Why Rodney Monroe Mattered to Charlotte
The chief didn't just pay lip service to community policing. He worked it
“Community policing” is a term worn dull by decades of overuse by politicians and police. But at its root, it means the foundation of good, basic police work—living and walking among the people who live in a city’s neighborhoods, getting to know them as citizens and residents worthy of respect, not automatic suspicion.
Rodney Monroe took the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police chief’s job seven years ago preaching the community policing gospel. In a city where property and violent crime rates were on the rise, he reorganized the department, redrawing patrol district lines and moving 89 officers from specialized units to patrol beats. Some cops balked, but it’s hard to argue with the results: drops in the crime rate across the board, including a record-low 42 murders in 2014.
It’s impossible to know how much Monroe’s staffing and tactical changes contributed to the drop, just as you can’t say what kind of effect his retirement, effective July 1 and announced yesterday, will have on CMPD.
But Monroe’s real value isn’t something anyone can easily quantify. To employ another public service bromide, he changed the tone in the department and its interactions with Charlotteans.
He did this in the large administrative ways, but in the small ways, too: He made a point of showing up at every homicide call, earning detectives’ trust. He spoke to numerous community groups—not just among the privileged but in minority neighborhoods with every reason to distrust the Police Department. Monroe understood that’s where he needed to do his most important work, and so he did it, sending a simple but priceless message with every appearance: I, and this department, give a damn about you.
Which isn’t the same as coddling criminals. A few hours after Monroe announced his retirement, NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired an interview with former New York City police officer and prosecutor Eugene O’Donnell, who now teaches law and police studies to college students. O’Donnell dismissed community policing as so much “Kumbaya” nonsense:
The simplistic notion that the cops just have to be nice to people is silly, and that's a lot of the conversation … Generally, the community policing that people like, elected officials like, is the community policing that sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there's no room for conflict, when, in fact, police are a job that involves conflict. When you pull somebody over and you ask them for their license, they're under arrest. Police are not equal with people in that situation, and you're not free to leave. That's not somebody's opinion. That's not a political issue. That is just a reality that the police deal with, and the whole conversation which demonizes individual police people, for me, has been extremely disingenuous.
Well, someone’s being disingenuous here, for sure. No one suggests that every social ill can be solved by cops just being “nice to people”; no one fails to understand that law enforcement officers are there to, well, enforce laws. (The sidearms are the first clue.) But that us-versus-them attitude—the presumption that the public is a threat to be pacified—is a big part of the problem that’s led to Ferguson, Baltimore, and the post-Eric Garner unrest in New York. To hammer home the point, O’Donnell refers to mandatory body cameras, another initiative Monroe has embraced, as the “worst idea you can think of.”
Last week, Charlotte settled its civil case with the family of Jonathan Ferrell, the unarmed black man shot and killed by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer in 2013. Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, said this afterward: “We wish to acknowledge the professionalism that Chief Rodney Monroe has demonstrated in handling the difficult circumstances of Jonathan's death. Chief Monroe acted swiftly and decisively once it became clear from the dash-cam video that the use of deadly force against Jonathan was not justified. We are appreciative of the respect he has shown our family throughout this process.”
Big difference, huh?
Monroe wasn’t faultless by any stretch. It was obvious early on that he hadn’t really earned his college degree in Richmond, and he could be as tight-lipped about internal department matters as his predecessors. But he accepted, and worked by, a fundamental principle: A police department has to engage the public to do its job. Whoever takes Monroe’s place needs to fully embrace the same idea.