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Community policing: An idea whose time has come

The most serious public safety problem we have in all of our upstate cities is the wedge of distrust that has been driven between the police and those segments of the community who most need to be able to trust and rely on them. I mean the people who live in neighborhoods wracked by crime, addiction, poverty and blight. Neighborhoods that have been carved out and stigmatized by a policy under which the only investment of public funding is spent on crime suppression, not community development. And very significantly, neighborhoods in which everyone has either served a prison term or, far more frequently, is related to someone who has.

Last summer in Buffalo, the horrific mass murder that came to be known as the City Grill Massacre took place before more than 100 witnesses. For more than two weeks, the Buffalo Police Department could get no one to come forward. Such is the depth of distrust that has come of criminal justice policies of recent decades.

The way to address this problem is community policing -- a communal commitment to rebuilding bonds of trust and partnership between the police and the community. The Buffalo Common Council has set this process in motion by empaneling the Joint Commission to Examine Police Reorganization. An essential component of that commission's charge is to develop recommendations for the implementation of community policing in Buffalo. The commission has set up a Committee on Community Policing, which I chair.

In the course of the committee's deliberations, the issue of prison inmate re-entry has come up and the legitimate question raised: What has this got to do with community policing? My answer is: everything.

In 1983, there were 17,000 inmates in New York's prisons. Eleven years later, there were 71,000. Today, we release almost as many inmates every year -- about 16,000 -- as were in prison in 1983. This has fundamentally changed inner-city communities. A true community policing program would have to recognize and adapt to this reality.

I see a community that has never been consulted on what kind of law enforcement it wants. A community that has for decades been subject to a harsh enforcement policy. A community that knows that individuals' past run-ins with the justice system will make them witnesses of little credibility on the stand. And a community policed by a force whose members go home to the suburbs at the end of their shifts.

On April 9, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act. At the ceremony, he stated, "I'm about to sign a piece of legislation that will help give prisoners across America a second chance for a better life. This bill is going to support the caring men and women who help America's prisoners find renewal and hope."

I submit that among those "caring men and women" must be each and every community police officer.

Terry O'Neill is director of the Constantine Institute.

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