The leadership challenge in building police-community trust.

It is hard to believe how little progress we have made since Rodney King to create positive, trusting police-community relations. Despite mountains of reports, new rules, policies and training materials accompanied by sincere rhetoric, the likelihood of explosive incidents like the current ones in Ferguson Missouri and New York City seems as great or greater than it was in the 60s, the 80s  or the 2000s.And the level of news and social media attention that flows from every incident makes things a lot worse.

I’ve been working to help policing agencies create a culture of trust for years and I’ve come to realize how difficult and complex the issue is.

The truth is there are pretty deep trust problems within police departments as well as with the community.

Line officers often express distrust and disdain for their leaders based on a prevalent beliefs like: “they forgot what it is really like on the streets,”  “they don’t understand things are different now,” or “it’s all political, all the brass really wants is to protect their jobs.”

In turn, every time an officer does something that embarrasses the department or subjects it to criticism and legal liability, they hit their heads saying, “What were they thinking?” and they treat officers like unruly children devising more rules and policies to prevent recurrences, rather than addressing the underlying attitudinal and training issues.

This is the context in which police officers – convinced that are essentially alone — confront  all sorts of situations that require customized, reflective responses rather than cookie-cutter tactics that have little likelihood of achieving a good result. And though sometimes the danger is greatly exaggerated in individual instances, the possibility that they are really facing life-threatening force is real.

It takes a very strong, well-trained professional to repress fear and focus on achieving the best possible outcome. And the simple fact is that there are men and women in every policing agency that do not have the disposition or character to do what is demanded of them. Whether it is 10% or 50%, police leaders have to find a better way of identifying them (though they often know who they are) and either removing them from the department or isolating them in positions where they can do no harm.

This will not completely eliminate the problem as bad outcomes can result from good police practices – stuff happens — and even very good officers will occasionally make bad decisions. The same is true with surgeons, principled politicians and journalists. The key is to increase the amount of community trust in the competence and good intentions of the police to the point where it  warrants an assumption of good faith. Sadly, we are a long way from that at least with respect to minority communities.

One aspect of the answer is to get community, police and media folks to rise above their fears and prejudices to give others the benefit of the doubt, to simply follow the Golden Rule  – treat others the way you want to be treated (whether they deserve it or not).

In the real life of a police officer, however, this is easier said than done. It requires enormous character and courage.

Unfortunately, there are zealots, both sincere and not, who are so committed to their antipathy toward the police and so many political opportunists and exploitative journalists  who have a vested interest in the “police are unfair and brutal” narrative that any real hope of change rests within the ability of police leadership to inspire officers to demonstrate restraint and respect even when such acts seem wasted and will be reciprocated.

The profession does need more minority officers and better training (not only in how to more successfully engage with resistant citizens, but to know how and when to disengage) but both police and community leaders have to make sincere, passionate and persistent efforts to reach the hearts and minds of the people they influence and inspire them to listen to their better angels.

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