By Lt. Shawn L. Hill, Santa Barbara Police Department; Howard Giles,
Distinguished Research Professor of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara; Edward R. Maguire, Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University
Internal and external communications are essential to the success of police organizations. In this article, we focus primarily on external communications, reflecting on how a body of theory and research from the study of communication can be used to improve relationships between police and communities.
Police scholars and practitioners have identified communication as a key to successful policing for decades. As Stanford law professor David Alan Sklansky (2011) has written, policing’s “primary technology is verbal.” Likewise, former police chief Darrel Stephens co-authored an entire “tool-kit for police executives” on strategic communication. Scholarship in the fields of social psychology, communication, and sociolinguistics teaches us how communication can reinforce social categorizations, sometimes resulting in stereotyping and bias that can damage police-community relations.
The ideal of community policing inspires police to build cohesive relationships with communities as a means of co-producing public safety. Implementing that ideal has often been difficult, due in part to communication challenges between police and communities. Furthermore, communities are not homogeneous; they consist of different groups that may have very different perspectives on the police. Communication mediates intergroup relationships and can play a powerful role in enhancing or diminishing them (Gallois & Giles, 1998). Thus, an important step in implementing genuine forms of community policing is understanding how communicative processes between groups work. Enter the field of intergroup communication.