What does ice cream have to do with policing?

The Boston Police Department this summer put their newest tool against urban crime out on the street: an ice cream truck.

“If you told me 30 years ago that our officers wouldn’t mind driving around and giving out Hoodsies, I’d have said you were crazy,” Police Commissioner William Evans said, referring to a popular dessert in Boston that police have been giving local children since 2010. The new truck makes that effort easier.

Behind this goodwill initiative is a philosophy that law enforcement agencies and criminologists believe can reduce crime and improve relations between police and the citizens they serve: community policing.

When President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its final report in 2015, community policing was one of the six “pillars” of its recommendations. The report encouraged police to work with residents. Public safety, the report said, should be “co-produced” by the community and the police.

“Officers who work within neighborhoods have to be part of those neighborhoods,” said George Kelling, a criminologist at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Police “have to be active in community life in order to prevent crime substantively,” Kelling said.

Which brings us back to that ice cream truck in Boston. Kids get free ice cream and flashlights to walk with the police officers. Adults are invited to come out, meet their neighbors and get to know their local officers. “It’s a lot of fun,” Evans said. “Those are the ways you should interact with the public, not just when there’s a bad incident.”

Man opening ice cream container for child (Courtesy of Boston Police Dept.)
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans hands out ice cream. (Courtesy photo)

During a summer when the deaths of black men involved in police shootings lowered approval ratings of police departments in many communities, a July 2016 study in Boston showed the opposite: 73 percent of people held a favorable opinion of the police — 82 percent among the white community and 65 percent among the African-American community.

Boston reaches out to adults too

It might be easy to win over kids with ice cream, but the grownups in Boston — especially in minority communities — have been impressed by other things:

  • More visible police in neighborhoods — not in cars, but on foot and on bicycles.
  • The Social Justice Task Force, made up of community leaders from each of the city’s diverse cultures who meet regularly with Evans.
  • Full-time community-service officers in every station who do outreach such as “Coffee with a Cop” events, school visits and recruitment for the police department in minority neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, major crime has dropped 9 percent in Boston in the last two years, while arrests are down 25 percent.

Cookouts, housing incentives in other cities

Police departments in cities across America likewise have found success with novel approaches to make the police a visible part of the communities they serve.

White police officer hugging a black man (© AP Images)
Atlanta police officer Michael Costello, left, hugs his partner after Costello gets a home in the city. (© AP Images)
  • Atlanta’s Secure Neighborhoods Initiative in Georgia provides incentives for police officers to buy homes in the same communities they patrol.
  • Police in Juneau, Alaska, hosted a cookout where community guests were encouraged to wear name tags listing their unique qualities and to share on large boards their thoughts about recent violence in the U.S. and abroad.
  • In Camden, New Jersey, police officers went door to door to survey the community about their concerns and deployed a team of 120 unarmed “ambassadors” throughout the city’s business district to meet and assist neighbors.
Police officer grilling hot dogs (© AP Images)
Juneau police officer Ken Colon grills hot dogs during a summer gathering to celebrate diversity within the community. (© AP Images)

“To be a police officer takes a special kind of courage,” President Obama said in a 2015 address on community policing in Camden. “It takes a special kind of courage to run towards danger, to be a person that residents turn to when they’re most desperate. And when you match courage with compassion, with care and understanding of the community — like we’ve seen here in Camden — some really outstanding things can begin to happen.”

Back in Boston, Evans summed it up another way: “I don’t measure arrests, I don’t measure moving violations or how many parking tickets. I measure all the great community work [police officers] are doing.”