By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
The terrible murders of innocent people this past weekend in two communities as
widely different as Atlanta, Georgia and Brookfield, Wisconsin, in one sense have
underscored two things.
One is that in many ways since September 11, 2001 the American public’s
concern about “public safety” has come to primarily mean protection from another
terrorist strike within our borders.
But, because of the number of people slain, and the random way these particular
individuals were caught in a maelstrom, these two tragedies have brought to my mind
again how significant the “ordinary” kind of what’s commonly considered street crime
robberies, burglaries, rapes and other kinds of assaults, and murders—remains in the
That also means that we must not lose sight of how important a topic for public
concern and discussion effective policing continues to be.
This issue was an explosive public topic throughout the 1990s for two reasons.
One was that street crime in numerous cities across the country was indeed still
perceived as—and was in reality—a serious threat to “public safety.” That certainly was
the case in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1994 at the beginning of the first of my two terms
The second reason was that in their zeal to reduce the crime rate, some police
officers and some police departments, ran roughshod over the rights of some lawabiding
By the end of the decade numerous studies indicated police racial profiling of
African Americans and Latino Americans was widespread, and those groups’ traditional
distrust of police was greatly exacerbated by several explosive incidents of white police
officers killing men and women, including some innocent of even suspicion of crime, in
highly questionable circumstances.
It was out of that cauldron of controversy that the federal COPS program was
created a decade ago within the Department of Justice in order to transform the
clashing of interests between the police and residents and leaders of urban
neighborhoods into a community of interests that would emphasize both the prevention
of crime and the building of trust between both groups.
In fact, the common interest both groups had in common—reducing crime and
preventing crime—was obvious. It was the COPS program—the acronym for
community-oriented policing services—that provided the funding and the political
muscle to get both sides talking to one another on an organized basis.
The National Urban League has been deeply involved in COPS from the
beginning. The fact that we have Urban League affiliates in more than 100 communities
across America gives us a front-line presence—and a front-line stake—in helping to
make urban neighborhoods crime-free. That demands recognition, on the one hand, of
the work many community organizations and individual residents are doing to reduce
crime in their neighborhoods; and, on the other, of the good work police departments
have done to achieve the same result.
Most of the work of COPS is done out of the glare of the public spotlight,
because it’s devoted to preventing crime and preventing such things as an incident of a
controversial use of police force from exploding into further violence.
But an example of how that is done was on display earlier this year when, under
the auspices of the Justice Department, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Urban
League, a small group of police chiefs and mayors and presidents of Urban League
affiliates quietly got together for a weekend discussion of lessons learned from COPS’
decade of existence.
Although the group was small—six mayors, seven police chiefs, and nine senior
officers of the Urban League—it itself was diverse ethnically and racially, and in the
communities the participants came from, representative of the broad variety of the
circumstances of urban America. Our focus was on refining the nuts-and-bolts
procedures that mayors, police chiefs, and leaders of community organizations could
follow to build trust and improve the policing and public safety of their communities.
These are as varied as increasing the diversity of the police force, to establishing
regular channels of communication between mayors, police chiefs and community
leaders, to educating ordinary citizens about a range of police procedures, especially
those that have to be followed when controversy erupts.
In that way, even though its work is largely unseen, the COPS program continues
to be indispensable to the fight against crime, because it is indispensable to making
police departments an effective public–safety force—departments which have the trust
of all of the disparate communities they serve.
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