Departments must strive for a sincere belief among officers that respectful, constitutional engagement with the community is the most powerful tool they possess, over and above a gun and a badge. Police officers must be regarded as guardians and part of the community they serve and work to support and engage with those communities to effectively discharge their public safety mission.
We should support police outreach initiatives and more broadly consider how to address the needs of youth, people with mental illness, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, people from various faith traditions, and others who come into contact with law enforcement.
Police departments’ hiring, retention, and promotion practices should strive to be more representative of the populations they serve. Departments must also incentivize officers to live in the communities they serve and to otherwise spend time building real, authentic relationships with members of the community, especially youth.
Community Policing Plans and Programs
“Community policing” is a simple concept—the police must work to build community relationships and work collaboratively to solve problems. This starts at the individual level with every officer on the street. Fostering positive relationships with residents helps to reduce crime and maintain public safety.
Departments should work together with community leaders, including leaders of schools, unions, community centers, and religious groups, to identify common goals and challenges their communities are facing, all with the primary goal of ensuring public safety and decreasing crime. This should include developing concrete plans for crime fighting in collaboration with residents, businesses, non-profits, and informal and formal community leaders.
Larger agencies may opt to create dedicated units to focus solely on community policing initiatives, while smaller departments may assign a few officers to concentrate their efforts on such initiatives. Departments could, for example, select officers who reflect the diversity of the community (e.g., multi-lingual, first-generation American and/or officers who are immigrants themselves), and consider whether they have grown up in those neighborhoods or are current residents. Community policing should permeate the entire department, however, and not be solely the responsibility of the specialized community policing officers.
Departments should provide incentives to officers to live in the communities they serve, such as through Resident Officer Programs that provide free housing in public housing neighborhoods if the officers fulfill public service duties for those neighborhoods. Even if officers do not live in their districts, they can still forge ties to the community.
As soon as officers are assigned to new districts, their orientation period should include meeting members of the community to understand any of their concerns. Service to the community can mean more than just patrolling in the community; some departments have found it helpful to have officers and supervisors perform community service alongside community members.
Cities and police departments should consider their communities’ unique makeup and needs in developing community policing programs. What is necessary for one city may not be a priority in another. Examples of typical community policing programs that strengthen community relationships are:
Youth Programs: By promoting positive interactions between police and youths outside of the criminal justice system, police agencies can build positive, trusting, and lasting relationships with youths and potentially reduce further criminal activity. Departments should create opportunities for at-risk youth in schools and in the community for positive, non-law enforcement interactions with officers, such as joint police-youth training programs or police athletics or activities leagues, which can familiarize youth with the criminal justice system or promote mentorship and relationship building. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, partners with Outward Bound to bring officers and youth together, and the program has strengthened their positive attitudes towards each other.
Immigration and Refugee Outreach: Police departments serving communities with significant immigrant or refugee populations should widely communicate their agency’s policies, providing department policies in multiple languages as appropriate. Communications should make sure that immigrants know they are entitled to the same police services as any other resident and—depending on department policy—that the police will not ask their immigration status. As with other areas of the population, departments should consider appointing liaison officers to community leaders to help facilitate external communication and encourage officer participation in community meetings and events.
Homelessness: Police departments may consider partnering with homelessness services providers and street outreach workers to humanely address encampments and connect people experiencing homelessness with services and housing.
Cultural Literacy and Procedural Justice
Every city is different. It is therefore critical that cities and departments help their police officers and supervisors develop an understanding of their community’s history and traditions so that their daily interactions with the public are based on a mutual understanding and respect. In addition to the history of the community, departments should provide training on the history of policing in the United States in an effort to help them understand the negative feelings some residents have for the police.
Additionally, departments should help their officers and supervisors by training them in procedural justice—the idea of fairness in how officers use their authority in a democratic society. In the words of the U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office, “procedural justice is concerned not exactly with what officers do, but also with the way they do it.” Research shows that people are more likely to cooperate with the police if they think they have been treated fairly.
In developing these trainings, departments should seek the assistance of community representatives who can incorporate the viewpoints of communities that have traditionally had challenging relationships with law enforcement.
Protecting Both the Right to Protest and Community Safety
Police officers must understand, value, and defend our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. To skillfully do so, they need to understand the difference between peaceful protest and civil unrest. Police leadership should provide clear direction, policies, and training on how to handle mass gatherings and send a clear message that residents should have a safe place to exercise their First Amendment rights, but also provide clear instructions on how to respond with appropriate tactics when a protest turns violent. In this section, we offer some suggestions on how to achieve these objectives.
Setting the Tone and Preventing Escalation
Police departments should emphasize the importance of de-escalation and open communication before and during protests. They should develop relationships with advocacy groups and leaders ahead of time to facilitate cooperation during mass gatherings.
While demonstrators themselves set the tone and dynamic for their gatherings, officers should engage them in a way that demonstrates they are there to protect, not diminish, free expression. To ensure they are not unintentionally escalating tensions or undermining civilian trust, law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that are designed to minimize the use of provocative tactics and the equipment that can create an appearance of the police as an opposition group.
Protecting Communities and Responding Appropriately to Escalation
The police must also, of course, keep the community, protesters, and themselves safe from violence. Without assuming that peaceful protests will turn into unlawful assemblies, departments should plan for the possibility and consistently train their officers to understand the difference.
To protect the safety of protesters and officers, police departments should have a plan for efficiently and quickly increasing their level of response in proportion to what is happening on the ground. Such protests are not always planned or advertised in advance, and we must be able to respond to unanticipated events. To do so, departments should also have dedicated command staff and officers who are trained to respond to mass gatherings, especially those that are spontaneous.
Crowds are not usually homogenous. They might include protesters with constitutionally protected aims, as well as troublemakers intending to commit acts of violence. As recommended by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a department should be prepared with a “layered response” that focuses, in the first instance, on removing individuals who are committing wrongful acts rather than shutting down the entire gathering, if possible. Officers equipped with protective gear can be assembled nearby and ready for deployment as needed, but not deployed in the first instance, unless there is a clear need to do so.
Throughout the event, officers should wear body cameras if they are available. Before a protest, police departments should determine what the bar for making arrests will be and avoid mass arrests if possible. This should be communicated to all officers as well as demonstrators. During protests, departments should avoid making arrests for low-level civil disobedience, such as blocking traffic, opting instead to issue citations. If mass arrests become necessary, police departments should develop a logistical system for documenting the bases for individual arrests and efficiently processing large numbers of individuals, with a staging area with trained staff and procedures for processing arrests efficiently. A complete record of each arrest should be made. All of these procedures should involve coordination with local prosecutors so that there is an understanding of prosecution guidelines.
Major events and demonstrations sometimes become too large and complex for a single agency to manage. As a result, police departments may choose to enter into mutual aid agreements or memoranda of understanding, creating a framework through which other agencies can provide personnel, equipment, or operational support as needed.
Departments with mutual aid agreements should participate in joint training for responding to mass demonstrations. This promotes coordination, builds trust among agencies, and creates an opportunity to address any issues, such as inconsistencies in terminology or the policies and tactics regarding use of force, in advance of the demonstration. Those providing mutual aid should be informed about the community in which the demonstration is taking place. The local law enforcement agency (i.e., the agency requesting aid), which knows the community, must retain command as to all officers responding jointly to an event. The local agency should set the policies and practices that will be followed and should provide clear direction on standards, including incident response and when force may be used. Ideally, table top exercises with parties to a mutual aid agreement should be conducted regularly.