And Justice For All: Engaging People through Community Policing Programs

By Danny Turkel, Digital Coordinator, NCLR

In spite of the narrative playing out in most cities, Octavio Villalobos is one police officer who’s working to build trust between the police and his community. As the head of the Kansas City Police Department’s Community Policing Program, Villalobos is tasked with conducting community outreach to show residents how they can partner with the police department in ridding their neighborhoods of crime.

“We assess the problems affecting the community systemically with quality of life issues and we try to partner with the community and resolve those issues before they become issues of crime,” said Villalobos.” We try to deter it, problem solve it, or use law enforcement to clean it up, and we do all that in partnership with the community.”

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In Kansas City, community policing includes doing things not usually thought of as traditional police duties. For Villalobos, that means building showers for day laborers in the program’s office, or attending little-league games and schools events, and assisting in the rebuilding of community infrastructure. Doing these things, Villalobos says, has demonstrated to the community that their goals are intertwined with those of the police in improving the neighborhood.

“As soon as we initiated that and started doing outreach, the community members started to respond like, ‘Wow, that was an act of compassion,’” said Villalobos. He notes that as that relationship has strengthened, community members have been much more willing to assist police in deterring and investigating crime.

Villalobos praises his department leaders with being “ahead of the game” in recognizing the need to involve the community in their police work, as well as hiring police officers who are representative of the community they patrol.

Before the civil rights movement, Kansas City was marred by race-based tension and segregation. Because of this, Villalobos says, the police department began learning to operate through a community-based approach much earlier than most other cities.

An early emphasis on recruitment from the inner city allowed for greater representation on the force. This allowed a young Octavio Villalobos to view policing as a career in which Latinos could be successful. He also stresses the need for police departments across the country to make it known that they are not “an occupying force in the neighborhood,” but rather a partner dedicated to improving the lives of community members.

Any law enforcement approach must involve tackling the issues from both sides, stresses Villalobos. The leaders of the police department must work with the most vulnerable members of the community.

Villalobos’ experience in Kansas City demonstrates how police departments can yield positive results, reduce incidents of police abuse, and increase public safety through an investment and a commitment to engage with Latino communities.

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