Friday, May 1, 2015

Bridging the Gap: Law Enforcement and Community Relations

Today parts of our country seem ready to come apart along racial and social seams.  The causes and solutions of the larger program are beyond my scope of understanding and problem solving.  Racial issues, while not what they once were in this country, linger.  Racial tension has morphed into an institutional problem that is difficult to trace to any one source, making any one solution unlikely.  Answers can’t be found in political ideologies.  Both parties have tried to fix the problem.  Both have failed.  Both parties have those who sincerely want to create the conditions for a positive change.  Both parties have those who will use race as a stepping stone to greater power and influence.  Ideological fixes have exacerbated or mutated the problem into something more complex. 

One key societal interaction continues to impact communities at large, often leading to violence and calls for more violence.  The intersection of members of the black community and law enforcement, specifically in areas with poor economic performance and a large number of minorities.  Such areas are potential tinderboxes.  In places were the interactions, perceived or real, are bad enough, any tragedy can lead to greater tragedy.

While I don’t think we have the knowledge, wisdom, or capacity to address the root causes of the overall crisis, I do think we can alleviate some serious symptoms.  Perhaps by taking some first steps in addressing this symptom, we can develop the ability to see more clearly, understand more clearly and make other meaningful changes aimed at the root causes.

Two key elements are at the center of troubled relationships between law enforcement and the affected black community and individuals—trust and communication.  Without one it’s very difficult to have the other.  At some point both sides, all sides, involved in the relationship need to agree to begin doing one or the other—trusting or communicating.  It would be best if they could do both at the same time, but baby steps may be required.

I propose the following steps be taken by law enforcement and municipal leaders and respected leaders in the black community in cities where there is a recognizable problem.

First, there should be a sit down meeting of law enforcement/municipal leaders and a variety of leaders from the black community.  Each person in attendance should express their goals for the community and their perception of the problems in terms of racial interaction with law enforcement.  This session should be a listening session that is moderated by a third-party.  I believe that they would find some common ground in terms of desires for a safe and more prosperous community.  I also believe that, if the various parties listen, some understanding of other perspectives will begin to have an impact.  The very act of being able to speak clearly to the other side can be beneficial.  I suggest that the conversations take place privately, behind closed doors without the media present.  A report of this initial conversation can be released to the public after it takes place.  This may not be viable, but it may help reduce the likelihood of participants grandstanding to score political or public relations points with their constituencies.

Second, all parties should agree to an in depth look at the situation.  A third-party should be hired to do the following:

-       Conduct community polling among all ethnicities regarding the perception of law enforcement-community relations and the role of race in those interactions.

-       Conduct a polling of all law enforcement officers in the agency and their perception of community relations and the role of race in those relations.

-       Conduct a review of conviction rates and sentencing statistics broken down by crime and race.

-       Conduct a review of the law enforcement agency’s policies and history of race-based complaints.  The goal would be to present findings that show which complaints are founded and which is not.

-       Conduct a review of public statements made by law enforcement/municipal leaders and black community leaders.  The goal would be to identify statements that were helpful and which were needlessly inflammatory or harmful.

Third, all parties will attend another meeting where the results of the third-party review are discussed.  This meeting once again will focus on listening.  Attendees should be open so that they can develop a more clear, unbiased picture of reality and the steps that will be necessary to find common ground and to begin a serious dialogue.  Not everyone will agree with all of the findings.  That is not necessary to begin the dialogue.  The goal is to identify gaps in perception relative to a more objective look at the big picture.

Fourth, a series of interactive meetings will take place.  The parties will discuss each of the major findings.  Attendees initially will focus their remarks on what they can do to improve the situation relative to the findings.  As each attendee offers up ways they and their constituents can improve the situation desires and perceptions will move toward common ground.  Productive dialogue has the potential to allow for concessions on issues that are meaningful but not restricted by principled beliefs or values.  Law and order can be maintained while recognizing and protecting the rights and concerns of the black community.  This concept is central to the dialogue.  Law enforcement and municipal leaders must not be asked to sacrifice law and order in exchange for anarchy.  The black community can demand and receive fair and transparent treatment.

Fifth, a robust community-policing program must be put into action.  The program must be developed by and specifically for the members of the community and the law enforcement agency.  Among many possibilities, a community-policing program should consist of at least some of the following:

-       Law enforcement and municipal leaders should attend community events and arrange for moments of meaningful dialogue.  Community and cultural understanding must be deepened.  They must come to understand the challenges facing community members and the impact they might have on law, order and potential interactions. 

-       Community leaders and members should participate in appropriate law enforcement activities to understand the perspective of law enforcement.  They should go on ride-a-longs.  They should participate in various training events to include use of force training.

-       A board of review should be put in place with members from law enforcement and the community.  The board will review community complaints and questionable issues of use of force.  Recommendations and findings by the board should demand serious consideration.  The reasoning for actions and decisions of law enforcement agencies should be explained clearly to the board and open for discussion

What can we hope to gain by all of this?  Trust through dialogue and transparency.  Law enforcement leaders need to be able to trust that when a community leader comes to them with a concern or a complaint, that it is something credible.  Community leaders need to know that they will receive the information that the information they receive from law enforcement leaders is timely and credible while accepting the fact that at times legal concerns may delay the release of that information.  With this type of trust, law enforcement agencies and community members will begin to work from the foundation of shared goals and understanding.  The lives and rights of community members and those of law enforcement officers will be placed on equal ground by all of those involved.  Police officers will monitor themselves to make sure they are behaving properly.  Community members will monitor themselves to make sure that their members are behaving properly.  Both sides will address actions and reactions to poor and improper behavior civilly and legally.  The law will be enforced and crime punished more fairly.  Communities will be safer for everyone.

To reiterate, these steps will address a symptom only.  They do not have the power to heal some deeper issues.  They do, however, offer a start, a place of beginning.