Building empathy is one of the most difficult tasks communities face. Simply put, we’re often not programmed for it. Humans have spent the vast majority of their millennia here on Earth in tightly-knit communities where social norms and even survival frequently depended on us making quick judgments about those around us, in order to sort individuals into our “in-group” or an “out-group”. This “tribalism”, however, is not simply based on racial, ethnic, religious, or linguistic divides. It also plays out in our (relatively) much more diverse and integrated modern-day communities. And few issues in urban American communities divide us more than the fault lines around law enforcement. To some, police and sheriff’s officials embody the best values of our communities: security, order, and community involvement. To others, they represent the remnants of our country’s centuries-long infatuation with racial oppression.
Six board members, two staff members, and a dozen empty chairs were all that greeted public safety director Stephanie O’Malley when she walked into a sleek but soulless conference room in downtown Denver. For a safety department under fire for violent conditions at its main jail and allegedly flouting public records laws, and a civilian oversight agency relatively fresh from being enshrined in the city charter, this was an underwhelming sight.
Yet even in a city regarded as a national leader in holding the police and sheriff’s departments accountable, both the pace of reform and the depth of community engagement are far from consistent.
The nation is in the middle of a serious, sometimes heated discussion about law enforcement practices and procedures. The last year of news coverage has included disturbing accounts of violence that have left all sides looking for answers.
There are some 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and some are using local citizen advisory boards to establish and nurture relationships with their communities. There are several examples in North Carolina, including the City of Asheville, the City of Greensboro, the City of Burlington and the newest board in the Town of Knightdale. The Raleigh-area suburb is starting a police advisory board in January.
“Our primary purpose for this is seeking citizen input to make sure our community policing initiatives are addressing real needs and solutions,” said Knightdale Police Chief Lawrence Capps.