3 steps toward racially just policing

Let’s be innovative and engaging, not defensive nor reticent

THE GUILTY VERDICT in the trial of Derek Chauvin does not put an end to the long and difficult struggle for racially just policing. Officers continue to kill people with alarming frequency – so far this year 330 people have died in police encounters.

Every instance of police violence takes an immeasurable toll on individuals, families, and our society. And this toll is disproportionately borne by communities where a majority of people are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

If we have any chance of moving toward racially just policing, we need authentic action from all levels within law enforcement and elected leadership – local, state, and federal. Police and law enforcement must commit to changing attitudes, changing behavior, changing norms, and embracing neighbors.

In addition to redistributing police resources to better serve communities, I believe the following areas can increase community confidence and improve police-community relations if done effectively:

Police departments must be true partners with the communities they swear to protect and serve. They must commit to establishing and strengthening meaningful partnerships in communities, especially in communities of color. Departments need to demonstrate their commitment and engage time and again, including going beyond photo ops. An important step is for officers to listen to residents’ concerns, both about public safety and about police actions and behavior. As importantly, commanders must respond to the anger, fear, and distrust that community members feel about policing. Sustained and authentic engagement where community members are true partners in producing safety in their neighborhoods can help build trust, create a path to healing, and prevent future harm.

Police departments’ recruitment, policies, and training must reflect community values and a commitment to fair and equitable policing. Leaders need to ensure policies and training clearly articulate community values. For example, policies that promote de-escalation tactics or expressions of valuing life, and policies that prohibit unacceptable behaviors, such as participating in militias or extremist groups, could be informed by community input. Training on and the supervision of stops, searches, and arrests must, at a bare minimum, meet Constitutional standards. This means ensuring that bias in police behavior is addressed through relentless supervision, coaching, and discipline as needed. It is imperative that leaders confront bias in their officers’ actions and deploy strategies to reduce it. Police personnel should also better reflect the communities they serve by prioritizing efforts to increase the hiring and retention of women (such as the 30×30 Initiative), people of color, and people who can effectively connect across cultures and engage community members.

Police departments must publicly report on their activities and areas for improvement and encourage the community to engage and provide feedback. The public should know exactly what police departments do and how to be involved in any changes. Continuous engagement places a burden of responsibility on community members, yet such dialogue and openness facilitate changes that are supported by those most affected. For example, departments should debrief with community members as equal partners following large events or protests with heavy officer attendance to understand what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, departments should regularly share data on every use of force incident with the public so it’s easy to access, understand, and question those incidents. Department leaders must also use their authority to hold officers accountable by identifying and correcting problematic behavior and disciplining or terminating when appropriate. Swift responses to unacceptable behavior are good for the community as well as the officers on the street.

These steps are only the beginning of an extensive process that’s long overdue. Let’s be innovative and engaging, not defensive nor reticent. It’s critical that department leadership embrace the need for change and set the right tone inside the department and with the community.

Meet the Author

Christine M Cole

Executive director, Crime and Justice Institute
Police departments must show us all that they can do better. And what better time than now to leverage the surge of energy about policing and more deeply engage in collaborative work to chart a new course moving forward.

Christine M. Cole is executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on improvements in criminal and youth justice systems.