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Ferguson and the Need for Effective Community Policing

Police tape saying "police line do not cross"

This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By Ellen Scrivner, PhD, ABPP

We thought the days of racially divisive policing in the 60s were long gone. Then, Ferguson erupted and captured the nation’s attention. Although we have seen progress in race relations over the years, the death of Michael Brown following on the heels of Trayvon Martin shows that we still have a long way to go.

It is disappointing that as of the late 90s we were on a path to changing how police interacted with their communities through the advent of community policing and collaborative problem solving, the focus of a new office in the Department of Justice that specifically supported community policing. I am talking about the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). Rather than funding tanks and rifles, the COPS Office provided support to hire and train officers in community policing and in engaging the community to work together to keep their communities safe. Community members were intricately involved in how police departments carried out their mission. In some agencies, they helped with hiring new cops, training in the police academies, and participating in community-police roundtables where community problems and their resolutions were determined and transparency and accountability were key to the process.

Due to the eventual budget cuts by a Congress that thought federal dollars did not need to go to policing, coupled with the effects of 9-11, we saw a change to a more tactical type of policing. The emphasis on militarization as well as the growing use of metrics, in contrast to community relationships, as a way to prevent crime and keep communities safe became emblematic of changes that some saw as progressive but which as we saw in Ferguson may be more regressive.

We now hear a call for the return to community policing. Truth be told, this cannot be done overnight or in the midst of a crisis. The progress of the 90s that led to problem resolution and resilience occurred over time and brought the community into police departments to arrive at joint resolutions. From that platform flowed work on procedural justice and bias-free policing as a means to end racial profiling. Clearly, it is time to pick up where we left off and make a new commitment to supporting community policing. Psychologists can be instrumental in helping departments achieve effective community policing given our extensive experience in facilitating organizational transformation and change.


Ellen Scrivner, PhD, ABPP, is an Executive Fellow at the Police Foundation. A licensed psychologist, she is also Board Certified in Police and Public Safety Psychology. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, and has served as president of the Psychologists in Public Service Division (Division 18). In 2013, she received the Harold M. Hildreth Distinguished Public Service Award from Division 18 for outstanding executive leadership in advancing public service psychology. She has had a distinguished career characterized by a strong record in executive leadership devoted to advancing policing in America. She has held national criminal justice policy positions, both at the Federal and local levels, and has created innovative public safety initiatives responsive to pressing criminal justice needs. She is a recognized national expert on criminal justice policy, police behavior, and public safety and policing issues. In addition to significant Washington experience, she has held academic positions and also served on the Steering Committee for the Harvard Executive Sessions on Policing and Public Safety (2010-2011). Dr. Scrivner held significant positions in the Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS), U.S. Department of Justice. As part of the initial COPS staff, she assisted in developing the new and innovative Federal office within DOJ and subsequently became Assistant Director of Training and Technical Assistance, where she created a national training strategy that was implemented through a nationwide network of innovative Regional Community Policing Institutes. Subsequently, she was appointed Deputy Director of COPS and provided oversight for billion dollar grant programs that provided funding to 75% of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country; provided oversight for the COPS Office Police Integrity Program; coordinated the U.S. Attorney General’s National Conference and Presidential Roundtable: Strengthening Police and Community Relationships (1999); and was appointed to the Attorney General’s Task Force on Police Misconduct (1995-2000).

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