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New DOJ chief talks importance of community policing

Hugh T. Clements/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The new director of a Department of Justice office that financially supports police departments nationwide says that community engagement is what defines successful law enforcement. And he knows from experience.


Before being chosen to head the Community Oriented Policing Services within the DOJ, Hugh Clements was the chief of police in Providence, Rhode Island. With more than 34 years in policing, Clements told ABC News that his time as an officer and as a leader serves him well in understanding what agencies go through on a daily basis and what funding they need.

“The position is almost tailor-made for a police chief who’s done it in the field,” Clements said. He said he’s previously been the “beneficiary” of the “great programs” from COPS.

“I was one of the practitioners in the field doing the work in the community and having a great degree of success in making that community a safer place,” he said.

The main role of COPS is to dole out federal funds to police departments around the country for a variety of issues. The biggest pot of money is for hiring officers.

Clements said that 13,000 of the 18,000 police departments in the country have been given a grant from COPS for one issue or another, whether it be for staffing or a program to decrease violent crime.

Clements began his own leadership career in policing as a district commander with Providence police and worked his way up. When he started, he said the department was more traditional but as time went on, community policing became more of a focus.

“I never aspired to be the chief of police but I had a great passion for the community that I worked in and we became enmeshed in the community,” he said. In his view, there are many ways to define community policing — though it all ultimately boils down to what works for locals.

“For a police department to be effective in their community, for them to have better outcomes in their community, they have to be so connected to that community, they have to be engaged,” he said.

DOJ recently tasked COPS with looking into the Memphis, Tennessee, Police Department’s use of force and deescalation policies as well as a separate review of specialized units across the country, in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death after he was beaten by officers during a traffic stop in January.

Five officers from the now-disbanded “Scorpion Unit” in Memphis are charged with murder in Nichols’ death. They have pleaded not guilty.

Clements said that a review in general of specialized units asks whether or not the police department needs that group, what the accountability procedures are for those officers and how effective they are. A major part of review is also talking to subject-matter experts about the situation.

“We’ll be doing a larger look nationally at what type of oversight there should be, what type of accountability [there is] in allowing these units to be involved in your police work,” he said.

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