Mar 5, 2024 - News

National researchers study community policing in San Antonio

Illustration of many magnifying glasses examining a police badge

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A community policing program in San Antonio is the subject of a unique national study.

Why it matters: While proponents have long touted community policing as a method that can build trust and improve problem solving, it hasn't been widely evaluated.

  • City officials call the study "unprecedented," and the lead researcher hasn't seen a study like it.

Zoom in: Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas A&M San Antonio and Georgetown University are studying the impacts of the San Antonio Police Department's Community Immersion Program, which pairs cadets in SAPD's academy with local businesses, nonprofits or other civic organizations for two hours per week.

  • Researchers will later conduct a randomized control trial to compare over time officers who did and did not participate, lead researcher David Yokum, with UNC Chapel Hill, tells Axios.
  • They will look for any changes in how often officers use force or the number of complaints about officers, for example.
  • The study will also involve conversations with residents to gauge their level of trust in the police.

How it works: While participating in the internship, cadets learn the role community organizations play in neighborhoods, SAPD community engagement officer Joel Pope tells Axios.

  • For example, they might play basketball with kids at the Boys & Girls Club, or talk to residents about their experiences with police.
  • When cadets graduate and become police officers, they are placed in the same coverage areas where their internships took place to give them some familiar faces as they begin patrol.
  • It's separate from the San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) Unit, which focuses on community policing among existing officers.

Case in point: Cadets who intern with Christian Assistance Ministry downtown learn about what it's like to experience homelessness and what resources are available to help.

  • On a recent night, three cadets listened to Valerie Narvaez, director of homeless services at CAM, share her own experience with substance abuse and homelessness.
  • Her lesson for them: Someone who is experiencing homelessness or misusing drugs is capable of moving past those problems with time and support — and officers play a crucial role in connecting people with resources.

What they're saying: "There's a lot of talk about it," Yokum says of community policing. "There are very few empirical, data-informed evaluations."

By the numbers: About 75 cadets have completed the internship program since it started about two years ago, Pope says.

  • About one-fourth of a typical cadet class participates.

What's next: Major results will not be ready for at least a few years, Yokum says.

  • But he plans to release some survey results and have community conversations in the coming year.

The big picture: Americans' confidence in the police was at an all-time low last year after continued drops since 2021, recent Gallup polling shows.

  • Trust last year was even lower than it was in 2020, when demonstrators across the country protested police violence after the killing of George Floyd.

The bottom line: The program's goal is to increase trust again, and to have more peaceful encounters between police and the public.

  • The study will help determine how effective the effort is.
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