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Can Free Ice Cream Make People Trust the Police More?

When the Boston Police Department started giving out free ice cream in 2010, it was viewed as an innovative community policing tool. But not everyone agrees that it's working.
August 25, 2016, 4:06pm

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On a stifling summer day in Boston, while much of the country was still reeling from the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, more than a thousand people gathered in Boston's South End neighborhood, behind the police department headquarters, for the Unity March Against Police Terror: Boston2BatonRouge. They were there to hear from survivors, family members, and activists—to chant, to cry, to take their bodies and voices to the streets in memory of those killed by police violence.

At the march, a group of kids dribbled a basketball, rode bikes, and swarmed an ice cream truck parked nearby. A police officer played with some of the kids, laughing and high-fiving. And if you looked closely, you could see another police officer inside the truck, passing out little cups of chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

This was no run-of-the-mill ice cream truck. This was Operation Hoodsie Cup, the Boston Police Department's new(ish), innovative community policing initiative—a way to "build bonds and strengthen ties with the community and the kids," as one cop told VICE.

The Boston Police Department's two "Operation Hoodsie Cup" ice cream trucks at an event earlier this month. All photos by the authors

Official police-community initiatives have a long history in the United States. The New York Police Department first formed Precinct Community Councils—a sort of town hall for people to confer with cops—in 1943, and Los Angeles set up a formal community outreach program after the Watts Riots tore through the city in 1965.

In Boston, as in other major cities, the latest push toward community policing dates to the 1990s. Those initiatives were more focused on preventing and reporting crime, rather than engaging citizens. That changed in 2010 when the BPD unveiled, to much fanfare and a few snickers, their first ice cream truck.

At the press conference introducing the initiative, Commissioner Edward Davis characterized the police ice cream truck as a way to "collaborate with our community, including local corporate partners, in strategic ways to creatively address public safety issues," according to Business Wire. The New England–based dairy company Hood signed on to sponsor the program, supplying the trucks with their signature "Hoodsie Cups," which are given out for free.

"Operation Hoodsie Cup" was not initially designed as a way for the police to get to know their community, but for people to feel more comfortable reporting crime to the police. The Boston Police Department believes strongly that initiatives like this one help to reduce crime and break down barriers between the police and the community.

Certain types of serious crime have been steadily decreasing in recent years. The mayor, police commissioner, and lower-ranking officers have made it clear in public statements that much of the success Boston has had in reducing crime, as well as the relative lack of violence between police and minority communities, can be attributed to Boston's police community outreach initiatives.

At the launch of the BPD's second ice cream truck on August 1, the police commissioner, William B. Evans, bragged that no other department did community policing better than Boston and that the relationships the ice cream truck, among other programs, helped to build within the community was what made the Boston police so successful at their job. Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston, who is the head of the department's neighborhood watch program, told VICE proudly at the press conference that "this is the solution" to America's problem with police and minority relations.

And many police departments agree. Just days before the Boston's second police ice cream truck was launched, the city of St. Louis launched its own police ice cream truck. The Boston police ice cream truck was also used as an example of how to build community relationship by President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Yet despite the high profile praise of Operation Hoodsie Cup, there are troubling questions about the effectiveness and driving forces behind police community outreach initiatives. These questions are not new. When the New York Police Department set up the Task Force on Police/Community Relations in 1997—after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was assaulted and sodomized by officers in Brooklyn—dissenting members complained that:

"Instead of urging us to investigate how police officers who have abused citizens were able to become cops in the first place; what kind of training they received; why officers who are accused of excessive force are rarely disciplined, and what can be done to break the blue wall of silence, Mayor Giuliani gave his Task Force the assignment of developing a curriculum for establishing a structured dialogue between the police and the community."

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Stacey Patton, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University and outspoken critic of police initiatives like Operation Hoodsie Cup. While the intention is nice, Patton told VICE that systematic racism, poverty, and police tension won't go away by simply giving out treats. Patton also pointed out that members of minority communities, who are by and large the target of these programs, are rarely asked what they need or want from the police. If they did, the answer would not likely be ice cream.

When Boston Police Department unveiled a second ice cream truck earlier this month at National Night Out—an annual "crime prevention program" established in 1984, featuring cookouts, musical performances, bouncy castles, and a dunk tank—Mayor Marty Walsh emphasized that, "We need to build these relationships when they're five years old, not 19."

While younger children did seem to be enjoying the events, the teenagers and young adults VICE spoke with were more critical.

Malika, a 27-year-old who lives in an affordable housing development in Boston's historic South End, told VICE that in the 20 years she's been attending National Night Out events, not much has changed. These children who play with officers or eat free ice cream grow up to become the black youth that police target at the beginning and end of each month in order to meet their arrest quotas, she said.

Another group of black and Latino teenagers told VICE that the community policing initiatives like NNO and the ice cream truck are "kind of a joke. They're trying to reach these little kids… trying to get them to forget, so they don't know what we've been through, what people older than us have been through. They'll only remember this moment while they're young, 'Oh yeah the cops are nice to us, everything's OK.' But it's not OK."

The police superintendent-in-chief, William Gross, told VICE that a number of the officers involved with the ice cream truck and National Night Out came from the neighborhoods they were now policing. Gross himself grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester—both predominantly black neighborhoods—and appeared to have friendly, almost familial relationships with many of the area's residents. Gross said it was important to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and to understand the history of racial tensions in Boston, to learn from the pain of the past and work to move forward.

For some, Operation Hoodsie Cup is a step in the right direction. But it is not nearly enough. Because, as Patton points out, it's "disturbing to give ice cream one day and shoot the next."

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