“It's a tough time to be in law enforcement," said Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans. "Everybody thinks we're bad guys out there.”
It was that public perception that five years ago led Boston Police to try a new community policing tactic: an ice cream truck. The truck, which is driven by officers who hand out free treats to residents, has become emblematic of the department’s efforts to improve cops' relationships with citizens, particularly young people from black and Latino neighborhoods.
In recent months, a string of videotaped deaths of black men at the hands of police has led to a severe loss of trust in law enforcement across the country. Public confidence in police is at a 20-year low, and that lack of faith is most severe among black people. Anger at police erupted recently in the shooting deaths of eight officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
Boston knows, of course, that giving away frozen goodies won't solve the systemic problems that plague many departments across the country. But it's meant to be a small first step.
“We want neighborhood kids to have positive interactions with police officers at a young age, so that they know they can trust us,” said Rachel McGuire, a public information officer with the Boston Police Department.
While the officers are dishing out ice cream, “we're always approached about issues that people don’t want to pick up the phone and call us [about]," said Evans.
Police-operated ice cream trucks are uncommon, but the idea of getting police more involved in the community has been growing for years. The recent White House task force report on 21st century policing recommends that departments engage in community policing as well as frequent youth-based programming. At least one other city, St. Louis, is following Boston's lead and has purchased an ice cream truck for police.
Any of Boston's 75 community-police officers can drive the truck, which is equipped with a siren and rooftop lights in case of emergency. During the summer, police park the vehicle at events across the city at least once a week. The truck is so popular that lines will stretch down the block.
“It brings a whole different dynamic to the community,” said Rev. Arthur T. Gerald, a pastor at a Baptist church in Roxbury, a majority black neighborhood in Boston. Because children and their parents meet the officers and get to interact with them in a context that isn’t adversarial, Gerald says, "they begin to see the police through another prism.”
(Boston Police Department)
Dianne Lescinskas, a program director at the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood where about a quarter of residents are white, said she didn’t know what to expect when police first asked to serve ice cream at youth softball games.
“When the truck showed up, the kids went crazy. They had huge smiles on their faces,” she said. “It's really building bridges between police officers and the communities they serve.”
Boston police are trying to find other ways to build those bridges, such as pairing officers with teenagers to cook pizzas together at a nonprofit cooking school. And the department is working with a local police foundation to buy a new truck to replace the first one, which was donated by a local dairy company. The investment -- a new truck would cost about $70,000 -- is worth it, said Evans.
“It's a way to show what the Boston Police Department's mission is, and that's working with the community.”