Criminal Justice in the Community: Challenges & Opportunities

Police officer on bike engages with kids in the neighborhood

Law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system as a whole have been in the spotlight in recent years. Events pointing to undue force, in particular, have captivated the nation’s attention and received international coverage.

The deaths of young African American men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray have become synonymous with questions about law enforcement practices in America today. If anything, these incidents – in Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore, respectively – have pointed to a system that is ripe for change.

It is a challenging time for criminal justice professionals. There are many opportunities to enhance the role of community leaders in crime prevention and improve law enforcement relationships with communities. The first step comes in understanding the context around crime and punishment at the local level. The second step comes in implementing changes through policies and procedures to cultivate stronger relationships between communities and law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies.

Crime Analysis and Crime Prevention

Within criminal justice, there are many opportunities to use analytical tools and research to measure the effectiveness of a variety of responses to crime, as well as the underlying causes of crime at the individual, community and society level. The work of criminologists is concerned with collecting and analyzing data, seeking patterns that can help us understand crime and how to prevent it.

Criminologists use data and analysis skills to:

  • Inform policymaker and communities on the impact of prisons and their operation
  • Examine ethics in law enforcement.
  • Develop community and institutional training on implementation of evidence based practices
  • Generate recommendations for the strategic investment of funds to prevent and control crime through community and government programs.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of program and practices in all phases of the criminal justice process.

Law Enforcement and Community Policing

A report co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended guidelines for “Building Communities of Trust.” The report observed that ongoing dialogue, community forums, public awareness campaigns, and multicultural education can help to achieve a mutual understanding toward common goals.

One example of community policing in action is the work underway at the New York City Police Department. The department’s “One City: Safe and Fair Everywhere” program is founded with the goal of building trust in neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs. Police officers are assigned to specific communities where they can be known to residents on a more personal level. They become a positive part of the landscape; a feature of everyday life.

Some of the policies that NYPD has put into place include requiring officers to follow up on crimes within their assigned sectors, meeting with community members in various public forums, and working to solve recurring problems in their precincts. Officers have also been provided with cell phones that allow GPS tracking by their supervisors to ensure that they are working in their assigned communities.

Another aspect of community policing comes in recruiting a more diverse police force.. In other words, many cities are seeking to shape their police force that is more representatives of the communities they serve. This is expected to help change perceptions of law enforcement and improve relationships with communities.
Taken together, there is great promise for those interested in working to expand partnerships between criminologists and law enforcement agencies. Criminologists collect and analyze data to identify both problems that need addressed and solutions that can be implemented to help law enforcement agencies, as they seek ways to better serve their communities. There are many career opportunities for those hoping to be part of the solution by working to help bridge the gap between evidence and practice. While these careers may be comprised of a variety of different professional roles, they all require people passionate about making a difference.