Steps for Working on Police-Community Relations – Where do we Start?

This entry was contributed by on August 3rd, 2016 at 11:51 am and is filed under , , .
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In this shared blog post, Cate and John offer our thoughts on the recent and  highly publicized violence between police and residents, and the related protests in communities across the country. Some passages are individually identified, with Cate focusing on the depth of structural racism and the kind of education needed. John notes some particular outreach and dialogue efforts (as does Cate).

We want to hear from people about their communities

  • What is happening?
  • Is it working?
  • Are there tips or lessons to transfer about protest, engagement, and community policing policies?
President Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention last week, and he mentioned more than once the ongoing violence between people of color and police that we are experiencing almost every day in our country:

“…we can work through racial divides in this country when we realize the worry black parents feel when their son leaves the house isn’t so different than what a brave cop’s family feels when he puts on the blue and goes to work, that we can honor police and treat every community fairly. We can do that… acknowledging problems that have festered for decades isn’t making race relations worse, it’s creating the possibility for people of goodwill to join and make things better.”

There seems wave upon wave of high profile incidents of violence between people of color and police, followed by simultaneous outrage toward and defense of police officers. We see many communities, including our own (Durham), engaged in protests about use of force and demonstrations of support for law enforcement. It can be complex and confusing, and difficult to know where the truth lies. As President Obama alluded to above, community mobilization and action are key parts of seeking fair and equal policing.

John offers: A reminder of a Charlotte initiative and some general guidelines for outreach


Specifics in Charlotte: In the blog post, Impacting the Community One Haircut at a Time Traci Ethridge reported on a “Cops and Barbers” initiative for building understanding and working on trust between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and community members.


General guidance: I will highlight a few points from Everyday Democracy to see if they ring true.   Everyday Democracy supports community conversations and joint action on many topics, including partnering with diverse coalitions for large-scale diaEveryday-Democracy-4 strategies to build trust and take actionlogue and change processes to address community-police relations.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Based on their 25 years of work, they offer some strategies to create positive change in community-police relations. Of the four guidelines Everyday Democracy identifies, I’ll highlight two:

  • Address the history of mistrust and disconnection between the community and the police
  • Link dialogue to action and community change

Address the history of mistrust and disconnection between the community and the police

What makes community-police relations so hard, in my view, is as Everyday Democracy writes: “Tragic incidents don’t happen in a vacuum – there are hundreds of years of history and policies that have shaped our communities today.”   The different viewpoints on respecting and trusting police, on past and current racism, and how stereotypes operate, make conversations really hard.

Cate continues:

I made a case for anti-racism training in an earlier post on this blog, and I think it’s an essential piece of the conversation about police and community relations. Durham’s chief district judge, Marcia Morey, shared context that is central to this conversation in an  editorial in the News and Observer last week about her recent experience at the Racial Equity Institute:

We were told that “race” is a social construct, not a biological one… This historic approach to labeling people by race promoted categories by which our society could devise special privileges and benefits for some and not for others, simply based on skin pigment.

It happened in 1705 with a Virginia statute that gave white indentured servants 50 acres, 50 bushels and a musket, but nothing to blacks. For the next 200 years, a Civil War, Jim Crow laws, statutes, policies and court decisions denied blacks equal opportunity in housing, education, healthcare and justice.

Racial inequity is not simply a black person’s problem, nor a white person’s ignorance. It’s a systemic issue that permeates all aspects of our society, especially the criminal justice system and particularly law enforcement who are on the front line of heightened tensions.

In the editorial, Judge Morey calls for true understanding of the experience of others as a path toward healing. I would offer that, because of the deep history of racism in our country, representatives of the criminal justice system can take a step toward that understanding  by further educating themselves on structural racism. Communities of color may be more willing to engage with police officers if they see steps being taken to understand the inequities that have led to the current climate of mistrust.

Cate and John:

Link dialogue to action and community change


We think there was widespread compassion for Dallas Police Chief David Brown when he said:

“We’re hurting. Our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heartbroken. There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is that this must stop — this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.”  Here is a video of his comments.

Cate continues:

There is no doubt that the divisiveness must stop, but linking that desire to action is where I think we fall short.

Many folks may believe that “talk is empty” without a clear goal for action.

Organizers of committees, forums and other ways to address community-police relations need to be clear what is “on the table” for action following initial conversation. There is a heavy tension between a view that community conversation is meant to figure out what to do make community-police relations better, versus meant to spark the kind of clear action – near-term and concrete – that many community leaders seek in order to start to rebuild trust with their law enforcement leaders and officers.

NPR covered a story about a recent Wichita, Kansas Black Lives Matters protest that changed course following a conversation between protest organizers and police.  The protest was canceled after the chief of police met with Black Lives Matters activists, and instead, the groups co-hosted a First Steps Community Cookout to begin bridging the gap between police and the communities they serve. Like many communities on the morning after National Night Out events and cook outs,  I imagine that many in Wichita are watching to see what additional steps will be taken to continue the conversation and make concrete changes to improve relationships and ways of working among police and the communities they serve.

Cate and John:

So, in addition to Cops and Barbers in Charlotte, First Steps in Wichita, and guidelines from Everyday Democracy, what do you see that is making some headway on perceptions and practices to improve community-police relations?

16 Responses to “Steps for Working on Police-Community Relations – Where do we Start?”

  1. david campt

    I think the key to making headway is creating more clarity about what any method is trying to do. Is the effort trying to fix police/black community relations? is is trying to fix black/white community relations, which the hope that less divisions between publics of different backgrounds will make it easier for the public to push for needed reforms? Is the effort about improving police training or accountability, which are distinct from each other and from the previous two ideas.

    The tough part is that all of these are needed, and all of these can be done well or poorly. In my mind, to create momentum toward change, the key thing is doing whatever happens well enough to create expand the numbers who have the will and vision for improvement.

  2. David– totally agreed on the points about identifying the problem(s) and making sure solutions to any and all of those problems be implemented well so that they create momentum and large-scale change, There is a viral video making its way around Facebook that shows a white police officer pulling over a black woman and then giving her ice cream, which is an example of not understanding the problem, and implementing the wrong solution. I’m curious is others agree, and if you have ideas about how we can help law enforcement better understand the problems, and choose better solutions:

    • david campt

      While I would not claim that the ice cream strategy is going to solve problems at a massive scale, I do think that there might be a role for such “stunts”, especially if they might happen for more than one person. For instance, I have seen videos of events where all day long the police were pulling folks over and giving out teddy bears at Christmas Time. The whole thing is covered in the local press that day, and there are smiles all around. Does this solve the problem? Of course not. But I disagree with the narrator of the video. Such stunts remind cops and law and order types that black folks can be just citizens, and reminds black folks that there is good will among folks in blue. The danger is such events substituting for other efforts….but I don’t think that these are negative themselves.

      • Cate Elander

        Totally agreed on the danger of ice cream being a substitute for more substantive reforms. I do think that it’s complicated to use an avenue that generally causes fear (for ones life) to do something nice for someone, unless that nice thing is doing their job in an unbiased, professional way. The cops could have easily given out ice cream to citizens without at first making them afraid. Its the bait and switch that troubles me here, I think.

  3. Emily Edmonds

    Great outline of some of the real community relationship issues here. This is timely and relevant, especially as we all (as public servants and as people) are struggling to find a common path forward from the current situation.
    I know I always bring things back to food work (sorry!) but I have been really impressed with the Racial Equity work at CEFS since I arrived here. Farming in North Carolina has always been subject to the same systemic racism and equity issues as law enforcement. Minority farmers are consistently underserved even today, not from a purposeful standpoint but from a lack of awareness about the systemic barriers to accessing resources. CEFS hosts Racial Equity trainings for its staff and other leaders in the food system across the state; encourages dialogues between internal teams about these issues; and even hosts monthly “in-betweens,” events that encourage reading, responding, learning, and sharing around these issues.
    This is one step that I think can help with the long-term solutions to these problems. It’s not enough to follow engagement with action – as public organizations we should work to internalize these changes, and to make them part of our work on a regular basis, not just when crisis strikes. Thank you both for a thoughtful and relevant view on these issues.

  4. Kevin Amriehsani

    Thanks for this roundup. I always struggle with how much equivalency to treat the systemic racism in policing issue versus that of minority suspicion of/violence against police. Although both are abhorrent, the two aren’t equivalent, and I fear that efforts to treat them as such are doomed to fail. With that being said, there are medium-term steps police departments can take (e.g. really pushing to make officers look more like the neighborhoods they secure, ensuring that bodycams are always functional, making civilian review boards the norm, boosting resources for community policing) before policymakers are able to take long-term steps (e.g. ending racial disparities in sentencing, eliminating elected prosecutors and judges, banning local government practices that rely on citations and citation interest charges for funding, instituting more DOJ oversight of departments). This doesn’t mean that communities themselves need to change their mentality. But cultural change is much easier to accomplish once reforms are actively implemented via state institutions.

  5. Eric Jackson

    Thanks for this post and to all for the thoughtful comments above.

    David alluded to it above, but I want to highlight that much of the police/minority conflict is a reflection of tensions within U.S. society as a whole. And while there’s no one, easy fix to that larger issue, I suspect that one of our biggest handicaps in addressing it is simply the degree to which we continue to live as a segregated society, certainly outside of our workplaces. I believe one of the ways that we as individuals and contribute to the solution is by actively seeking opportunities to participate with our neighbors who are not like us. For those of us who are white, that mostly means stepping outside *our* comfort zones and finding places to participate that we wouldn’t normally.

  6. Beth McKee-Huger

    I’ve seen Greensboro communities and Greensboro police making intentional efforts to understand and appreciate each other, to see each other as partners. I respect my colleagues who protest to hold police accountable for the incidents when that understanding breaks down, often across racial divides. That makes me especially grateful for the times that neighborhoods and police are able to transcend the barriers.

    • Cate Elander

      Thanks, Beth– could you share any additional information about what is happening in Greensboro?

  7. Rick Morse

    I’m wondering if anyone has ever been a part of National Night Out (see I heard about this in nearby Burlington and Durham but haven’t participated myself. I wonder how impactful these kinds of events are or can be?

    • Cate Elander

      Thanks for this, Rick. I think National Night Out is, in concept, a great way for citizens and law enforcement to get to know each other in a casual environment in the neighborhoods where they live and police. However, it doesn’t stand on it’s own in making lasting impact– it must also be paired with other efforts to law enforcement to get to know the communities they serve. In Durham, I have been a part of organizing community events in East Durham, where the majority of police in attendance stand away from the crowd, arms crossed, with reflective sunglasses on, and do not talk with citizens. This brings a feeling of surveillance to an event that is intended for neighbors to be together and celebrate their community, The feel of NNO has to extend beyond the boundaries of that one event in order for citizens to feel that law enforcement is genuine in their interest to get to know the communities they serve. And even then, if substantive changes are not made to the way policing is done, even expanded community outreach efforts can seem false.

  8. Stephen Hopkins

    Thanks to John and Cate for getting this started. I live in Durham and have worked hard in Durham to help with changing the systems that keeps Black people from enjoying the same rights as other races do. My problem in all of this is that in order for real progress to be made everything must be in the discussion. No matter who you are or where you come from, we all have racial issues within us. We must recognize this and be willing to admit it. We all are to blame for the way our young people address contact with law enforcement simply because they have learned this behavior from us,” Parents & other adults in their lives”. As adults we have to be careful about the messages we give our kids when we are upset because things aren’t going our way. Our kids learn most of how to deal with conflict and problem solving skills from the adults in their lives. This is just a few of the things that have added to the problem at hand. Having open and honest discussions is the only way to start fixing a complex problem such as community & police relations.


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