Police: Community Heroes

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Police are the unsung heroes of community projects, despite media focus on failed officers and violence. The community policing movement is growing from the U.S. to Medellin, Colombia. This is a story of police officers and projects that are making a positive difference in people’s lives now. 

Certainty of Perception

Reality is complex. Just when you think that your opinions are formed by history and wrapped up, new information and experiences throw a wrench into the cognitive works. Such is my perception of police.

Police terror has been with us since the earliest days of American history. It dates back to the early 1700’s when African Americans were subject to slave patrols, which were created to stop them from running away. This was the origin of policing in the South.

Slave patrols consisted of 3-6 men riding horseback and carrying whips, ropes and sometimes guns. After the Civil War, slave patrols formed the basis of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans were continually terrorized in order to stop them from exercising their rights, particularly their right to vote.

Wealthy people throughout U.S. history even hired criminals to behave as police in order to protect them and keep social order. Police were first and foremost enforcers of the rule of law, meaning rules of property and rights of the few. Corporations utilized police to bust up union strikes or marches, treating labor organizers like criminals throughout the 20th century.

Not much is different in terms of policing and strategy where I live in Colombia. Police sometimes work with paramilitary individuals to protect the wealthy, beating back protestors to maintain social order as seen recently on the news in Bogota and Cali. Some police have been involved in the narcotics trade or overlook abuses of power caused by companies or henchmen hired to kill citizens who protect the environment.

I began to ask myself if it was possible for anything positive to emerge out of police violence, racism, and drug deals? Where in history is the light, if any? Without light, I reasoned, you can’t have darkness.

Chance Encounters

My wife Janet and I, as many of you may know, have lived in Medellin, Colombia for almost two years. Recently, while out for a walk, Janet met Fernando. They struck up a conversation, and subsequently, she introduced the two of us.

Fernando is a former policeman who spent 8 years in the police department in Colombia. He became a political scientist after earning two masters’ degrees, which opened the door to teaching university, which he does currently. Our discussions over coffee revolved around the question of what we could do to contribute to the city of Medellin, a city that we both love.

When Fernando first mentioned working with the police department to improve the conditions of youth, I was a little uncomfortable in spite of my history of working with officers on a referral basis from the Oakland police department.

Over the last 15 months, like most Americans and the world, I had been inundated with countless images of U.S. police abusing and killing African Americans in the North and South; suffocating individuals in plain view, shooting them in the back at close range or while they tried to run away, or killing a pregnant black woman while she lay sleeping in bed.

Events featured in the media and perpetrated against African Americans didn’t seem all that far from slave patrols of the past. Except, perhaps, those slave patrols were conducted on horseback.

Cracks in a uniform image

I began to research the reality of police violence in America today. Surprisingly, according to recent national statistics, violent interactions between police and citizens account for less than 2% of encounters. This leaves 98% within the range of acceptable practices. It’s difficult to find this statistic or its discussion in mainstream media, or any media for that matter.

And many of the violent interactions may well be triggered by the fact that so many American citizens are armed, even though the actual use of weapons is infrequent: in 97.9 percent of adult custody arrests police did not use a weapon and in 99.3 percent suspects did not use a weapon*.

The average lifetime odds of being killed in the U.S. by police, according to methods of predictive analytics, are 1 in 2,000 for men, 1 in 1,000 for black men and 1 in 33,000 for women, in the ages 25-34* Males who are especially prone to aggressive behavior and have poor conflict resolution skills are most likely at risk on both sides.

An armed population of citizens, however, does rouse the defenses and frays the nerves of citizens and police alike. A conflict that escalates on the street, in a parking lot, inside a market or bar could cost you your life. A police officer in a therapeutic setting once told me that when he knocked on the window of a car for an infraction, he thought to himself that it might be the last time that he is alive.

If it “bleeds, it leads” seems to be the operative statement that governs articles and images featured in the media. Male violence seems to sell, capturing attention and mind share. A sixteen-year-old male patient of mine captured this succinctly years ago when he noted that “Darth Vader, (the leading evil character in Star Wars), is much more interesting than Luke Skywalker”.

Most likely, under the spell of violence, you won’t have read or heard about August Vollmer. Mr. Vollmer, known as the “father of modern policing” stressed the importance of officers knowing the disciplines of social work, psychology and sociology in the 1900s. He made sure that officers went to college and patrolled the neighborhoods that they lived in on foot. He was also responsible for founding the Criminology department at the University of California Berkeley, and a system of laws that separated juvenile and adult offenders and justice.

Mr. Vollmer might as well be known as the founder of community policing, a practice that began to occur across the U.S. in the 1960s and early ’70s and has dramatically expanded ever since. Community police participate in such things as food banks and distributing food, buying books and reading with kids, organizing play and school events and anti-drug campaigns targeted at youth.

Fernando and I have begun to train police officers in Medellin on community policing. Fernando knew Coronel Daniel Mazo Cardona, Commandant of the police force, Antioquia, which opened doors. Coronel Mazo is a forward-thinking police officer in a senior position who has a vision for community policing. He understands that data supports community policing: lower crime rates, improved perceptions of police, and improved management of neighborhoods are some of the more telling benefits.

According to Yale News, September 16, 2019, the first randomized controlled field experiment was conducted to test the effects of community-oriented policing on 926 households in New Haven, Connecticut. Findings include that a single, positive, friendly door-to-door visit by uniformed police to identified houses significantly improved attitudes toward the police, legitimacy and trust in law enforcement. This indicates how powerful personal interaction is to perceptions and relationships.

Community police value personal relationships and contributions to the communities they work in. Community police walk in the shoes of individuals in the community and try to mediate social problems. Many are new to training in such practices as to how to manage a domestic violence call. The growth of U.S. community policing programs U.S. wide has grown from 20 percent a few years ago to over 80 percent today.

Crime, in this view, is seen primarily as a derivative of social and economic factors that are failing. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t sociopaths, deviants and drug pushers that cause crime, but that the majority of crimes are provoked or heavily influenced by social conditions.

As a point of departure, we are utilizing community-policing programs in Rochester, New York, and Oakland, California. These locations and programs were selected as matches for poverty, and difficult social situations, requiring creative responses by police.

In some ways, America is more difficult to police than Medellin because of the plethora of legal guns in the U.S. now, which barely exist in Medellin. What follows is information from our efforts to train 14 officers—men and women– in community policing over a period of approximately two weeks, a total of approximately 16 hours.


One of the first questions that we asked officers was how they thought the public perceived them. The officers reported that they thought the public viewed them as criminals on the take, as killers who shoot people at will, as people not worthy of respect and finally, as lazy, filling time until retirement.

“This is how media portrays us” was a common refrain we heard from officers to the question how did you acquire these negative perceptions? What’s clear is that the media—and 2% of events, no matter how awful and unacceptable—— has succeeded in creating an international feeling that police are criminals.

Officers expressed the feeling that sometimes they feel like “garbage” due to the acts of a relatively limited number of police officers. One officer, an Afro-Colombian sergeant major, explained that his daughter sees him as part of a criminal group that wants to hurt people. He has had to remind her that his work as a police officer paid for her medical education, allowing her to become a doctor.

Officers have also had to explain themselves to their families, that they are not killers, and don’t agree with the brutal behavior enacted by others. Families have had to be especially supportive as ‘bad perceptions’ of police and their work are starting to take hold.

This sense of underlying worthlessness that many officers experience is especially unfortunate because many of them reported beginning their careers with the ethics of “wanting to help people”. Several reported that they wanted to become doctors before joining the police, but lacked opportunities to do so.

Many officers also expressed a feeling of conflict, caught between a military hierarchy that places little value on community service, a negative media that shows disdain, and their desire to do more for their communities. In spite of all of these conflicting pressures, many officers spend their own time and money to help community members

A new hero

There is a counterpoint to the violence of some officers. Meet Captain Paula Andrea Otalvaro Ortega, manager of Citizen Participation in Antioquia Police, Colombia. Captain Ortega is passionate about her work in the community. Recently, she put together a network of farmers to supply food to Ituango, a remote community located in the Andes mountains approximately 160 miles north of Medellin. It’s home to the country’s largest hydroelectric plant. Covid and isolation have had a devastating impact on the community.

The Andes can be unforgiving in its road conditions: Captain Ortega and crew left Medellin at 2am in the morning and spent roughly 13 hours to reach the destination. Since they couldn’t return on the same day, the townspeople opened their homes for them to stay overnight.

Captain Ortega and many officers have done things like this before, often on their own time and money, with little but personal reward.

Other officers, like Mr. Patrullero Albeiro Pilcue who works in Rio Negro, a nearby district, have started an environmental project working with kids to plant trees. Each tree costs 50 cents, and the kids love planting them. Mr. Pilcue talks with great pride about what the kids learn from planting trees. He has support from another forward-thinking police executive, Coronel Oscar Rodriguez, which makes all the difference between success and failure.

Police officers who do pro-social activities hardly ever get press. The media won’t feature their positive stories, so the public is unaware of what’s actually going on. In addition, police departments often lack the mechanisms or material rewards to honor those who perform community work. The one refrain that we heard over and over again from officers regarding community programs is that “we lack resources”.

Resources to expand community policing in U.S. and Colombia are sorely needed. It means re-allocating existing resources and priorities as well as securing additional funds to accomplish what’s useful. Fernando and I intend to help secure additional funding for programs determined essential by the officers and their leaders.

Things to do

There are simple things that you can do to support community policing, including:

  1. Call your local police station and see what programs are available for you to get involved in; there may be several to choose from.
  2. Make a financial contribution to further programs that you believe will work to improve your community, endorsed by police.
  3. Write a piece on social media or “like” events that community police support; use your Facebook pages or Twitter account to do so.
  4. Show up at town hall meetings or city hall meetings and praise community policing efforts. Encourage them to be expanded.

Finally, recognize that reality is complex and that there are numerous sides to a story, and many are waiting to be told. Community policing and programs are worth the price of admission.

*Edwards, Frank, Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity and sex, proceedings of the national academy of sciences of the U.S. August 20, 2019.
*JH Garner, et. al., Measuring the amount of force used by and against police, Overview of national and local statistics, 2000.

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