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One idea for improving police-community relations: measure them

For the past two years, the Minneapolis Police Department has been measuring “positive contacts” between police and community members.

Neighbors in the Phillips West area of Minneapolis posing with an officer and horses from the Mounted Police Unit in a 2006 photo.

Last week, a second high-profile shooting of a black man by a Twin Cities-area police officer in less than a year has once again cast the spotlight on the relationship between officers and the communities in which they work.

Protesters have shut down highways and held vigils outside the governor’s mansion since the July 6 shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man in Falcon Heights, calling attention to rates of police shootings and arrests of people of color.

In 2015, more than one in four people shot dead by police in the United States were black, according to the Washington Post, while about 13 percent of the country’s population is black. This week, an Associated Press analysis found that black people are disproportionately arrested by the police department that serves Falcon Heights.

Among other issues raised by those statistics and the recent shootings, activists and policymakers are highlighting the need to improve relations between police officers and the communities they police. But while everyone would like to improve police-community interactions, the concrete steps that need to be taken to achieve that are anything but clear.

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The Minneapolis Police Department is trying out one thing that might help. For about two years in Minneapolis, the police department has been measuring “positive contacts” between police and community members.

Acknowledging the need for a change in the relationships between police and residents in some Minneapolis neighborhoods, Mayor Betsy Hodges said in her May State of the City address that positive contacts between police and residents of the fourth police precinct in north Minneapolis — a focal point of protests following the November shooting death of Jamar Clark, a black man, by police in the neighborhood — had increased in the last two years. The theory goes that by not only encouraging these positive interactions but also keeping track of them, officers of the department will take the mandate seriously, and the public will notice their efforts.

“This work of building community trust has a long-term deterrent effect on violence,” Hodges said in May. “The fact that we measure it at all is a sign of change in how we approach policing in Minneapolis.”

But what does it mean to measure positive interactions, and can that really make a difference?

Keeping track

In Minneapolis, keeping track of positive contacts followed “MPD 2.0,” a plan put forth by Police Chief Janée Harteau aimed at improving public safety and the community’s trust in the department. As part of those efforts, MPD began tracking positive contacts — the number of times officers check up on businesses, attend community meetings, patrol on foot and do walk-throughs of buildings,  said MPD Deputy Chief of Staff Medaria Arradondo.

Those behaviors were part of officers’ jobs prior to that, but keeping tabs on positive contacts is part of the effort to change the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department, Arradondo said.

“If it’s important enough for us to track how many burglary reports an officer completed at the end of their shift, it should be just as important how many times an officer and their partner visited a community center and threw a frisbee around with kids,” he said.

Positive police contact numbers show up along with numbers of crimes and arrests in reports released online by the department. In the week of June 28 to July 4, citywide positive contact between Minneapolis police officers and the communities in which they work were up 34 percent over the same time last year, according to MPD data.

Specifically, business checks were up 18 percent over this time last year. Police attendance at community meetings was up nearly 170 percent. Directed patrol, when officers opt to get out of their squad cars to patrol areas, had risen 41 percent; foot beat, when officers are assigned to walk their beat, were up 38 percent and walk-throughs of buildings were up 34 percent.

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Citywide positive contacts
Citywide, year-to-date positive contacts between Minneapolis police and communities from the beginning of the year to July 4 increased, according to MPD data. Community meeting attendance was not measured in 2014. Business checks are when officers check up on businesses. Community engagement meetings are when officers attend such meetings. Directed patrol is when officers opt to get out of their squad cars to patrol areas. Foot beat is when officers are assigned to walk their beats. Walk-throughs of buildings are when officers check on buildings.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

Most of those stats, with the exception of business walk-throughs and attendance at community meetings, which was not tracked in 2014, were also up over this time that year.

The numbers are recorded when officers report their activity to police dispatch, Arradondo said. Though positive contacts are encouraged of officers, there are no quotas.

A different sort of data

The use of data in policing has a long history — agencies began keeping track of police performance in the 1930s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports were established. But most metrics traditionally tracked crimes, arrests and the like —  not police behavior, said Joseph Schafer, the chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University.

While officers have long made efforts to get to know members of the communities they police, with the rise of community policing in the 1980s, it’s become increasingly common for departments to put an emphasis on such conduct.

It’s designed to build trust in both directions, Schafer said: For residents, it might mean putting a face and a name behind the badge, making police less anonymous. For police officers who routinely work with offenders and victims, it’s a way to meet ordinary people who are not in the midst of a crisis.

A 2003 study by the National Institute of Justice found that informal contact with police increased officers’ job approval ratings in Los Angeles neighborhoods, “even when other factors associated with lower approval ratings — such as residents’ perceptions that their neighborhoods are crime ridden, dangerous, and disorderly — were present.”

Residents in the survey who had informal contact with police officers had less negative experiences when they had formal contact with police — like being arrested or questioned — too.

When it comes to tracking positive interactions, Schafer said there’s no uniform definition of positive contact with police, and no numbers that he’s aware of tell what proportion of police departments keep some sort of tally of such interactions today.

Departments that do track positive interactions may use them as a benchmark — to see if enough emphasis is placed on getting to know the community. They can also be used as a pitch for more cash for understaffed police departments with little time for more than responding to 911 calls, Schafer said. Or they may be useful as a statistic for officials to tout improvement.

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The City of St. Anthony Police Department, whose officer was involved in the Castile shooting, tracks positive interactions between police and community members, from handing out Dairy Queen gift certificates to bike-riding kids wearing helmets to extra patrols and attendance at community meetings, said Captain Jeff Spiess. Those interactions are coded in the department’s system as crime prevention, but tallies are not available in the department’s online police reports.

St. Paul Police Department did not answer questions about whether or not that department tracks positive interactions.

While counting positive interactions may be a way for departments to improve community relations, it’s quality — not quantity that matters.

“It doesn’t tell us one way or another about the efficacy of those efforts, but it certainly is a sign the agency is being mindful of reaching out to the community beyond situations where somebody's being arrested,” Schafer said.

Progress in the 4th Precinct

In Minneapolis’ fourth precinct, the year-to-date number of positive contacts in last week’s report increased 86 percent from the same time the year prior, from about 6,711 to 12,472, according to MPD. The largest increases were in directed patrol and community engagement meeting attendance.

Fourth precinct positive contacts
Year-to-date positive contacts between Minneapolis police and communities from the beginning of the year to July 4 in the city's fourth precinct have increased, according to MPD data. Community meeting attendance was not measured in 2014. Business checks are when officers check up on businesses. Community engagement meetings are when officers attend such meetings. Directed patrol is when officers opt to get out of their squad cars to patrol areas. Foot beat is when officers are assigned to walk their beats. Walk-throughs of buildings are when officers check on buildings.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

Jeffrey Hassan, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum in Minneapolis, said there is still work to be done to improve relations between police and communities of color in the Twin Cities.

“When we continue to have these shootings and killings it's going to override any other impression that people have of their experience with the police,” he said.

He lamented that fourth precinct police inspector Mike Friestleben, a lifelong resident of the North Side who was known for working to build relations between North Minneapolis residents and police, was placed on leave during the investigation of a personnel matter in May. Last week, Harteau announced Friestleben, who was demoted from inspector to lieutenant, will take over the department’s Community Engagement Team.

“Oftentimes, we encounter police officers that may have no frame of reference or cultural sensitivity or understanding in the communities they're working in,” Arradondo said.

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In 2014, MinnPost reported that about 6 percent of Minneapolis Police officers lived within the city’s limits. It found that 22 percent of St. Paul’s police force lived within that city’s limits. Nationally, large cities average police forces were made up of 40 percent residents at that time.

At MPD, Arradondo said the department has seen tangible benefits to tracking positive contacts. He acknowledged that now, maybe more than ever, it’s important for police officers to build relationships in the communities in which they work.

“To have our officers out of the squad cars making those relationships with people young and old … that builds relationships,” he said. “We also know that when it comes time to solve crimes we cannot do it alone, we need the trust of the community.”