Skip to main content

Cop-turned-professor pushes for stronger police-community partnerships

Dead from a cocaine overdose, a waitress found in a trendy Wilmington, Delaware neighborhood set the gears in motion for one of  James Nolan’s last cases as a vice detective. It also served as the catalyst for his next career investigating different strategies in policing as a  West Virginia University  sociology professor.

The case wove together a complex web of informants and wiretapped phones that ultimately uncovered connections to Philadelphia, an Israeli national and dealers throughout the state of Delaware.

Nolan, who spent 13 years on the Wilmington Police Department, came to realize that while certain actors and drugs would be removed from the community through his police work, those voids would be filled, restarting the vicious cycle.

A younger James Nolan with a mullet, mustache and beard stands in front of a wallpapered wall
Nolan's police badge displayed in a special box on a wood table.
James Nolan, now a sociology professor at WVU, is pictured here when he was a member of the Wilmington, Delaware Police Department's vice squad. (Submitted Photo)

“The root cause of criminal behavior isn’t in the character or decisions of a person committing a violent or illegal act. Instead, it is more directly related to the context and conditions in which the behavior emerges,” Nolan said. “I was keenly aware that the same problems were happening in the same neighborhoods since I started as an officer.”

He’s joined fellow WVU sociologist  Henry Brownstein and cohorts at Morgan State University on a National Science Foundation-funded project aimed at breaking down barriers between police and citizens. Their research zeroes in on real-life neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, where situational policing approaches will be tested.

Situational policing is based on the belief that crime and other social, physical and emotional problems can be deterred by making strategic changes to the social environment and puts emphasis on partnering with residents to create conditions to make communities safer and healthier.

“That's what I’m taking to the Baltimore project, a perspective that shifts the function of policing from simply enforcing the law to working with residents to make places safer and stronger together,” Nolan said. “My contribution is looking at the relationships and dynamic processes that occur among residents in a neighborhood and with the police that create an atmosphere where crime, violence and other social problems are more or less likely to thrive.”

Nolan and his colleagues will collect data from eight neighborhoods in four police districts in Baltimore to assess the amount of crime, types of crimes, numbers of arrests, levels of trust in local government and police, levels of cohesion among neighbors and willingness of residents to help others and keep the community safe.

As an officer, Nolan applied some of these concepts – one being a “weed and seed” strategy funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. In that approach, the police and prosecutors “weed” out some of the more entrenched people in the local violence and illegal drug trade. The “seeding” part brings human services and tools for prevention, intervention, treatment and neighborhood revitalization in communities.

Nolan volunteered to lead the Wilmington police department’s weed and seed program in 1992. Assigned to the team were six other officers, who would find value in relationship-building. Nolan deemed the program successful, although it was never embraced by the police as “real police work.” He explained that this is why policing strategies aimed at building relationships and solving neighborhood problems never survive very long.

“It’s like we were this little spinoff group doing community policing,” he recalled. “We learned that the strength of neighborhood relationships made places safer.”

“My contribution is looking at the relationships and dynamic processes that occur among residents in a neighborhood and with the police that create an atmosphere where crime, violence and other social problems are more or less likely to thrive.” 

Police systems elsewhere in the world, including Abu Dhabi, can serve as a model the U.S. should aspire to, Nolan added.

“I knew a police officer in Abu Dhabi who said if there was a car chase down a highway and bystanders saw it, they’d help the police stop the car,” he said. “I’ve gone over there to talk about situational policing and neighborhood development. They’d say, ‘Yeah, we already do that here. We love the police.’”

This kind of understanding might lead to new solutions to crime and community safety in the United States and abroad, such as France, where protests have erupted over the killing of a teenager who attempted to drive away from police.

“The violent protests currently ongoing in France provide a good example of this,” Nolan said. “The conditions giving rise to widespread rioting in France are ignored by the police while ‘cleaning up the riffraff’ has been their response. Violent police action in pursuit of social control ensures the conditions leading to violent crime and rioting will continue into the future. This is the perspective we are taking to Baltimore and recommend throughout the United States and in other parts of the world.”



WVU Research Communications

Call 1-855-WVU-NEWS for the latest West Virginia University news and information from  WVUToday.

This article is republished from WVU Today — read the original article.