Community policing in Fort Wayne: the impact and objective

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Cities across the nation are looking at community policing to improve relationships between police officers and the people they are sworn to protect and serve.

The idea behind community policing or community-oriented policing is to build trust between officers and citizens so they can work together to solve problems with crime.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has reignited tensions between police officers and communities across the nation. Now, community leaders are taking a second look at their efforts to connect with citizens.

“We’ve been here before. So what does that mean?” said Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman At-Large. “I’m not saying that we are plagued by [police brutality] here in Fort Wayne. Let’s not get there.”

Community policing is not a new concept.

In fact, the city of Fort Wayne implemented community-oriented policing strategies in the early 1990s under former Mayor Paul Helmke’s administration.

Former Police Chief Neil Moore was selected to lead the Fort Wayne Police Department in 1988. He said he ran the department under a community policing philosophy.

“If it’s not a routine and regular part of police interaction then it only has superficial value,” said Moore. “The key to me is trust. And community policing helps to build trust.”

Moore said there are four key components of the community policing strategy: creating partnerships with people and organizations, working with citizens in order to problem solve, teaching the community about crime prevention, and encouraging police officers to pay close attention to vulnerable populations.

In 1993, a commission was developed to get the community involved with implementing these strategies. That commission came a year after a police action shooting in Fort Wayne claimed the life of 26-year-old Leroy Ross Church. He was suicidal man who police said he lunged at them with a knife.

That same year riots erupted in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King.

Fort Wayne community leaders rallied together demanding police reform.

“The issue of policing and people of color have not been particularly good,” said Moore. “I knew that [community policing] was the only way to do policing.”

The community policing planning team consisted of nearly three dozen people. After 14 months of strategic planning, they rolled out new initiatives in 1994.

Some of those initiatives include creating neighborhood liaison officers and making police more visible by taking home squad cars. Officers were also required to wear uniforms while on duty, unless they were working undercover.

“Not only do we have community policing but we’ve got civilian oversight and we’re going to keep an eye on the police department and make sure its doing its job,”said Helmke.

It can be difficult to measure the effectiveness of community policing because it largely depends on the participation of police officers and citizens.

Mayor Tom Henry, who was on city council at the time, said the city saw positive results quickly.

Henry continued to build on community policing strategies under his own administration with events like Coffee with a Cop and Blue Bucket Brigade. Most area schools have resource officers patrolling the hallways and Fort Wayne United’s Ten Point Coalition was developed in 2018 in an effort to bridge the gap between police and the communities they serve.

“I think there’s been a lot of good things that have happened as a result of community-oriented policing,” said Henry. “I don’t think there’s any question that communication overall has improved.”

But Henry said there’s still a long way to go.

Following protests in downtown Fort Wayne over the death of George Floyd, Henry decided that it was time to take another look at community policing strategies.

Henry developed The Public Safety and Racial Justice commission, last month. It is comprised of more than a dozen people with diverse backgrounds. Councilwoman Michelle Chambers is the chair.

“You have young people from all over the world, saying enough is enough,” she said. “Enough is enough. And we have to listen to the people.”

Chambers said the committee will consider ideas like reallocating funds from the public safety budget, looking at body cam legislation and creating a city review board among other things.

“I appreciate our chief I appreciate his leadership but there may be an opportunity to learn and adjust to where we are now,” she said. “It doesn’t take away from our police force. If anything it could enhance our police force.”

Police Captain Mitch McKinney heads FWPD’s Community Relations Division.

“We all want the same thing,” said McKinney. “Everybody wants to go home at night and know that you’re safe in your home. It’s not different with police officers.”

McKinney said it is important for officers to find common ground with people in the community. It is a lesson he teaches new recruits.

“A lot of [officers] have grown up and lived places that are totally different than where [they] are going to police,” he said. “So if you don’t meet people where they are, that’s when problems start.”

Chambers said tensions between minorities and police goes back generations. Her hope is that ideas that come out of this new commission will change that.

“It is my hearts desire and my commitment to our city that our committee has great impact. Long lasting impact,” she said.

The Public Safety and Racial Justice Commission will meet for the first time Sunday discuss ways to bring the community together.

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