Over and over in the past year, the nation has heard stories of police officers shooting unarmed black men. The victims—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and most recently, Freddie Gray—have all become household names and their deaths have spawned waves of protests against police and how they enforce laws scripted to keep the peace.

The developments have cast shadows of doubt in the minds of countless citizens over the effectiveness of the entire criminal justice system. In New York City and throughout the country, the events have prompted communities to think about ways to fix what’s become a tense relationship with the police and to come up with new— or rely on existing—alternative approaches to law enforcement and justice, such as neighborhood safety patrols, cop watch groups, violence prevention programs and community courts.


November 25, 2014-New York, NY. Protestors clash with police officers during the Ferguson protests in New York City. 11/25/2014. Photograph provided by Pilar Belendez-Desha Original photo credit: Dave Gershgorn

As President Obama put it after meeting with his Task Force On 21st Century Policing: “There is no theoretical separation between the interests of community and law enforcement.  But obviously the devil is in the details, and we’ve got to figure out how to make that work.”

 The current round of tension between police and citizens has its roots back in late 1970s, when crime was at an all time high—and the preferred method of policing was patrolling neighborhoods in cars. Police officers shunned foot patrol and police headquarters felt it played down their control over their officers, according to a 1982 Atlantic article called, “Broken Window: The Police And Neighborhood Safety.”

The article, written by criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson, led to the 1978-1979 Newark Footpatrol experiment, which evaluated the effectiveness of foot patrols in 28 New Jersey cities. The experiment’s upshot: Although foot patrol didn’t reduce crime, citizens felt safer, at least tangentially, and in turn, felt more at ease with local police.

“If citizens know and trust their police,” wrote Patrick V. Murphy, the head of the organization that sponsored the experiment,“they are more likely to provide information to those officers than they are to strangers in uniform who wiz by occasionally in patrol cars.” Although having more officers patrol the street didn’t cut crime, it did have its benefits.

In large cities, police districts institutionalized the idea of the friendly police officer standing on the corner, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. And the practice eventually lead to a policy that came to be known as “broken windows policing.” The theory basically posits that stopping small crimes like toll jumping or vandalizing property will prevent larger and more serious crimes from happening.

But the policy troubled many Americans— if police went after seemingly small infractions, like a broken window, to indirectly curb the bigger infractions, then wouldn’t that mean criminalizing low-risk offenders?

To help keep the peace in their neighborhoods, communities responded to crime by forming neighborhood safety patrols. The Guardian Angels, founded in 1979, pioneered the idea with members wearing a uniform of red berets, red jackets and white t-shirts.

Safety patrols couldn’t stop the tide of crime though, prompting the Clinton-Gore administration in 1994 to enact the largest crime bill in the history of the United States—authored by then Senator Joseph Biden. The bill offered up a big chunk of money to put 100,000 new officers on the streets, while also upping funding for prisons.

At the beginning, at least, the policy worked. By 1996, New York City saw the lowest rates in crime since 1970. Crime, nationwide also dropped. At the White House, President Clinton proclaimed, “We are finally and decisively tipping the scales of justice in favor of law-abiding Americans.”

Yet the scales of justice grew lopsided—and it became clear that being tougher on crime wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut improvement. The immediate effect was an epidemic of overcrowding in local prisons and the strict enforcement of the law strained relations between police and communities.

Fast forward to 2015 to the spate of killings by police officers and the criminal justice system once again seems out of whack. So much so, it has now become part of a national debate. The Brennan Center for Justice released a book on the need for reform in April titled, “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice,” a compilation of essays from politicians across the political spectrum—the Clintons, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Corey Booker. In the preface, the former president conceded that the get-tough policing policy of the 90s may have gone too far.

And last month, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, addressed the issue in a speech at Columbia University. “There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down as far as it has in many of our communities,” she said. “We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance.”

It’s clear something needs to change. And many experts believe the answer may lie in the hands of communities, who have come up with different ways to cut down on crime and reduce the prison population without badges and arms.

“What we need to do now is think of alternatives,” said Nicole Fortier, Counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We need to think of ways to incorporate mercy and fairness, which is not necessarily bringing the hammer down for small, little level crimes.”

But as President Obama implied in March, the devil is indeed in the details. New York City, for example, has become a laboratory for alternatives, with efforts ranging from neighborhood safety patrols in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Howard Beach, Queens to violence intervention programs scattered throughout the five boroughs. The Guardian Angels still operate, but so do a handful of other cop-watch groups. Even alternative ways of dispensing justice have sprouted up with community and youth courts, helping citizens find their own ways to serve up peer-delivered sentences within the community.

The recent wave of tension between cops and citizens, of course, is not new. American cities have seen decades of embattled relationships between the police and the public, dating back to the first New York City police riots of the 20th century in 1935.

As it did then, race, class wars and fairness play a large role. Police agencies that choose to disregard the needs of their communities are likely to see one spark of police brutality ignite in protests, according to Ed Maguire, a criminologist and professor at American University.

“When police behave unfairly toward people, they are less likely to cooperate with them and to comply with their orders,” says Maguire, citing a 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences. “Fairness and related concepts like procedural justice and legitimacy are not just luxuries that police can choose to dispense with at will in an effort to be more effective.”

Maguire studied the clashes between the police and protestors during the Occupy Movement and found police behaving in ways that reminded him of what he has seen in developing countries.

“I observed the police behaving in a disturbingly aggressive and unskilled manner, which simply has no place in democracy,” he said.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop, acknowledges that getting all police to be more respectful of citizens can be a problem. What you’re seeing with the Baltimore protests, argues Moskos, who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is an alarming amount of opposition among non-criminals to policing. “Police have to take some of the responsibility for that,” he says.

In many ways, he argues, in his book, “Cop In the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District,” the world of police officers is inherently politically incorrect. “Nobody hates ghetto blacks more than a cop from the ghetto who grew out of it,” he said of the current situation, stating it’s more of a class thing than a race thing.

Changing police attitudes, of course, is not easy. Policies need to change —and everything from the nation’s incarceration system to how police forces are trained needs to be rethought.

The process has already begun. President Obama is encouraging a national rethinking of how we police, replete with the appointment of a task force that issued 63 recommendations that are meant to lead to healthier relationships between cops and citizens. The Justice Department also allocated $75 million to disperse body-cameras nationwide. Many debate the effectiveness of body cameras similar to the 70s when experts debated the effectiveness of foot patrol. The president acknowledges cameras aren’t a cure-all solution, but he argues the technology will help build trust and accountability.

Police accountability is a centerpiece of the efforts of community groups in New York that are working to smooth out the relationship between the city’s police and residents. The Brooklyn Movement Center based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, has partnered with Communities Untied For Police Reform, whose member organizations span the five boroughs. The group helped stop the city’s stop and frisk practices.

“What you’re seeing across New York City are organizations in neighborhoods of color that are spokespersons and policy movers around police reform issues,” says Mark Winston Griffith, the Brooklyn group’s co-founder and executive director.

In nearby Crown Heights, crime prevention is the mantra. The Crown Heights Mediation Center utilizes a program modeled after Cure Violence, a federally funded crime reduction model. The practice treats gun violence as a public health concern and uses community outreach workers to identify high-risk offenders in a neighborhood.

American university criminologist Maguire, points out the high-risk offenders in this model are given a choice: engage in violence and become part of the criminal justice system or take the help we’re offering and let us show you social services that can help with counseling, food and housing.

“It is unique in the sense that it has both an enforcement component as well as a social component,” said Maguire.

The original Cure Violence program operating out of Chicago—is a promising way to prevent crime, according to an evaluation done by Department of Justice in 2008.

Legal experts say other programs aren’t as comprehensive, but they are moving in the right direction. The NYPD declined to comment on the efficacy of community groups. If nothing else, the recent protests—and the national attention—has sparked a debate to try to understand why relations between cops and citizens in America are so strained and find new ways to monitor and work with the criminal justice system.

John Jay criminal justice professor David Brotherton argues no matter how good the  intentions of reform efforts, the ultimate the mission may be pointless, police have a militarized mind set that is hard to change.

“How do we move forward?” he questioned. “I don’t exactly know—we’re kind of in no man’s land.”