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A chance to implement real community policing

David Kairys is a law professor at Temple University, author of "Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer," and a member of the Community Policing Advocate Committee

David Kairys

is a law professor at Temple University, author of "Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer," and a member of the Community Policing Advocate Committee

If there is a fix for unnecessary police violence against young black men, or for police misconduct generally, Philadelphia should have it. Over the last half-century, periodic police scandals, usually involving corruption or abuse of civilians, have regularly been followed by reforms, including a reform currently gaining national attention - community policing. So it isn't surprising that President Obama's new task force on policing turned to Philadelphia's commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey, a well-known proponent of community policing.

The basic idea of community policing is to bring police and the communities they serve together to promote understanding, cooperation, and trust. Most departments embrace it in some way, perhaps because it comes with federal funding.

The various understandings fall into three categories: the methods, policies, and practices of day-to-day patrolling; communications and transparency; and attitude. Though communications, transparency, and attitude are important, community policing does not seem to mean much if the focus is not concretely on police methods.

The most significant measures regularly proposed are foot or bike patrols in high-crime areas, assigning officers to particular beats for substantial periods, and police "ministations" integrated into neighborhoods.

This approach has much to offer. Police gain cooperation, safety, and connection to the people they serve. Communities gain input into police policies and practices and hopefully some trust. Police who are integrated into a community are less likely to use unnecessary force, or to have force used against them, and their presence is a deterrent to crime. There are risks, but less than a status quo in which the community perception is of police as an occupying army.

It doesn't resolve everything. We cannot realistically expect any policing reform to eliminate or transcend the tensions between police and the communities they patrol.

Police enforce laws, but they are also the face and fist of social policies that result in extreme economic inequality and unemployment in communities often defined by race and poverty. The fallout has largely been left to the police, who are tasked with keeping order.

The Philadelphia experience with community policing goes back to the mid-1980s. And the pioneers and most significant practitioners were Police Commissioner Kevin Tucker and Mayor W. Wilson Goode.

In 1985, after an officer was killed, police went through the mostly Hispanic Spring Garden neighborhood and took into custody every Latino man on the streets or sidewalks. Federal lawsuits invalidated that sweep and a citywide one the same year of corners often used for drug dealing. (I was lead counsel for the plaintiffs in both cases.)

Those sweeps and the disastrous police bombing of the MOVE house in West Philadelphia led to Philadelphia's adopting community policing. Tucker and Goode established foot patrols and ministations throughout the city.

In 2007-08, the Community Policing Advocate Committee, which grew out of efforts opposing the Spring Garden sweep, urged the incoming police commissioner, Ramsey, to implement community policing.

Since then, Ramsey has encouraged dialogue and cooperation and provided innovative community-oriented policing in many ways.

But foot and bike patrols, which Ramsey publicly favors, are used only in some business areas, as a temporary first assignment for new recruits, and in districts only if requested by the district captain. Such beat patrols have not been our overall or major policing approach, certainly not near the extent during Tucker's tenure. And Ramsey has not established ministations, publicly saying he opposed doing so. Without these basic elements, it is hard to call these efforts meaningful community policing.

That was a lost opportunity in 2008. Six years later, Ramsey and the task force he co-chairs have a chance to revive and expand community policing. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others present an opportunity for reform, not just in Philadelphia but on a national stage.