Wisconsin City Serves As Model For Community Policing

Apr 3, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 3:09 pm

In the wake of fatal police-involved shootings, cities are looking for ways to institute police department reforms. A community policing program in Racine, Wis., calls for police officers to work out of people's houses in specific neighborhoods.

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Community policing is getting new attention as protests over police shootings continue around the country. One of the latest incidents happened last month in Madison, Wis. A biracial 19-year-old man was fatally shot by a white police officer. Demonstrations quickly followed.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho. These killer cops have got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're here today to say that this must stop, and it must stop now.

BLOCK: As cities and states look to enact police department reforms, we're going to hear why leaders look to a different city in Wisconsin as a model. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Rebuilding trust - that's what many of the proposals aimed at revamping police departments hope to do. Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Ind., is a head of a working group of mayors and police chiefs examining police practices. And she says one of their first recommendations is about how to create trust between police and the neighborhoods they patrol.

KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: There ought to be activities involving the police and the community that don't involve any form of detention or traditional law enforcement actions.

CORLEY: Freeman-Wilson says that can help create relationships that serve both the police and communities when there's a crisis. And she says it's a practice that works.

FREEMAN-WILSON: Oh, absolutely. We've seen it work. We've seen it work in communities where there has been distrust in the past.

CORLEY: One of her examples is Racine, Wis., which was among one of the first waves of police departments to embrace the concept. In the early 1990s, the town of about 80,000, located about 30 miles from Milwaukee, was considered the murder capital of Wisconsin. Now crime is at a 50-year low, and officials credit, in part, community policing.

MICHAEL SMITH: Right now we're on 10th Street. The first community policing location for this neighborhood was over here on 10th and Davis.

CORLEY: Sergeant Michael Smith, the supervisor of Racine's community policing division, is driving to each of the six houses where a community police officer works. The houses are in areas where drug dealing and gangs had been long-standing problems. Police Chief Art Howell, the first African-American to lead the department, says instead of flooding the hotspots with officers, the police department literally moved in.

ART HOWELL: Monday through Friday you have the same officer working out of that house for a period of three years. So that officer gets to know who lives there, who should be there, who should not be there, what the concerns of the neighbors are. And so we became more or less embedded into the community.

CORLEY: We're heading over to the Thelma Orr Community Policing House. Officer Robert Ortiz is waiting inside.

This is your house.

ROBERT ORTIZ: This is my house.


ORTIZ: I take ownership of this.

CORLEY: Ortiz shows off the big kitchen, bedrooms turned into office spaces for probation and parole officers who meet their clients at the house. Ortiz doesn't sleep here, but he knows the area. He went to high school across the street, and he says the job allows him to make good connections with the neighbors.

ORTIZ: I walk around. The kids know me. But at the same time, if you're out there and you're doing bad, you're going to know me, too. You're going to my name, and they do.

CORLEY: It was the city's former police chief, Richard Polzin, who came up with the idea for community policing in the early 1990s. He says it was tough getting buy-in.

RICHARD POLZIN: Because everybody felt being tough on crime was the way to go. And this new thing, community policing, would be a soft approach. And I said, no, it's not. It's about rebuilding neighborhoods.

CORLEY: Police weren't welcome in the neighborhoods at first. The first house was firebombed. Officers were shot at. It's different now. Across the street from the Thelma Orr House, Shativia Cunningham (ph) is walking her dog with a friend. Cunningham used to attend after-school programs at one of the other cop houses when she was younger, and she says the neighborhood has seen the results of Racine's 20-year-plus reform.

SHATIVIA CUNNINGHAM: It' very - it's peaceful now. It's pretty much peaceful. You see a bunch of kids running around playing for the most part. But as far as the fighting and the shooting and things like that that used to carry on, I don't see it no more from back in the day. I don't really see it like that.

CORLEY: Racine officials say they still have much work to do, but the community policing reforms they enacted more than 20 years ago have made for better relationships between the police and the city's residents. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.