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Watch a Community Police Itself

Apr 08, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Andrew James

“This is one of the most crime-ridden areas in the country—one of the most murderous areas in the country,” says Malik Shabazz, a minister in Detroit, in Andrew James’s short documentary. “Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we want to patrol this whole area and make sure that there’s no arson, no rape, no carjacking, no drug dealers—none of that. We can do this.”

Shabazz features prominently in Community Patrol, an immersive piece of observational filmmaking that depicts community policing in action. The riveting film, premiering on The Atlantic today, follows Shabazz as he rallies his neighbors to knock on doors and peacefully confront the perpetrators of a drug operation that has set up shop next to Shabazz’s church. Rather than report the offenders to the authorities, Shabazz and his cohort attempt to dissuade them from dealing in the first place.

“This is truly an act of brotherly love,” Shabazz says in the film. “If we really didn’t have that love for our brothers, we wouldn’t be here trying to talk to you. That’s our last resort—to see another brother go to jail, or another brother die. All we want to see is us pulling out of what we’ve been programmed to believe is the only thing we’ve got left.”

According to James, Shabazz is involved with a local community organizing effort, Detroit 300, which was formed in response to growing crime in the city and has helped solve a number of cases, including the apprehension of a serial rapist. The filmmaker describes Malik as an empathetic figure who “commands attention and respect. I was immediately drawn to his authoritative and principled nature, thoughtful and compassionate leadership, and deep commitment to the black community.”

Part of what makes Community Patrol so powerful is its ability to situate the audience directly inside the action as it unfolds. That cinema verité approach is undergirded by the time James spent with Shabazz establishing a trusting relationship. “As a filmmaker,” James told me, “I gravitate toward the idea of capturing these circumstances observationally so that audiences can be immersed, feel the intimacy of the story, and share in a cinematic experience. No one wants to be preached to,” he said, “but if you can capture a story authentically and frame it in the language of cinema, your work will have the ability to affect people in a deeper way.

“The point is to elevate [Shabazz’s] perspective, get out of the way as much as possible, and allow what I captured to speak for itself,” he added.

Time and time again, both research and real-world case studies have borne out the idea that communities that self-police can be more effective than strict law enforcement at mitigating criminal activity in underserved neighborhoods. It all boils down to a logical equation in social psychology. People tend to mirror the behavior of others in their social group, a phenomenon called social influence. If individuals consistently see evidence that their neighbors are making personal contributions to the public good, they will be more inclined to contribute in kind. As Dan M. Kahan details in his article “Reciprocity, Collective Action, and Community Policing” in the California Law Review, the traditional deterrence model of law enforcement does little to nurture perception of reciprocal cooperation. Public law enforcement provides “less exposure to monitoring, mentoring, and creating a street presence,” with the consequence being that “individuals, as reciprocators, become even less inclined to engage in such behavior themselves … undermining the incentive to collaborate with each other to safeguard their communities from crime.”

By galvanizing his community to negotiate compassionately with those disturbing the peace, Shabazz is encouraging his neighbors to view one another as partners in public safety. The goal is that this will create self-reinforcing patterns of common regard and concern, resulting in fewer crimes committed and fewer members of the community imprisoned.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.