Beyond Confrontation: Community-Centered Policing Tools

> Community-Centered Policing Tools

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot multiple times and killed by Darren Wilson, a White police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. This tragic act provoked grief and outrage in Ferguson and across the country. We mourned the loss of an innocent young man, taken before his time, and recognized that his killing was the latest in a long and rapidly growing succession of cases involving police use of lethal force against unarmed people of color.

The disproportionate, militarized police response to subsequent community protests in Ferguson — including the use of tear gas and snipers, curfews enforced by armored trucks and tactical units, and the unwarranted arrest of multiple journalists — further incensed the country and, in conjunction with Michael Brown's killing, raised an urgent question:

What must change so that not one more person of color is unjustifiably and indefensibly killed by the police?

While there are no definitive figures on how many Americans are shot by police every year, existing data point to grave differences by race. In 2014 alone, police were responsible for the deaths of 302 Black people across the country.From 2010 – 2012, Black men were 21 times more likely than their White peers to be killed by police.1 Similar racial disparities hold true among those injured by police. [2]

Local law enforcement units too often treat low-income neighborhoods populated by people of color — communities where people strive to live, learn, work, play, and pray in peace and harmony — as if they are enemy territory. Youth of color who should be growing up in supportive, affirming environments are instead presumed to be criminals and relentlessly subjected to aggressive police tactics that result in unnecessary fear, arrests, injuries, and deaths. This approach prevents police from being seen as trusted community partners, undermining neighborhood safety when coordinated efforts are most needed.

The militarization of police departments further erodes the trust that should exist between residents and the police who serve them. The proliferation of machine guns, armored vehicles and aircraft, and camouflage in local law enforcement units does not help police-community relations, the future of our cities, or our country.

To move forward, the country must also acknowledge and counter the effects of systemic racial bias, which impairs the perceptions, judgment, and behavior of too many of our law enforcement personnel and obstructs the ability of our police departments and criminal justice institutions to protect and serve all communities in a fair and just manner.

In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, PolicyLink, the Center for Global Policy Solutions, and over 1,400 social justice leaders, congressional members, faith leaders, artists, and activists signed an open letter to President Obama, urging federal action through the Justice Department to improve police-community relations through seven principles.

Soon after the letter was issued, the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Funded with a three-year, $4.75 million federal grant, the initiative invests in training, evidence-based strategies, policy development, and research to combat distrust and hostility between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The initiative brings together a consortium of national law enforcement experts, including the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Yale Law School, the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, and the Urban Institute.[3]

Several weeks later, the Department of Justice completed its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, uncovering deep-seated injustice and racism in nearly every facet of the department's practices. Soon after the report's release, a Ferguson municipal judge and several Ferguson police officers — including Police Chief Thomas Jackson — resigned or were fired. At the same time, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing released a robust report, complete with thoughtful and comprehensive recommendations and action steps to help overhaul policing practices in a way that benefits communities.

While these represent promising steps at the federal level to advance “community-centered policing,” local efforts and leadership are also needed. The seven principles in the open letter to President Obama can guide actions by community leaders to help improve police-community relations and institute community-centered policing at the local level. They can help build mutual trust and respect, increase safety in communities, and minimize senseless killings and excessive use of force by police:

  1. Ensure Transparency and Accountability: Police departments are funded by the public and should be accountable to the public. Therefore, police departments should not investigate themselves. Departments should establish enforceable, impartial accountability measures in instances where police brutality, racial profiling, and/or improper use of force are in question. This includes establishing effective and independent review boards broadly representative of the community, not just police interests. The actions, investigations, and publication of all relevant information, evidence, and policy recommendations of departments and review boards should be transparent and enforceable. Departments should also ensure that data and summary information are properly collected and made publicly available on particular incidents, progress, and trends that relate to suspected police brutality and racial profiling over the years for the department.
  2. Invest in Training: Racial bias is real. Whether implicit or explicit, it influences perceptions and behaviors and can be deadly. Law enforcement personnel should be required to undergo racial bias training in addition to building skills that exemplify problem-solving strategies, conflict mediation techniques, and de-escalation tactics. Officers should become adept at being responsive to community needs and voices, and achieving consistency and continuity in engaging community while enforcing the law.
  3. Ensure Diversity: Police department personnel should be representative of the communities they protect and serve. Therefore, police departments should adopt personnel practices that result in the hiring and retention of diverse law enforcement professionals who are culturally sensitive, speak the communities' languages, and are residents of their patrolled communities. Departments should implement and monitor diversity hiring and retention guidelines to further community trust and partnerships.
  4. Proactively Engage Communities: Too often, law enforcement personnel hold stereotypes about Black and brown youth and vice versa. Lack of familiarity breeds lack of understanding and increases opportunities for conflict. Police departments should work to deconstruct stereotypes and bias by identifying regular opportunities for constructive and quality engagement with youth and others living in the communities they serve. Departments should therefore partner with our communities in solving and preventing problems before they occur.
  5. Reject Militarization: Police should not become an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Emergencies and terrorism are real concerns for our communities, but departments should not rely on military equipment and tactics to police everyday problems or peaceful protests. Departments and communities should reject the transfer of military equipment into local police departments.
  6. Examine and Implement Good Models: It is possible to develop police departments that respect, serve, and protect all people in our communities regardless of age, race, physical and mental ability, gender, or class. Every department should partner with other local, state, and federal entities to quickly identify and establish new policies and practices to improve policing in communities.
  7. Implement Technology and Tools for Oversight: Departments should implement technology that helps to investigate and hold officers accountable for misconduct, such as profiling due to a person's race, class, religion, gender, physical or mental ability, or sexual orientation. The technology should only be used when legitimately apprehending suspects with probable cause, and all information gathered by the use of technology should be made publicly accessible immediately.

In 2001, PolicyLink and Advancement Project released Community-Centered Policing: A Force for Change, a report intended to help advocates, policymakers, and police officials understand models addressing the myriad challenges facing police departments, police-community relations, and the advancement of community-centered policing practices. With the same goal, PolicyLink and Advancement Project have come together once more to lift up solutions, this time with a series of issue briefs that will update some of the examples and best practices originally presented and explore critical new issues in the following areas:

  • Limiting Police Use of Force
  • Engaging Communities as Partners
  • Demilitarizing Local Police Departments
  • Sustaining and Institutionalizing Best Practices and Strategies


We hope these briefs will be tools for community leaders to use in conversations with local police forces and policymakers that can shape new policies to help communities — including low-income communities and communities of color — become healthier, more vibrant, and safer for all to participate and prosper.

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