How community-based enforcement will help close the trust gap

We need to try an enforcement approach that is tailor-made and designed by and for our specific communities

Our profession has been under constant scrutiny and it’s only going to get worse. As I watch chief law enforcement officers respond to accusations of unfair treatment by certain segments of the population, I often cringe when I hear the following phrase: “We don’t racially profile, we just enforce observed behavior.”

They are being sincere when they make this statement, as most police officers are trained to enforce laws based on observable behaviors. Despite their sincerity, many in certain communities view this statement as confirmation of racial profiling. I have seen this many times in community meetings where a chief makes this statement and community members start shaking their heads and say, “See, this is what we are talking about!”

The notion that we make enforcement decisions based on observed behavior and not a person’s race seems to be the central point of disagreement between our profession and those in certain communities. We are trained from the beginning of our careers to look for a certain set of behaviors and to make our enforcement decisions based on our observation of those behaviors. So, it makes perfect sense to us when we say we practice color-blind policing by enforcing based on behavior.

We all have a shared responsibility in bridging the current trust gap.
We all have a shared responsibility in bridging the current trust gap. (Photo/Pixabay)

It’s about perspective

Although this makes sense to us, we need to ask ourselves: Are we enforcing behaviors from a law enforcement perspective or from the perspective of the communities we serve?

I grew up in the inner-city but started my career in a suburban/rural area. On my second day of field training I observed a raised pickup truck driving through town with very loud dual exhaust pipes. I was in the rural part of our patrol area. I went to stop the truck for two very clear observable violations. As I went to stop the truck, my FTO looked at me and said, “You won’t last long around here if you start stopping people for having a jacked-up truck and loud exhaust.”

What my FTO was essentially telling me was that enforcing these types of violations in this particular community was not something the community was going to tolerate. Had I stopped this truck I would have been enforcing behaviors from a law enforcement perspective and not those of the community I was serving.

I have found that most of the contention between us and certain communities we serve centers around the enforcement of traffic laws. I reached out to many dispatch communication centers around the country to gain a greater perspective on this issue.

I was seeking information on observable behavior, citizen-initiated complaints. In other words, were citizens calling, requesting that we enforce some of our most commonly-enforced observable behaviors? By observable behaviors I mean the following: suspended object from the rearview mirror, out taillight, out third brake light, out license plate light, loud exhaust, cracked windshield, riding a bike at night without a light, recently expired registration, and white light to the rear.

I have been guilty – and probably guiltier than most – of enforcing based on these types of observable behaviors. Unfortunately, like most of us, I was enforcing behaviors that I found to be important but those behaviors were not necessarily important to the community. I didn’t find a single dispatch center in which a citizen called to complain about the above-mentioned observable behaviors.

Getting community buy in and ownership

I know people will read this and say we get a lot of bad people off the streets enforcing these behaviors. I would say you’re right, but at what cost? Sir Robert Peel’s second of nine principles reads as follows: The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.

In certain communities it’s obvious that we have lost our ability to secure and maintain public respect in part because of the behaviors we enforce.

I believe the solution to regaining the trust and closing the perception gap is to transition from our current behavior-based enforcement philosophy to one that is more community based. This could be accomplished by holding community meetings and asking community members which behaviors they want officers to focus on enforcing. By doing this you may get buy in and ownership from your communities. In addition, you may be surprised by what they tell you.

For my agency, this type of community engagement has worked in a similar fashion with our character-based hiring model. Our former Sheriff Matt Bostrom conducted community meetings to solicit the types of characteristics they wanted to see in the officers that were being hired. The list of characteristics that the community came up with was almost completely different from what he thought their responses would be. As a result of those meetings, we have hired deputies over the past six years who possess those community-directed traits and we have seen amazing results. The community was right; so much so that Bostrom is taking this character-based hiring method worldwide through Oxford University in England.

I know many will have a hard time buying into this, but after having a front row seat to how our enforcement actions are viewed in certain communities it behooves us to take a different approach. The current reactive-only policing that is taking place throughout many communities is not working. Instead, let’s try taking an enforcement approach that is tailor-made and designed by and for our specific communities.

All communities want to trust their police and all police want to be trusted by their communities. We all have a shared responsibility in bridging the current trust gap. It’s obvious that the current approach isn’t working at reducing this gap. Maybe it’s time to take a different joint approach.  

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