In recent years, community leaders and law enforcement officials have called for more engagement between the police and the citizens they serve. They have also stressed the need for members of the public and police departments to work collaboratively to keep their communities safe.

The question is, "What form should police engagement and collaboration with the public take?"

The term "police-community engagement" has evolved to encompass everything, from purely social events to serious discussions about department practices. Although these range of activities are essential to improving trust and building lasting relationships, real engagement doesn't stop at conducting a conversation. It entails giving citizens a say in law enforcement issues and the policing of their communities.

Some police departments have taken proactive steps towards facilitating such engagement by involving members of the public in strategic planning and collaborative problem-solving, as well as asking them for input on practices and policies.

However, executing such steps has presented a number of challenges, mostly in terms of resources required to plan and execute such undertakings.

IBeyond the conversation: Ensuring meaningful police-community engagement

To gauge the extent and success of police-community engagement efforts across the country, the National Urban League, the Police Foundation, and the Policing Project undertook a new study. They carried out a survey to learn what police departments are currently doing to engage their communities and the impact of these efforts on police-community relations.

The results of the study (called "Beyond the Conversation: Ensuring Meaningful Police-Community Engagement") showed that police departments across the country (i.e., survey participants) were making efforts to connect with their communities by attending forums, hosting meetings and leveraging social media.

However, a majority of these efforts were focused at developing cordial relations with the public instead of creating an avenue for citizens to have a say in policing matters and provide input or feedback on policing practices and policies.

In essence, there has been a lot of community interaction but no true engagement.


More opportunities to weigh in on law enforcement issues

Also, virtually all citizens who responded to the survey called for more opportunities to sit and weigh in on law enforcement issues, practices and policies affecting their communities. In essence, they want real engagement and a say in key policing decisions.

This indicates that police departments that do not involve their communities in strategic decision-making activities are missing out on opportunities to engender trust and legitimacy. Furthermore, over 70 percent of citizens said that would "very likely" respond if asked for feedback or input on departmental policies and practices, including decisions on the adoption of new technologies.

Factors preventing meaningful police-community engagement

Although citizens are willing to contribute ideas and opinions on policing matters within their community, the opportunities to do so are few and far in between. Often, the communities that are affected the most by certain police decisions or actions are usually the hardest to reach. Furthermore, the conversations themselves can easily become difficult. It takes willingness on the part of both community members and police officials to successfully collaborate.

To ensure meaningful police-community engagement, let's take a look at some of the factors that prevent effective collaboration between police departments and the citizens they serve.


Skepticism

In the study cited above, most community members expressed concern on the responsiveness of police departments to their input and feedback. They were skeptical as to the positive reception of their ideas and suggestions by law enforcement officials. This belief was succinctly expressed by one respondent who opined that police officials talked a lot, but their actions never change.

This skepticism is particularly worrisome since the majority of citizens who expressed these views had some experience working with local law enforcement agencies. Most said that they attended community forums and beat meetings, interacted with their departments on social media, or discussed policing issues at community events.

The public is eager to work with police departments and give feedback and opinions on matters of substance as long as the police seriously take their views into consideration when making decisions.

Other factors that prevent meaningful police-community engagement include:

  • Meetings held at inconvenient times and venues.

  • Hostility between the community and the agency.

  • Lack of departmental interest.

  • Concerns over confidentiality.

  • Lack of public interest.


Lack of technical expertise

Police departments that participated in the survey stated that a lack of adequate resources and necessary expertise or experience on the part of the public were some of the biggest challenges they face when executing engagement initiatives with the communities they serve.

In order for communities to offer meaningful input on issues of law enforcement policies and practices, they must have some experience, expertise and technical understanding of said issues. Although departments could educate citizens on these technical considerations (helping them to contribute more substantive input during strategic discussions), doing so would take time and resources.

Also, police departments need to look for an effective means of reaching out and gathering input from hard-to-reach and marginalized communities, including areas that are already distrustful of law enforcement. This also goes for citizens who are unable or unwilling to attend meetings.

By addressing these issues, police departments will be able to receive valuable feedback and input from the public and develop effective engagement strategies that are equitable and tailored to the needs of the communities they serve.


Conclusion

It's clear that citizens care about engaging and collaborating with their local police departments. Also, police departments are trying to build and facilitate positive relations with the communities they serve by organizing and attending meetings, forums, online surveys and listening sessions as well as connecting with the public over social media.

However, police departments must move beyond cordial relations and take proactive steps to include members of their community when making key decisions about department practices and policies. They must create avenues where communities can give feedback on the following issues:

  • Department's strategic plans.

  • Adoption of new technologies.

  • Prioritization of enforcement activities.

  • Proposing new agency policies or changes to existing ones.

  • Seriously consider and incorporate all meaningful feedback and suggestions they receive.

Finally, police departments need to look for communities with successful police-community engagement or collaboration programs and emulate them while taking cognizance of the unique needs and challenges of policing their communities.

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