Building sustainable communities is a long-term effort that includes reestablishing positive relationships between police departments and the communities they serve. Repairing these damaged relationships means changing the visual perception, improving communication, providing education, and building awareness for the community members.
Since the August 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting death of Michael Brown, significant media attention has been placed on the public’s perception of law enforcement officers and their use of force. Several cases captured on video – including the death of Eric Garner in New York City during a sidewalk arrest – have latched on to the narrative that the police have become, to some, a source of fear rather than protection, an enemy rather than an ally.
The April 2015 riots in Baltimore, Maryland, following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody served as another stark example of the significant distrust that exists between law enforcement officers and portions of the community that they are charged to “protect and serve.” Although the events that unfurled will be analyzed for years to come, the unfortunate reality for the city of Baltimore is that significant parts of its citizenry appear to have lost faith in the police; they do not look to them for help in times of crisis.
During the Baltimore protests, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made the critical decision to order the police to “create a space” for the protestors, acknowledging later that doing so had also given “those who wished to destroy space to do that [as well].” However, when some unknown number of “bad actors” looted and set fire to their own neighborhoods within this space, the local population did not call out for assistance from the police gathered only blocks away. Worse, the police knew that they were not wanted. This broken relationship played out on live television, and became yet another example in a yearlong series of events highlighting a line between the police and the citizenry.
In some areas, the “us vs. them” viewpoint has become “the norm,” illustrating the modern relationship between police officers and the communities they serve. This fractured bond benefits neither the public nor the police and inevitably leads to further distrust and more-frequent instances of conflict and even violence. The questions now are how to better define the relationship and how to make it happen.
One Police Chief’s Perspective
“In times of crisis, we want people to run to the police, not away from them,” said David Mitchell, director of public safety and chief of police for the University of Maryland at College Park (UMD), in a personal interview on 16 June 2015. Mitchell, who has served in cabinet-level positions in Maryland and Delaware as state police superintendent and secretary of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, respectively, believes that a culture shift in law enforcement – not more training – is what is needed to improve the relationship between the general public and the police.
He worries that law enforcement has “lost legitimacy” with the public. “Our business is to sell safety, and to do so we must redefine our success as, ‘the creation of sustainable neighborhoods’,” Mitchell added. He is also leery of what he sees as an overreliance (and focus) on crime data used internally by police departments to measure crime rates across distinct geographic areas.
“CompStat is often used by [police] executives to embarrass individuals, which does not necessarily achieve important public safety outcomes. It’s a useful tool to be sure, but it is not able to measure our success in building positive relationships with our community,” he said, adding that, “the number of arrests made and tickets issued are not necessarily measures of success.”
Mitchell also believes that the manner in which the police respond to the community during incidents is equally important. These efforts include:
Visual perception – “We don’t dress in BDUs [battle dress uniforms], we use uniforms of the day,” said Mitchell noting that BDUs do not necessarily present an “approachable presence” and may create a visual perception of force that is not conducive to building a positive relationship with the community.
Communication – “Ongoing communication is also key to building trust,” said Mitchell. The UMD Police Department uses multiple communications channels to keep the community informed of events, large and small, taking place in the area. “We use Nixle to send targeted, geo-fenced alerts to faculty and students not just about public safety related issues, but also to alert them of road closures, construction issues, etc.,” he noted. Doing so establishes a “dialogue” that serves to open communication channels that “work both ways” and to encourage people to value and rely on the information coming from the police department.
Education – The UMD police department educates students and faculty on how to respond collaboratively during a significant event, such as on-campus active shooter. “We teach ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ to our community,” said Mitchell. “It is critically important, and it gives our students and faculty a sense that we are working together during these types of situations,” he added.
Awareness – Training and communication also helps to avoid the potential confusion caused by a lack of awareness of who the police are, “We can’t meet each other for the first time during a crisis,” said Mitchell.
Documentation and review – The UMD Police Department documents “every use-of-force incident,” including when an officer only “pulls a gun,” for later review and analysis. Mitchell noted that the department is currently reviewing its use-of-force training with “a new focus on de-escalation techniques.”
Mitchell also believes that leveraging technology is another way to build trust. Examples include:
Body-worn cameras – “We use body-worn cameras, and the officers love them,” said Mitchell, noting that the technology creates an “objective observer” that both parties can acknowledge (and perhaps adjust their behavior to) during a police interaction.
Gunshot detection – The UMD is in the process of installing “ShotSpotter” gunshot detection solution in and around campus, which will facilitate a more efficient and timely response to locations where gunshots have occurred.
Social media monitoring – The UMD monitors social media proactively in order to identify incidents that may require a police response. “Social media allows us to establish a real-time dialogue with our community,” said Mitchell. “We want them to tell us what is happening, that’s why we are here,” he added.
Building “sustainable communities” is a long-term effort and one that will require vigilance and a consistent effort by all community members, including the general public, businesses, government, and public safety. Rebuilding the trust between law enforcement and the public is a critical step in this process. “We ‘sell’ safety, and that means that we have to deliver it. And we will be more successful if the community sees us as a full partner in achieving safety,” said Mitchell.
Following the events of the past year, this may be a “tough sell.” Building trust is also not something that is ever accomplished quickly. However, small and incremental steps can reap dividends over the long term. Starting a dialogue, even one way, can be a good first step.