Why Prosecuting, Firing, or Re-Training Cops Doesn’t Work and What We Can Do About It

Authored By 
Tony Cheng
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
March 26, 2015

Through chokeholds and shootings, law enforcement last year persuasively exhibited not only their monopoly on the use of violence, but also the violence of that monopoly. We can prosecute, fire, re-train, or sanction individual officers as much as we want, but unless we confront the social context that triggered those officers’ decisions to act in the first place, the same interactions will be systematically reproduced.

The problem is this: for residents in communities like Ferguson, virtually all of their interactions with the state is through the criminal justice system. Policing is essential, but police—even “community police”—cannot serve as intermediary between residents and the government. The police badge has become the face of the law, and the actions of well-intentioned officers are often not enough to overcome people’s distrust of law enforcement as a whole.   

Yet the most cost-effective and promising way of stemming urban violence without locking down or locking up the communities in which it occurs is so obvious, that it has been hidden in plain sight.

Empowering local residents as street outreach workers represents a type of legitimate local authority that police fundamentally cannot achieve. Fred Jones spent most of his 40 years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, other than the 9 years in prison for various gun and drug cases at Rikers and elsewhere. Today, Fred works as a street outreach worker in a new organization called Bullet-Free Bridgeport. I’ve watched Fred and other outreach workers spend hours each day hashing out intervention strategies and commanding respect from the youth. These workers are people from the neighborhood charged with creating a connection with the community so that they can represent it in times of turmoil—to de-escalate immediate episodes of violence between individuals or groups; link residents to social service agencies; and maintain a caseload of youths whom they mentor. They can leverage their unique combination of street knowledge and social work training to connect with the community in ways that church groups or simply having more black cops on the police force cannot.

Outreach workers conduct daily, uniformed patrols to constantly re-establish their visibility in the community—to show they have not left and are still here. They stop to have conversations with long-time friends, inquisitive parents, friendly local business owners, and perhaps most important, groups of kids. When they arrive on shooting scenes, for instance, police lift the yellow tape and look to them to speak to families and provide social support. And rather than turning over firearms directly to police and risk prosecution, youths have agreed to turn in their guns through an established protocol the program has worked out with local law enforcement.

Consider a typical day for Fred. Catching a ride to the train station, I sat in his car as he spoke with one of the “young dudes” he looks out for. The kid was part of a violent gang, but Fred had gotten him to open up about his life—and has met with him recurrently to reinforce the message of staying in school and out of trouble. Even if it were officers’ jobs to build these relationships with youth to prevent further delinquency, any interaction with a cop is tainted with experiences of past harassment by other offices and looming memories of cousins and friends being mistreated. Fred can approach youth without this baggage. And he didn’t wait for this young man to become a target of law enforcement either; he hooked him up with support and engages with him regularly—and so far effectively.

While more quantitative and qualitative research must be done to assess what outreach strategies are effective and how outreach workers recruit clients, preliminary research seems to back up the promise of these programs. One of the earliest systematic efforts aimed at empowering local residents began in the 1930s and is still called the Chicago Area Project. Newly immigrated, poor whites from the Old World arrived in the slum areas of Chicago and mobilized to form autonomous neighborhood councils that provided outreach to their delinquent youths. Since then, outreach worker programs have spread to other cities. Perhaps the most successful example is Chicago’s Ceasefire (now Cure Violence)—a model of intervention that has passed rigorous evaluation standards.

Communities like Ferguson need more attention—but not from law enforcement. And at the same time, these communities do not need to be flooded with even more traditional social service programs. Instead, youths need rides to get to already existing agencies, help filling out the application, direction on how to navigate bureaucratic organizations, and support in looking for other services if they do not immediately qualify for the first that they apply to. Fred and other outreach workers are equipped with the time, training, and resources to provide such services.

Tony Cheng is a graduate student in Sociology at Yale and an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow. His primary research interest focuses on law enforcement strategies in response to urban violence.