Beyond Fighting Crime, Police in a Minnesota Town Seek to Foster a Sense of Community


Beyond Fighting Crime, Police in a Minnesota Town Seek to Foster a Sense of Community

Beyond Fighting Crime, Police in a Minnesota Town Seek to Foster a Sense of Community

Under Chief Michael A. Davis, the police officers of Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, pursue community building. October 2012

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ROB WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communication at the Center for Court Innovation. This New Thinking podcast is focused on policing and the ideas of community building and police legitimacy. On the phone with me today is Michael Davis, the chief of police of Brooklyn Park, which, with about 80,000 people is the second largest suburb of Minneapolis – Saint Paul. Chief Davis was recognized earlier this year by the Police Executive Research Forum as an up and coming innovator. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Chief Davis.


ROB WOLF: Let's start with community building. You've said, at a National Institute of Justice conference in 2011, community building is the next generation of community policing. And I think many listeners might be somewhat familiar with the idea of community policing, but what is community building?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Well in the context that I speak of it, community building is more reliant on the assets of the community more so than trying to fix the problems. Now for those who know community policing, they know that at the core of it is this problem-oriented policing model by which if your rectify low-level problems, in theory, that you prevent other levels of crime and disorder. Well the problem with that is that there's limitations to problem-fixing. There really is no limitations to building upon assets. And so if you want to change this place, want to make this place better than what it is currently, it really is about leveraging all the assets that exist within a community, not simply fixing the problems. And so this gets away from the transactional model, and more towards a model that is built on the understanding of three things. One is, is that we're a community that has abundant assets. The second thing is that we know to make those—activate those assets, we must have strong relational ties. And thirdly, these relational ties aren't serendipitous. We have to go out and intentionally connect with one another, which is why, I think, it's a shift in focus. Not necessarily a new iteration of community policing, but more a new way of looking at our role in community.

ROB WOLF: So you're saying that instead, perhaps, of saying, Oh, there's a problem in this neighborhood around drug sales—are you saying think larger than that? Let's look at the whole community and how can we strengthen connections within the community so that anything, any challenges that may arise, it would be in a better position to deal with?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Absolutely. You look at what a community is meant to accomplish. A competent community is one that supports the family in accomplishing its mission. So the larger structure supports the smaller structure, the family, in accomplishing its mission. When that breaks down and we rely exclusively on services, like the police, to do what the community is supposed to do, then the impact of what the police can do alone is obviously severely limited. And so we have to re-engage the community and get them to see what their role actually is, which is to take ownership, to be accountable to one another. In that process we are creating a competent community. I mean it's not an abdication of our role to pluck out the deviants of our society, but this is thinking bigger than that.

ROB WOLF: The philosophy of community policing—hasn't it in some ways tried to promote that?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Yeah, well I mean obviously community policing purists will say that, you know, this is what the essence of community policing is. I disagree, and I disagree because it's not what's happening. This is not what's happening in our communities. You're talking about communities that have been trying different iterations of community policing for 30 years, yet the conditions of their communities remain unchanged. People point to this dip in crime, so to speak, that we've been experiencing throughout the country. In some cities it's reversing itself and no one can explain it. And so my focus really is on really understanding what makes a community really successful. And it's not the most robust police department. What we do know is that the conditions in the most challenged neighborhoods that need to be reversed. There's a condition of isolation, there's a condition of fear, there's a condition of dependency. We know that when we study any successful community. People reminisce all the time about the small town. Well in small town America, typically there's a dearth of what we call municipal services that can do things the community can't, and so they're forced to rely on one another. Probably the most common occurrence where this transaction takes place between one another, where interdependency is developed, is in the local cafe. Every morning folks get together, and it's not about bacon and eggs, they have those things at home. It's about being able to talk about what's going on amongst this social group. What problems they have and how they're gonna work together to solve those things.

ROB WOLF: It sounds like almost the work of either a café owner, who can bring people together around breakfast, or a social worker who understands how to bridge cultural or societal or class differences. How do the police help bridge that divide and build that social capital?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Well first of all, we inculcate it to every aspect of our service model. We become conveners, we become facilitators. If a community meeting looks like you walk into a classroom where everybody's staring at the back of one another's heads, looking to the front of the classroom waiting for someone to rain down wisdom, that's not gonna build community. But if you put people in small groups, bring people together, you have them talk about assets. You set the ground rules and you have them communicate. And then you carry out that methodology through every type of community contact, you begin to build fabric.

ROB WOLF: And have you been able to bring people together in this way, around Brooklyn Park?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean we started off in earnest really three years ago with our community café, which is a methodology of bringing people together in small groups to talk about what they want the impending future of the community to be. And from that, we develop a model, a structure by which people can become engaged. And from that we have begun to infuse this methodology into every aspect of how we interact with community. So police officers are not only rated on how well they go out there and perform the perfunctory task of policing, but they're also rated on how well they go out and engage the community—not just the police with the community but also the community with one another.

ROB WOLF: And how do you measure if your officers have been successful?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Well, there's a couple different methodologies. Obviously there are proven methodologies by which you go out and you ask folks about the level of connectivity, level of commitment. Obviously, there's the anecdotal success.

ROB WOLF: And you hold these community cafés? Your officers arrange them on a regular basis?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Not only officers, but other city staff. It has now become a framework by which we vet through a whole host of issues, from how to deal with the relational conditions, to whether we want to organize garbage haul.

ROB WOLF: And you bring food? Or the citizens, people, community members bring food?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Yeah. Food is key, right? Especially in a diverse community like ours. We are a 25 percent foreign born here, right? And one of the things we know, one of the universal languages of hospitality is food.

ROB WOLF: Let's talk about police legitimacy, and clearly there seems to be a connection. How does it tie into the idea of community building, tie into police legitimacy and how are you trying to advance police credibility in the city of Brooklyn Park?

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Well in terms of our ability to influence people, we're leading. This is a leadership role that we're taking on as a police department. Us being viewed as a legitimate government entity is absolutely critical, and what we know through research is that it's not the outcomes we're talking about. It's not whether or not someone gets a ticket or someone gets arrested. There's the process of administering law enforcement services besides whether or not people feel it's legitimate or not.

ROB WOLF: That's like the concept of procedural fairness or procedural justice.

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Absolutely. Absolutely. The two are inextricably linked. Legitimacy is the outcome. Procedural justice is the process, is the methodology. What we know is that effective policing doesn't have to be brash or harsh. You can do it with a sense of empathy and understanding. You give a voice to the people you come in contact with. And you do that by making sure that you're creating a culture within an organization that reflects the service that you intend for people to deliver outside the organization. You create a microcosm of what you want to be expressed in the community. So if you want those officers to be community builders, you make sure that you have that type of framework within the organization. We say that we encourage collaboration, and this place, this organization is yours, not mine. Just because I'm Chief doesn't mean I own it.

ROB WOLF: I've been talking with Michael Davis, the Chief of Police of Brooklyn Park, which is a suburb of Minneapolis, St. Paul. Thanks so much, Chief Davis, for taking the time to talk about police legitimacy and community building.

CHIEF MICHAEL DAVIS: Well thank you. It's my pleasure.

ROB WOLF: And I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communication at the Center for Court Innovation. This has been one of our New Thinking podcasts. To listen to other podcasts you can visit our website at, and you can also listen to us on iTunes.


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