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How engagement drives successful community-centered policing and builds public trust

The cycle of listening to residents, acting on their feedback and communicating results back to the community will continually increase trust over time

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Align your services and initiatives with what residents care about.

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Content provided by Polco

By Jessie O’Brien

Trust lives at the root of successful community-centered law enforcement today. With trust, services and staffing issues improve, officers feel more valued and communities feel more safe. Building trust must be a top priority for today’s police departments.

The National Law Enforcement Survey (The NLES), created by National Research Center (NRC) at Polco, gathers resident insights on police and sheriff services. A recent study showed that in 2020, nationwide trust ratings for law enforcement dropped over 20% across the board. But there is a silver lining.

Trust ratings are boomeranging back up (currently risen to about half of where they were pre-2020). The good news is residents do want better relationships with the police. The NLES results reveal Americans’ top three priorities for law enforcement are transparent communication, positive connections and more community-centered training.

Observing this in their own cities, many law enforcement agencies across the country are focusing on engagement. Programs like “coffee with a cop” events are more valued today when they might have seemed frivolous in the past.

Community engagement surveys like The NLES give residents a voice, while simultaneously giving leaders insights they need for informed decision-making. But building trust takes more than outreach alone.

“[Engagement] means the community has just as much say-so as the system on how it will run,’' said Howard Henderson, a professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University in Houston and founding director at Center for Justice Research. “We’ve never seen true democratic policing; what the community has to say is just as important as the police chief.”

Many police leaders agree and make innovative efforts to hear from their communities. The Denton (Texas) Police Department (DPD) makes a point to engage with purpose and give residents a say in safety decisions.

First, DPD makes in-person interactions more approachable. For example, Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon embedded an officer at a local recreation center where residents feel comfortable. This way, community members don’t have to come into the station with a concern.

DPD is also bringing resident wants into the decision-making process. They now follow up on issues initiated by the community that may not have been a priority for DPD at first. For instance, the Denton PD was focused on illicit drug sales in a local park. However, at a community meeting, residents said they were concerned about unlicensed vendors selling food out of their cars. As a result, DPD worked with code enforcement to address what residents wanted.

“Instead of telling the community what our focus is going to be, we are trying to get better at listening to what they want our focus to be,” Dixon said. “That way we are collaborating and we get more buy-in.”

Survey results prove that people want harmony and goodwill with law enforcement. Getting there takes listening and integrating community feedback into real action.

How Billings PD Increases Public Trust Through Positive Resident Interactions

The Billings (Mont.) Police Department maintains high levels of resident trust in police through positive interactions despite major hurdles.

In 2020, Billings saw a 70% increase in violent crime. Plus, they had a lean budget and were weathering the difficulties of 2020 like other departments nationwide.

The Billings PD launched The National Law Enforcement Survey to gather a comprehensive picture of resident opinions of police services. The survey compares local results to other cities nationwide.

Survey results showed residents think safety problems are big issues in Billings, with several safety ratings falling below the national average. Only about 30% of residents felt safe in downtown Billings and local parks at night.

One might think public trust and confidence in police may suffer along with feelings of safety. But the survey proved the opposite to be true. Residents rate police trustworthiness high – almost 80%.

This seems a bit paradoxical until you remember the top three priorities for residents nationwide. As mentioned, The NLES shows Americans’ top three priorities for law enforcement are transparent communication, positive connections and more community-centered training. Billings does an excellent job of addressing these concerns.

“We believe these positive results come from our efforts to be as transparent as the law allows,” said Kevin Iffland, assistant city administrator.

The department also promotes positive interactions with residents. For instance, assisting victims of crime, working to increase school safety and safely managing political protests all scored well above the national benchmark. Residents also said police were fair, respectful and knowledgeable.

As a result, these positive interactions led to high levels of trust in the face of safety concerns.

How You Can Improve Resident Trust In Police With Engagement

  1. Identify residents’ safety priorities. Assessments like The National Law Enforcement Survey can help departments pin down the top concerns.
  2. Prioritize positive interactions with residents. Face-to-face meetings may be the biggest opportunity to form better relationships with community members.
  3. Act on resident feedback. Align your services and initiatives with what residents care about.
  4. Show your results. Let community members know you are listening to them by reporting back the changes you’ve made based on their feedback. The cycle of listening, acting and communicating will continually increase trust over time.

About the author
Jessie O’Brien is the head copywriter at Polco. Polco makes community engagement accurate and reliable. Hundreds of government leaders trust Polco for insights from surveys and data analytics on one easy-to-use online platform.