Achieving Results through Innovation:
Policing in White Plains, New York
In many cities today, the value of maintaining “street cred” has made senseless killing and assaults legitimate responses to the most minor snubs and slights. In poor and disadvantaged African-American neighborhoods homicide is ranked among the three leading causes of death among young men. In response to the surge in violent crime in these neighborhoods, and the public’s demand for quick, impressive action, many police departments have moved away from community policing, relying instead on traditional law enforcement strategies to fight crime. Tactical enforcement teams, “stop and frisk” initiatives, neighborhood sweeps, civil injunctions, and public housing “bar outs” have been used to target and reduce violent crime. In times of “crisis,” police and political leaders have declared “crime emergencies” by increasing patrols in hard-hit neighborhoods, establishing curfews and cordoning off neighborhoods to create “safe zones.” This has created tensions between police and law abiding citizens residing in some minority communities.
White Plains, New York is a city that is typical of many in America. In 2000, White Plains began to redevelop its downtown, replacing shuttered storefronts and vacant lots with luxury condominiums, 44-story residential and office towers, exclusive retail stores, pubs and restaurants. In 7 years, the city has added more than 4,000 new residents, bringing the racially diverse urban population close to 60,000. During the day the number of workers and shoppers more than quadruples, with an estimated 250,000 people circulating on city streets.
Downtown White Plains, like commercial districts in many cities, has rapidly become a study in contradictions, a place where the rich mingle with the poor, where a Ritz Carlton hotel is only a few blocks away from the city’s public housing complexes. And like other cities, the factors that drive crime and violence—poverty, unemployment, drugs, guns and gangs—affect crime in White Plains. During the past 6 years, the White Plains police department has implemented an effective mix of traditional and nontraditional policing programs to disrupt street violence, help released prisoners reenter into the community, and improve police-community relations.
In 2006, a series of violent events brought the realities of street violence to White Plains. Most of these crimes occurred in and around the city’s public housing complexes. They were driven by street disputes such as wearing gang “colors” in the wrong neighborhood, retaliation for a robbery, a fight over girls, stares, or the exchange of words. And although crime had dropped significantly since 2002, the community and the media called for an immediate police response to end the violence and restore order.
The police department increased foot, bike, mounted, and motorcycle patrols in the downtown, and stepped up quality-of-life enforcement in crime hot spots and in the city’s public housing complexes. The Intelligence Unit identified and focused on high-risk offenders and their “crews.” Detectives arrested gang members at the same time the Community Policing Division began conducting home visits to interrupt the violence. Representatives from the police department and the city’s Youth Bureau met with members of the community, activists and African-American ministers who expressed concern regarding the increased gang activity, violence, conflicts downtown and in public housing. The meetings were very challenging. Community members demanded that the police department take action but at the same time they angrily described conflicts with the police and past incidents that generated animosity and distrust in the African-American community.
The police department and the city’s Youth Bureau partnered with the North American Family Institute (NAFI), a Massachusetts-based social service organization, to develop and implement a program (Youth-Police Initiative [YPI]) to reduce violence among the city’s youth and improve community-police relations. The first session of the Youth-Police Initiative (YPI) brought young African-American men and women from the Winbrook neighborhood and police officers assigned to the Neighborhood Conditions Unit together to discuss the recent violence, gang activity, and youth-police interactions.
Through structured presentations, group learning, and problem-solving activities, the youth and police officers explored and discussed their values, attitudes and feelings about race, violence, respect, and policing. As the stories unfolded, the youth and police officers frequently learned that they are not that different from each other. Role-playing exercises developed by the participants provided an opportunity to see how the actions and language of the youth and police officers can escalate street interactions. De-escalation techniques were discussed and practiced to build effective communication and to resolve highly charged incidents.
Team-building exercises were intentionally held outdoors, in the heart of Winbrook and other public housing complexes, so the residents can see them occurring. This very public demonstration of youth-police interaction generated significant interest, curiosity, and favorable responses from the residents. For many, this may have been the first time they’ve seen the police engaged in positive interactions with the young men and women who live in the neighborhood.
The final YPI event was a celebration dinner for the participants, the young men and women’s families, political and religious leaders, and community members to recognize the participants and their success in completing the program. About 50 people attended the first dinner, including the participants. At the fourth dinner, held in April 2008, more than 200 people attended and support for the program continues to build among the city’s community, religious and political leaders.
There is no single response to youth violence and gang involvement. Long term solutions require comprehensive, collaborative responses that offer real alternatives, individualized services, support and mentoring. The Youth Bureau’s Step Up program, based on the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Comprehensive Gang Model Program, is a critical component of the city’s efforts to combat gang activity and street violence. Once engaged, at-risk or gang-involved young men and women receive individualized case management and wrap-around services to address personal issues such as truancy, poor school performance, unemployment, fatherhood/motherhood, and drug and alcohol addiction. Step Up, although a relatively new program, has decreased negative youth-police contacts, helped reduce violence, and provided a first step to solving broader police-community problems in White Plains.
The Prisoner Re-Entry Program, the first in Westchester County, assists individuals leaving the County Jail and returning to the White Plains community. Every month, a multidiscipline team led by the police department, meets with inmates selected to participate in the reentry initiative. The team members, representing social service, not-for-profit, religious and other organizations, discuss the resources they can provide to the inmates—employment, housing, education, mental health, AIDS counseling and support, and fatherhood and/or motherhood education upon their return to the community. The team conveys a unified message that the White Plains community is aware of the inmate’s pending release, that the community is concerned for them, and will assist them in leading productive lives. Future offending, however, will not be tolerated. To date, only 7 of 84 inmates who participated in the reentry program were re-arrested for any offense on their return to the White Plains community.
Six years ago, the White Plains Police Department committed to policing paradigm that would fight crime on all fronts. On one front, the department uses traditional strategies to target high-rate offenders, their illegal activities, and neighborhood hot spots. On the other, the department’s community policing division has taken the lead in developing and implementing non-traditional programs to target the factors that drive crime and violence. During the past 6 years serious crime has declined by 40 percent to the lowest level in 42 years. There has not been a homicide in the city since May 2006, and serious crime continues to fall in 2008.
The White Plains Police Department did not let a series of violent incidents define the city or allow gang activity to take hold. The police department took the lead, adopting a strong approach to end the violence and built effective and sustained police-community-other government agency partnerships during the past six years. In the end, the White Plains policing paradigm confirms that the police matter and that by their actions, enforcement and community building, they can shape and define the factors that impact crime in the local context.