Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Building Community & Police Relationships
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 2 P. 12

Positive relationships between communities and law enforcement benefit both, but trust must be earned. Doing so is no small task.

In theory—and often as idealized on television—the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve should be positive. After all, police officers are there to protect civilians and maintain the values of the community.

However, the reality of policing and, as a result, the relationships police officers forge with community members, can be very different from the ideal. This has been highlighted in recent years by the killings of Black individuals, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, at the hands of police. Their deaths have motivated many communities, as well as law enforcement, to reevaluate how the justice system functions and look for ways to build trust between police and community members.

Creating or repairing these relationships is a complex issue. For many communities—particularly those made up predominantly of people of color—the trust was not fractured by police killings alone.

“One thing I know is that by the time a police killing is happening, there are thousands of times that people have been stopped, people have been harassed. They’ve been profiled. Then, you get a police killing,” says Rashawn Ray, PhD, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a professor of sociology and executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, College Park. “When you live in these local communities, that’s what impacts you every day.”

Finding a way to improve the relationship between law enforcement and communities is not straightforward. Individuals from all sides of the issue are working to address it and have been doing so for years. But questions remain about how and when to enact change.

Benefits of Relationship Building
One thing is certain: A positive relationship between police and communities benefits both parties. “It’s a given,” says Thomas G. Blomberg, PhD, Dean and Sheldon L. Messinger Professor of Criminology and executive director of the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research at Florida State University. “If the police are able to develop good relationships with the community, that leads to trust and that leads to relationships [that are not one way]. The community will help the police, and the police helps the community.”

Such relationships could help police to find new ways of approaching crime prevention, enabling them to attempt to address areas of concern before crime rates rise or continue to rise.

For example, in 1993, Melanye Smith, PhD, a faculty member in Walden University’s MS in criminal justice program, conducted an experiment in which she developed and implemented community policing strategies and policies in areas with high rates of juvenile crime. In one such area in northwest Washington, D.C., Smith was surprised to find that the community’s concerns weren’t what she expected.

“It was a very dangerous area,” she recalls. “I went in and met with community members and sat down and listened to what they were saying. I was surprised because I thought one of the main concerns was crime in the area. But what I found in talking to the citizens was that one of their main concerns was abandoned cars.”

Community members felt that the abandoned cars were contributing to other perceived negative elements in the area. Smith worked with a team of police officers and other community resources to have the cars removed over several months. Throughout that time, Smith noted that juvenile crime rates decreased, indicating that Smith’s work in the community was a contributing factor in crime prevention.

Unfortunately, Smith says her efforts were not lauded by the police chief, who believed that resources would be better allocated elsewhere. In fact, according to Smith, he was openly dismissive of her initiative. Nonetheless, Smith’s experiment serves as an example of how active listening and follow-through—relationship building—can lead to positive outcomes.

Those positive outcomes are what much of the public wants, says Reverend Markel Hutchins, president and CEO of MovementForward, Inc. “People in communities of every kind understand that there is a need for improving the relationship between law enforcement and communities,” he says. “They are looking for better policing, more fair policing.”

Earning Local Trust
One reason why Smith’s initiative in that Washington, D.C., neighborhood was successful was that she took the time to build trust with the community, not only listening to what community members needed but also following through on what she promised. “Whenever I made a promise, I had to follow up and ensure that what I promised was delivered,” she says.

The foundation of a good relationship—trust—between communities and law enforcement has been eroding in recent years. For trust to be regained or established within communities, police officers have to prove their intent. That starts with their daily interactions with community members, says Darrel W. Stephens, MS, codirector of the Policing, Security Technology, and Private Security Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University.

“People’s impressions of the police are influenced by the police. The greatest influence is [an individual’s] personal interactions and the personal interactions of their friends and families. If they have a bad interaction, that’s going to be around for a long time. They should expect to be treated respectfully [by the police]. That’s a basic expectation,” he says.

Stephens explains that if police officers treat community members with dignity and respect, explain what they are doing and why, and listen to the people they interact with, each encounter will leave a more positive impression on the individual. It may not immediately offset any negative encounters, but over time, individuals will have the opportunity and the reason to develop a more positive outlook of law enforcement.

Providing opportunities for police and the community to interact outside of crisis situations can build trust. For example, in 2020, MovementForward launched Faith & Blue Weekend, which aims to build bridges between law enforcement and communities through activities such as service projects and forums. Hutchins believes that bringing together community members and law enforcement professionals for such an event allows both sides to see the humanity in each other.

The initiative has been a success. In 2021, Faith & Blue Weekend, which is held in partnership with every law enforcement association in the country, held events in all 50 states, Hutchins says.

However, trust isn’t built through individual interactions and community events alone. It also requires meaningful collaboration and a willingness to change. Too often, community members are left out of the conversation or included in a perfunctory manner. For real relationships to develop and real change to occur, communication must be initiated and maintained. “It can’t just be, ‘Well, we’ll have a focus group,’” Blomberg says. “You’ll go away feeling better, but nothing comes of it. It’s got to be sustained. There’s got to be a commitment.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Blomberg is a part of the research team at the Capital Region Real Time Crime Center in Florida, which brings together multiple agencies with the aim of utilizing technology in a way that makes policing more efficient and effective. When Blomberg and his research team joined the effort, several questions were raised. “Where is the community involvement in all this? What is their role at the table? We could not find any linkages between this comprehensive law enforcement effort and the community,” he says.

Blomberg notes that, when excluded, community members have little reason to believe efforts are genuine, with the well-being of all in mind.

Collaboration can and should extend beyond community input. The inclusion of mental health professionals and social workers in law enforcement can benefit community relationships.

This is not a new concept. When Smith supervised a child welfare unit, a social worker and police officers responded to every call in which there was a possibility that a child was going to be removed from a home. It’s a concept that has expanded in recent years as it has become increasingly clear that police respond to many calls involving mental health crises. In fact, many experts believe that mental health professionals should handle these cases instead of law enforcement or, at the least, the two professions should work in tandem.

Both Smith and Stephens believe that partnering mental health practitioners with law enforcement to a greater extent will lead to more positive outcomes. Smith points to Charles County, Maryland, where she has helped train police officers and community members. There, police are collaborating with mental health professionals. “They indicated that it’s working. It’s saving lives,” Smith says.

However, Smith and Stephens say that funding for these types of partnerships is lacking, noting that, for such collaborations to be effective, law enforcement agencies and mental health providers need additional staffing and resources.

Broader Changes
Every community is different and must approach relationship building with law enforcement in a way that suits its needs. In fact, for many, changes must occur first and foremost on the local level.

“The solutions to the challenges we face when it comes to the need for police reform and innovation aren’t going to be solved in the media, in the national discussions, in public policy conversations. They have to be solved at the local community level,” Hutchins says. “Certainly, there’s a need for national reform, a need for standardization of use of force, [and a need for] review of immunity protections. But by and large, the most pressing challenges we have won’t be solved by legislation but rather by police and communities coming together.”

However, some say local collaboration is not enough. They question how relationships can be built locally when there has been minimal effort or progress toward systemic change.

“You can’t build trust until you repair what broke the trust,” Ray cautions. “What we have continuously done is try to put a Band-Aid on an open wound. We need to perform surgery on our criminal justice system. Trust is premature. Trust is earned. Trust suggests a reciprocal relationship. It takes time.”

With that extra time could come real action on a larger level—action that has yet to be seen. Ray notes that many Democrats, including President Biden, run for election on promises of police reform but once in office fail to follow through. Such inaction fosters a cycle of mistrust and apathy. A stronger commitment to federal or state policies could allow for more funding, better allocation of resources, and clear guidelines for police. It also could lay the groundwork to build local initiatives and repair relationships.

Which approach is correct—local or federal/state first—remains a matter of debate. “It just has to start [somewhere],” Blomberg says. “I would love to have federal support and initiatives, but it has to get started locally. You have to work with local people who are committed to doing X, Y, and Z in their community.”

He believes that such action would be more likely with federal support of evidence-based practices regarding police and community relationships. “What I would like to see is the federal government facilitating comparative research. We need to build a knowledge base,” Blomberg says, noting that police could then look to a menu of evidence-based practices to determine how best to foster positive relationships in their communities.

Looking Forward
The relationships between individual law enforcement units and individual communities are uniquely complicated. Both law enforcement and community members must be willing to make changes, to trust each other, and to try. However, as existing efforts continue and new ones are implemented, many see hope—although some such as Stephens describe this hope as a pipe dream.

“My hope over the next five years is a thoughtful look at these fundamental issues that we’ve had in America for a [long time],” he says. “We’ve made some efforts to work on some of these longstanding problems, but we’ve never stuck with it for more than two or three years.”

Being persistent in these efforts comes with immense rewards, Smith says. “Many of the problems that we see in society can be solved if we’re willing to put in the work, dedicate the resources, and have people who are committed to real solutions, not creating revenue,” she says.

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.