That’s been a recurrent problem for these types of programs, says criminologist George Kelling. Many front-line officers see it as social work and resist it, he says.

Today, Kelling is best known as one of the originators of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that addressing seemingly minor signs of disorder could reduce fears of crime and improve public safety. But in the late 1980s, Kelling was part of a working group of criminologists, policy analysts and police chiefs who developed the idea of community policing. It had three components. The first was that police needed to refocus on minor offenses, a belief that reflected the influence of broken windows. The second was that police needed to spend less time responding to crime and more time engaged in proactive problem-solving. The third idea was that police needed to develop closer, more effective partnerships with local communities.

Elgin’s decision to launch ROPE came straight out of the community policing playbook. For the century following the Civil War, the city had thrived manufacturing watches. That period of prosperity provided the town with a scenic downtown and picturesque Victorian neighborhoods. By the 1970s, however, manufacturing was moving elsewhere and many of the grand houses became low-income apartment buildings. Then, in the mid-1980s, crack cocaine arrived. The violent crime rate spiked and just a decade later neighborhoods across the city were threatening to slip into lawlessness.

Charles Gruber, who was chief of police at the time, wanted to stabilize these areas by sending police officers in -- as residents. The city would buy and restore houses in pivotal neighborhoods and then offer them to officers rent free. Officers would have unusual freedom to set their schedules and focus on problem-solving. At first, many officers were skeptical of the program and dismissive of the work. But that skepticism has diminished. Not only has the crime rate stabilized, but, for the officers themselves, there grew a conviction that the work they were doing was essential to combating violent crime.

Adam Schuessler, a lieutenant with responsibility for Elgin’s specialized units, was one of the early ROPE officers. For five years, he lived in the 300 block of Ann Street, in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. Much of his time was spent focusing on quality-of-life issues -- loitering on a street corner, public drinking. The wins were small but satisfying. Over time, as he built relationships, bigger wins came into focus: the valuable informant, say, or the kid who steered away from the neighborhood gang and stayed in school. There were also some harrowing moments. One evening, someone opened fire on the bedroom of Schuessler’s house. The house of another ROPE officer was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Being shot at and firebombed undermined the idea that ROPE officers were not doing “real” policing. “We learned to start to look at those things as almost badges of honor,” says Schuessler. “You are doing your job if some people are upset.”

 

Adam Schuessler's house was shot at when he was a ROPE officer. "You are doing your job if some people are upset," he says.

 

ROPE’s success is also bolstered by the success of the officers who took part in the program. Today, Jeffrey Swoboda, who was one of the first ROPE officers, is Elgin’s chief of police. His No. 2 and several other members of the command staff are ROPE alumni too. Not only have many in the command staff served as ROPE officers, but they have also come to see it as a great way to identify and develop talent. “It’s a position that really builds great police officers,” says Schuessler.

Officers who went through the ROPE program see the program’s longer-term benefits. The informants they developed during their ROPE service continue to be valuable. They also learned the types of things about neighborhoods that only residents know.

Rustay uses the occasional downtime to patrol the neighborhood and get to know the kids at the nearby school. One recent afternoon, that paid off when he spotted a young boy riding his scooter around the neighborhood when he should have been in class. Rustay stopped him to talk. “His grandfather passed away last week,” Rustay says. “It’s just something that -- you know -- if he needs anything, if he needs to talk to anyone, I’m here.” Rustay adds that the boy doesn’t normally live in this neighborhood, but he knows him because he’s here during the summer visiting his grandparents and has been involved in some of Rustay’s summer programs. That’s exactly the kind of familiarity police chiefs and analysts who push problem-solving have in mind.

 

During the 1990s, the number of ROPE officers in Elgin rose to nine. Other cities expanded other forms of community policing programs and achieved impressive results. One was Chicago.

The Chicago Police Department made a significant effort to reorient the department toward community policing. Districts reemphasized beat patrols. Officers were trained in problem-solving techniques. District advisory councils were created. An early evaluation showed that districts that instituted community policing experienced more significant crime reductions than those that did not. In 2002, a team led by criminologist Wesley Skogan published an evaluation of Chicago’s program and found that it was moderately effective at increasing community involvement with police. Black residents responded particularly well, registering more approval of the police and the direction of crime trends in their neighborhoods. In contrast, Latinos seemed largely untouched by the city’s community policing program. Nevertheless, the tone of Skogan’s report was upbeat: “Into the 2000s,” he wrote, “Chicagoans were optimistic about crime, which was down, and policing, which they saw improving on a steady basis.”

But community relations with the police didn’t continue to improve. Instead, they withered in Chicago and elsewhere. One of the reasons for this was a diffusion of focus. Other approaches captured criminologists’ and cities’ attention. New York City’s dramatic crime decline in the early 1990s inspired many cities to emulate its tactics of aggressive hot-spot policing and its focus on arrests and crime numbers rather than community relations. The 9/11 terrorist attacks also played a role, leading police departments to divert resources to antiterrorism. Then came the Great Recession. Cities across the country responded by slicing police budgets, typically by 5 to 8 percent. As a result, police departments across the country lost capacity. Because it is labor-intensive, community policing paid the price. “If you are really going to do community policing, you need to free up 40 to 50 percent of a cop’s day,” says former Nashville and New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas, who now teaches at Loyola University. Before the recession, that was difficult. After the recession and the budget cuts that followed, it became impossible.

 The city of Elgin pulled back too. The recession forced it to slash the size of its ROPE program from nine officers to four. To make up some of the difference, it created a more traditional community policing program that assigned officers to beats in high-crime neighborhoods. Since the city’s crime rate was falling, that made the decision to shrink the program easier. But neither the city nor the department ever considered phasing out the program altogether. The neighborhoods would have erupted,” says Chief Swoboda. “The ROPE officers belong to their neighborhoods. Sometimes it seems like they answer as much to them as they do to me.”

 

Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda started his career as a ROPE officer. He says ROPE officers answer to the residents of their neighborhoods as much as they do to him.

 

Take Heather Farrell, who has been a ROPE officer for the past four years. She lives on North Spring Street, a historically high-crime area. Farrell says that within a six-block area of her house, there is a lot of rental property and “a lot of people who don’t like the police.”

But there are also a lot of people who depend on Farrell, who has two young sons and grew up in Elgin. At college, she majored in Spanish. Being bilingual is a helpful skill in a city where half the population is Latino. A number of Spanish speakers live in apartments across the street from Farrell. Next door to her is a Victorian house that has been restored by Krissy Palermo, who moved to Elgin from California eight years ago. Before she bought it, it had been a vacant crack house. Palermo says that having a police officer living next door makes her feel better about her investment. The neighborhood “is still a bit stressed,” she says, adding that whenever something happens, no matter what the hour, Officer Farrell is there. “If I tell her a car has been parked there for three days, she is on it,” says Palermo. “If I tell her I saw or heard something, it gets acted on. She follows through. She lets me know what she did.”

Farrell is also a good neighbor. She loans out her lawnmower, for instance -- a simple, yet friendly gesture that builds trust and greatly improves the appearance of the block. She also organizes frequent events and a regular block party.

Sociologists have a term for a neighborhood’s ability to solve its own problems: “collective efficacy.” Research has shown that neighborhoods with high levels of efficacy have lower levels of crime. ROPE officers like Farrell are the building blocks of collective efficacy. “There is no issue we can’t solve,” she says.  “That is really our job as ROPE officers.”

Some problems are tough. Farrell says she understands that many of the young Latino men are wary of the police, and that in general others fear being deported. As a result, she hasn’t gotten to know the residents of the apartments across the street as well as she knows the homeowners living on each side of her. But she does know that visits to the liquor store around the corner increase at the end of the work week and can lead to public drinking and other issues.

This kind of insight into the causes of crime is the most vivid difference between policing in Elgin and policing in Rockford. Ask an Elgin ROPE officer about the causes of crime in their neighborhood, and you typically get a fine-grained answer. In Rockford, in contrast, the causes of violent crime seem opaque, mysterious. The officers will tell you that much of the crime is committed by juveniles and that the crime wave started three or four years ago. Yet none of the officers seems to know why it had started or why it continues. (“Bad parenting” is the most common explanation.)

But Police Chief Daniel O’Shea -- who came to Rockford after 17 years in Elgin -- hopes that Rockford’s new resident officer program will see the same success it has in Elgin. Over time, people who live in high-crime parts of town may come to see police not as an adversarial force, but as the neighbor who lives down the block.