Over the years, the fragile relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve has been strained to the point of fracture. The goal now for law enforcement agencies is to repair existing relationships with the communities they serve and build new positive relationships with youths to ensure future community resilience.
Incidents of police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths have created an atmosphere where the adversarial relationship that historically exists manifests in adverse public behavior such as rioting, looting, or violence against law enforcement. Law enforcement too has succumbed to instances of adverse behavior stemming from the lack of support it feels from the communities served. An inability to recognize the need for each other widens the divide, and public safety may suffer as a result.
The law enforcement community acknowledges the need for positive interaction with the community and realizes that the success of any proactive policing strategy hinges on this. The problem is how to achieve this success without alienating officers or community members. One approach involves training police officers to acknowledge the need to take a dual approach. This bifurcation enables officers to move back and forth from the traditional role of warrior to that of guardian. This has proven difficult as traditional training models have prepared officers to view situations in a two-dimensional perspective: right or wrong, narrow or straight, yes or no. However, the world is not predicated on absolutes, so officers must adapt to an evolving relationship with the consumers of law enforcement services.
Public safety is a symbiotic relationship requiring everyone who has a stake to, in essence, “pull their weight” to reach the desired conclusion. Apathy can lead the public to detach from its role in protecting the community and to believe the safety of communities is the sole responsibility of law enforcement. This detachment can then lead to a routine of blaming law enforcement when things go awry. For too long, law enforcement has assumed the burden of securing society. The dilemma is how to foster mutual respect and recognition of responsibility. In order for this transition in thinking to take place, the priority becomes accountability, which falls on both law enforcement and the community. The realization that they are seeking the same result evolves through the exploration of introspection, interaction, and investment.
Both the community and law enforcement must approach this process with the desire to purge themselves of any behaviors, practices, or policies that would hinder closing the divide between the two. Both must ask themselves what they are contributing to the success and to the failure of the relationship. By addressing the long-held cynicism that permeates the culture, law enforcement not only can pull back the “blue curtain,” but rip it down altogether to foster the transparency that communities crave and to help humanize law enforcement. This can also help reduce the negative stigma that communities sometimes associate with cooperating with the police – for example, the “stop snitching” mantra the criminal element may use to perpetuate crime and further imprison community members in their own neighborhoods. By making a conscious effort to build partnerships with law enforcement and educate themselves on policies and procedures, communities can ultimately dissipate the ambiguity that arises in controversial incidents. The community must navigate the open access to law enforcement that comes from the transparency they call for. After both parties perform the introspective evaluation, they then present the results to the other to assess the validity of the outcomes. Hopefully, this creates the dialogue that leads to the next step in the process.
In this step, both parties find ways to work together, solve problems, and understand their partners in public safety. Perhaps the most effective tool to achieve this is a citizen police academy (CPA), which provides a cursory knowledge for community members. This knowledge becomes invaluable in the event of a controversial community/law enforcement interaction, and engagement efforts such as ride-alongs become more effective tools for building relationships. Law enforcement’s role in this step is simple: to remind the community through its actions that their officers are people first. This is achieved through interaction in a non-enforcement role – that is, interactions with citizens other than when they are victims, witnesses, or suspects.
One activity that is conducive for this interaction is non-tactical foot patrol. Interacting with the community for the purpose of building relationships fosters genuine connections that build relational equity, including relationships with youths. Involving youths – the future of the community – early in the relationship-building process with law enforcement helps to normalize positive relationships. The Baltimore Police Department endeavored to create a foot patrol curriculum to provide more than just on-the-job training for both entry level and veteran officers in efforts to foster noncriminal interactions with the community. This effort has received positive feedback from both the community and the officers. Through positive interaction between the parties, the groundwork is laid for the next step in the process.
This final component of repairing relationships between the community and law enforcement is the most difficult to achieve, but pays the most dividends. When one party invests in another, it becomes tied to the successes and failures of the other party. This must be the prevailing thought when it comes to community relationships with law enforcement. It is important that law enforcement officers take personally any major occurrences in their given communities, whether positive or negative. This attachment creates connections that incentivize law enforcement to participate.
An important function that must be performed by law enforcement is evaluating the community intelligence quotients (IQ) of its officers. An officer who works in a certain area for an extended time period should be aware of the complexities of that area, including demographics, special customs, and history. This assessment should be a regular part of development for an officer and can abate issues as accountability is fostered to seek knowledge about the community. The community must be ready and willing to impart this knowledge to law enforcement, whether through formal training settings or through informal daily contact.
For example, the Baltimore Police Department has provided entry level and veteran officers an historical perspective – through a series of symposiums on “The History of Baltimore” – to better educate them on the neighborhoods they patrol. The community’s responsibility is to ensure the involvement of residents across the entire community – especially youths – in the relationship-building process. Having young people attend community meetings and town halls fosters future relationships with law enforcement.
If a concerted effort is made to delve into the aforementioned steps, strides could be made to repair the relationship between a community and its law enforcement agency. However, a half-hearted attempt to begin the process will be met with difficulties, as the journey to develop and repair relationships requires a full commitment. After the third step has been implemented, any difficulties experienced in the complex relationship will not be mitigated. Although this process to repair the police/community relationship is not a silver bullet, it does provide the launching pad for a serious attempt at change.