How moving from ‘us’ and ‘them’ to ‘we’ results in more effective policing

When cops and communities come together to share the responsibility of community policing, everyone wins

Many of the issues police respond to are rooted in social problems rather than criminal behavior. Current concerns about policing response will continue to exacerbate if a shift toward partnering with essential stakeholders is not prioritized.

Current calls for police reform are rooted in the “us vs. them” culture. This divide can be bridged by equipping citizens with information about law enforcement policies and procedures that invite well-informed feedback and increases awareness of available policing resources. This, in turn, can empower the citizenry to believe that they can trust law enforcement to serve their community.

These unified relationships and outreach programs then create a policing structure that partners community members with police during most steps of law enforcement, creating more customized criminal justice solutions to serve the specific needs of communities. This, in essence, is community policing.

Law enforcement and the community must work toward a change in perspective.
Law enforcement and the community must work toward a change in perspective. (Getty Images)

four steps to effective community policing

The United States Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) defines community policing as having three critical components:

  • Community partnerships
  • Organizational transformation
  • Problem-solving.

The most essential element in community policing is the partnerships within the community that support law enforcement efforts to reduce crime and the fear of crime. These partnerships can be used by law enforcement professionals to decentralize and defer responsibilities to other stakeholders, professionals and organizations who are subject-matter experts in their respective fields rather than placing that responsibility solely on law enforcement, which may not have the tools to provide sustainable solutions to community problems. Decentralizing responsibility allows law enforcement to become a liaison rather than the primary agent of change between the resources and the community.

Here are four steps to start this process:

1. Create a shared vision

We cannot expect a transformation from an untrusting populace, so it is the responsibility of law enforcement to create shared understanding. Officers must try to incorporate opposite points of view to their experience in order to create mutual understanding, which will lead to a higher probability of conflict resolution. Law enforcement must also be acutely aware of common themes and issues that stand in the way of getting on the same page. These include, but are not limited to, excessive use of force, over-policing, lack of care and concern, and lack of transparency.

2. Create a shift in power between law enforcement and community leaders

Law enforcement should ultimately be a supplement to the communities' efforts, not the primary resource. It should act as a partner for the communities served, empowering members of the community to become guardians over their communities in becoming co-producers of preventing, reporting and solving criminal activity.

3. Create ambassadors

Once community members realize law enforcement is being transparent, open about practices and inviting them in, they are more likely to trust law enforcement. Below are two strong initiatives for creating such environments:

Experimental workshops

An experimental workshop allows community members to assume those roles of executives who set the vision, of commanders who set the direction, of first-line supervisors who develop the strategies, and of the rank and file who work toward achieving expectations.

For example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) offers three-day transparency workshops that provide community members with an inside understanding of the department's processes, services and operation. The topics selected for the workshops are the ones that drive the most questions during community meetings, rallies and other conversations with citizens.

Traditional programs

A longer, more detailed exploration of the department, its practices and procedures, culminating in a comprehensive understanding of day-to-day operations. If facilitated by personnel seeking mutual understanding, these programs allow for honest commentary, feedback, and discussion from participants. They provide opportunities for a shift from sometimes-entrenched positions toward a perspective of mutual understanding.

In addition to the transparency workshops, CMPD also offers more traditional programs such as a ​Citizens' Academy Program, a volunteer program and other community engagement programs. CMPD's ambassador program brings together community members and the police with the goal of improving community safety:

4. Create a change in perspective

Law enforcement and the community must work toward a change in perspective. Citizens must be given the power to create an actionable difference in their communities, with the goal of learning that law enforcement is a support link for their efforts toward actionable difference.

The most important factor in creating positive law enforcement and community relations is that officers, command staff and executive leaders must realize that they are no longer solely enforcers of the law, but active participants in a community-wide effort to improve the quality of life.

And so, as the power shifts from “us” and “them” to “we,” the burdens become much lighter. This shift will assist in crime reduction, improved community wellness and a more positive public perception of law enforcement. It will also assist in the reduction of officer burnout and an increase in the social, emotional and psychological well-being of officers and the overall health of the organization, thus improving effectiveness and efficiency. 

NEXT: Addressing critical issues through community policing

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