Our Stories

The What, Why and How of Community Policing: An Officer’s View

In the second installment of our #SafetyPartners blog series, Officer Tracie Miller opens a window onto the experience of policing a neighborhood with a history of mistrust of law enforcement, and what it takes to build a community's trust. 

LISC works to reduce crime in low-income places by helping forge partnerships between police, community developers and researchers. When these entities, in collaboration with residents, pool their information, strategy and talent, neighborhoods begin to experience real drops in crime. Over the coming weeks, we will feature blogs from a community developer, a police officer and a researcher, each part of comprehensive safety efforts in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, supported by the DOJ’s Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program. What follows are their reflections on the challenges they face, and the solutions they see making a difference in their community.

I recently learned from a veteran police chief that there are two things common to all police departments, no matter where they are. The first is that we are all tasked with the challenge of policing communities made up of different people with diverse problems and interests—that’s the “what” of policing. The second is the “why.” We do it because we want to help the communities we serve and make them safer and better places for the people who live there.

What differs from department to department is the “how”—the ways we go about doing our jobs in order to achieve that safer, better place. The how is a continual work in progress, and for me boils down to fostering better relationships with the public in order to be more effective in my job, and to help my department be more effective. It also involves collaborating with other partners in the community and beyond to pool our knowledge and bring new strategies to the work.

I also have my own personal “why” for doing the job I do: the children of Providence. They are our city’s future and deserve to grow up in a place where they feel safe. When I first became a police officer, I wanted to show the community that police were there to help and were not the enemy or the “bad guys.” I remember how, on one of my first days out in the Olneyville neighborhood, some of the children saw me in my uniform and did not want to come up to me to say “hi.” I could see in their faces that they had only heard negative things about police and they were scared of me. At another point, some children were even crying, saying they did not want to go into a room where my co-workers and I were meeting with members of the community.

But persistence is paying off. For the past year, I have been working closely with residents through One Neighborhood Builders, a revitalization group in Olneyville that supports closer police-community interaction. In fact, many of us have been working hard to foster better relationships with the public, whether by playing basketball with youth, walking children to school or going house to house to give presents to children of families that cannot afford a big Christmas. Sometimes we even take kids on field trips to an amusement park. 

Now, those same children come up to me, hug me and say that they recognize me from the neighborhood. I visited a local elementary school recently to speak to students about what I do every day. At the end of the visit, I asked all the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. A lot of them answered: police officer.

Of course, we still have our share of problems in Providence. There’s a large homeless population with urgent needs. The city’s abandoned houses are used for illicit drug use, and people have overdosed there. We receive many, many calls for domestic violence incidents. Our city is in a perpetual cycle of these same issues.

But the more we forge meaningful relationships with residents and collaborate on problem solving, the more likely we are to find solutions to break those cycles. That collaboration is also informed by what we can learn from other police departments and communities facing similar problems.

At a Problem-Oriented Policing conference last fall in Mesa, AZ, I listened to members of the Indio, California PD describe their town’s high homeless population and how, every day, they would arrest homeless people with outstanding warrants. When those homeless individuals got out of jail, they would still not be able to pay their fines, and another warrant would be drawn for them.

The department realized something had to change. So the officers began to investigate what services a given homeless person might need, and then to connect the person with help to get off the street. The PD worked in conjunction with the city’s social services agency, which was able to offer things like mental health evaluations, substance and alcohol abuse treatment and housing placements. 

It’s a model that grew out of police-community partnerships, and one we might be able to tailor for Providence. The better our community connection, the more likely we are to create a “how” of policing that really works for people and makes neighborhoods safer, happier places to be. 

Tracie MillerABOUT THE AUTHOR

Officer Tracie Miller
An officer in patrol for the Providence Police Department since 2014, Tracie Miller also works with One Neighborhood Builders and other partners in Olneyville to strengthen police-community relations and address crime. She recently began working with the Police Explorer Program, teaching youth ages 14 to 21 what it’s like to be a police officer.


More from our #SafetyPartners series:

Navigating a Passage Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Tina Shepard

When Police Are Problem Solvers
by Sean Varano