In cities and towns across the country, the recent, tragic deaths of black youths in confrontations with police have sown a wave of distrust for law enforcement. This perception is not fair to the vast majority of dedicated, well-meaning law enforcement officers, but it has shaken the connection between law enforcement agencies and the neighborhoods they serve.

Since the death of Michael Brown, reform proposals and new policies have been an ongoing part of the national conversation regarding police, race, and community relations. This has prompted President Obama to highlight new initiatives to strengthen the bonds between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. These initiatives come at the recommendation of a special, independent task force and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, a major grant provider for agencies throughout the U.S.

The concept of community policing isn’t a new one. In fact, an estimated 58% of law enforcement agencies reported having dedicated community-oriented officers back in 2003. Since then, many more have adopted a more transparent model for the organization of community programs that involve neighborhood businesses, nonprofits, media outlets, and other community groups directly in the process of keeping their municipality safe.

At a time when citizens, whatever their race, are voicing valid frustrations about their fear of and disconnection from police, it’s not surprising that a system based on promoting an approachable, community-oriented department is showing significant appeal.

What Makes an Agency “Community-Oriented?”

The central goal of the community policing philosophy is to integrate the work of police with close, local partnerships, which means doing more than occasionally getting feedback from community leaders. This involves three fundamental challenges:

1. Forming Community Partnerships

The pool of individuals that can benefit from a direct connection to local police is massive, ranging from community program members to business owners. Additionally, police departments have found success partnering with other law enforcement agencies in neighboring towns, legislative bodies, human services offices, and other government organizations to collaborate on solving the most pressing community issues.

This sort of interconnectivity provides a number of benefits to both officers and those they protect. Law enforcement agencies gain the insight and resources that outside organizations offer, including the expertise of those who may have direct, daily contact with a disenfranchised or marginalized group that struggles to be heard. Creating solutions to even the most challenging problems becomes a great deal easier when armed with this kind of direct counsel from local leaders and subject experts. As sophisticated as data analysis methodologies have become, the argument could be made that all of the quantitative research an agency can gather will never offer the same insight as a conversation with those in need of assistance.

Meanwhile, these groups that may have had a difficult time gaining the ear of local police or deputies gain a direct point of contact, which makes it easier for them to voice their concerns and issues.

2. Organizational Adaptation

Of course, then it falls to law enforcement agencies to create that point of contact, whether they appoint dedicated community-oriented officers or make another, separate staff appointment. Ideally, the new interactions between the department and its local community will help guide how this process should be handled, along with future resource allocations. These officers can serve many roles, including acting as civilian liaisons, forging new community partnerships, and helping to execute whatever new initiatives are created as a result of the community policing model. Often, these officers will be geographically assigned to whatever area they serve to allow them more direct contact with members of that community.

The changes required of a law enforcement agency go much further than this, though. In order to account for all manner of issues that may arise in working closely with their communities, police organizations have to become more nimble, flexible, and responsive. Also, with community representatives now playing a larger part in decision-making, an authoritarian culture doesn’t really serve the democratic nature of this new system. Leadership needs to decentralize, which may be a very difficult adjustment for certain precincts. Those in administrative roles will need to encourage buy-in from every member of their team, driving a well-defined commitment to community policing principles. Every facet of the agency, from how officers are evaluated to recruitment and training processes to budgets, has to align with this collaborative, locally driven structure in order for it to be at its most effective.

3. Solving Problems Together

Once the community connections and the means to use them are in place, officers and neighborhoods can work together to propose solutions to a wide array of issues. As progress is made, new initiatives prove successful, and local leaders begin to feel as if they have a genuine voice in how criminal and safety concerns are addressed, the connection between law enforcement agencies and their communities can flourish.

Law enforcement is, and has always been, an essential pillar of civilized society. But in order to maintain public trust and forge a rule of law that suits a modern, interconnected world, one thing is certain: changes must be made – not in the interest of damage control, but to create a truly collaborative system that, in keeping with one of our nation’s first promises to its citizens, promotes the general welfare and secures the blessings of liberty. There is no perfect solution, in that regard. What is true, though, is that the more police come to directly understand the experience of those within their communities, and the more that civilians participate in that process, the higher the chance of averting future incidents.

Patrick J. Solar, Ph.D. has been a police officer for nearly 30 years serving as a street officer, detective, sergeant, lieutenant, and chief. He is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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