“We cannot be separated in interest or divided in purpose. We stand together until the end.” This is a famous quote from the United States’ 28th President, Woodrow T. Wilson. Yet this quote resonates more so today as we see the division between police and citizens along with the numerous protests in response to police misconduct, and the continuous distrust among citizens. Therefore, the concept of community policing is now the most important concept within criminal justice as it is necessary to help bridge the gaps between communities and law enforcement. Community-oriented policing is “an organization-wide policing philosophy and management approach that promotes community, government, police partnerships, and proactive problem solving to reduce a jurisdiction’s crime and social disorder.”1
Implementing such a concept in every precinct can propel moving our country to a more peaceful partnership between those in blue and citizens. As we ponder about ways to bring the community and police officers together, we must sift out the issues that keep them divided. One main issue that divides police and community members is fear of the unknown—i.e., cultural unknowns. If officers are unaware of the cultural differences and ideals of the citizens in which they are interacting, they may detect “normal” or cultural behavior as threatening behavior. This only instills fear in officers, and distrust and miscommunication for citizens. Because of this, we have seen the Zimmerman-Martin cases, in which a Skittles bag and hoodie were seen as suspicious and threatening. Similarly, in the Ahmaud Arbery case that occurred in Brunswick, GA, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man was pursued and fatally shot while jogging in a neighborhood on a public street.
According to a May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice article, “A critical element of community policing is problem-solving. Officers are expected to be proactive and creative not only in addressing, but in preventing, problems.”2 Therefore, a starting point would be for government officials (at all levels) and law enforcement to engage with citizens on a more personable level. This could be done through town hall meetings and community outreach events, such as Coffee with the Cop amongst others. These opportunities allow citizens to speak up about issues they have personally experienced in their communities, talk directly to police officers, and help brainstorm potential solutions. If issues with law enforcement are present, they can be addressed face-to-face in a more relaxed environment. At any rate, such conversations are necessary to figure out a way forward to ensure effective and productive policing is back in full swing. This way, trust from citizens can start to build.
To help educate and motivate citizens about effective policing practices, local government officials, police, sheriff departments, and community leaders must institute a collaborative model. This model should put citizens at the forefront. This is the epitome of community-oriented policing. It involves officers spending more time working with citizens to solve crime and disorder problems. Law enforcement could consider starting community outreach and informational sessions monthly, which would allow citizens to express their opinions, offer solutions, and even learn more about their local police officers in blue.
However, this would not just be a time for citizens to learn from law enforcement, but also an opportunity for law enforcement to learn from citizens, and showcase their concern for those who they serve.
Another area to help build community policing is in educating citizens on police techniques and protocols. Many individuals do not know their rights when they are approached by law enforcement. If law enforcement officials can work with communities to advise them about their rights and explain the protocols that the officers themselves are required to take, then mutual and respect can start to foster. Community-oriented policing does not change the goal of policing, but the way the goals are achieved. This approach would still require police to enforce laws, but perhaps the fear factor that has been instilled based on previous police misconduct would be lessened.
Our nation’s justice system is built on the underlying theme of justice for all, fairness over partiality, and treating others as you would like to be treated. Building a community service approach with citizens will allow law enforcement to get to know their community members on a more personable level. It will also allow citizens to learn about their service members and start to build trust. Such an approach will build better communities and policing strategies across the globe. We live in the United States of America, but from the last decade, the feeling of unity has been such a distant thought to many. Yet, if we focus on unity in community policing, then perhaps we can start to bridge the divide not only in policing, but also for the United States of America in general.
Lashunda Stateson is an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia Military College.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author’s and may not represent the views or official position of the National Police Foundation.