Police-Community Relations


Strong police-community ties are essential for police to do their job effectively and keep their communities safe. Today, many communities’ trust in police is dangerously low: many people are reluctant to speak with officers, witnesses are hard to find, and crimes go unreported. The keys to restoring this trust are allowing officers to divert appropriate individuals to intensive support programs, so police can focus on crime; improving departmental support and training for officers; and reforming policies that put officers at odds with the communities they serve.   

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Strong police-community ties are essential for police to do their job effectively and keep their communities safe. Today, many communities’ trust in police is dangerously low: many people are reluctant to speak with officers, witnesses are hard to find, and crimes go unreported. The keys to restoring this trust are allowing officers to divert appropriate individuals to intensive support programs, so police can focus on crime; improving departmental support and training for officers; and reforming policies that put officers at odds with the communities they serve.

With police shootings dominating the headlines, tension between police and black and brown communities is affecting everyday police work.1 Though many people in these communities have been victims of crime,2 they report less crime3 and refuse to provide information that would help solve cases because they distrust the police.4 The tension has escalated; the more communities refuse to report crime, the more police support aggressive measures to force communities to cooperate,5 potentially aggravating the problem. Both officers and community members agree that this standoff makes everyone less safe.

The key to improving police effectiveness is to go back to the fundamental principles of modern policing and maximize public safety by increasing police-community trust.


LEAP speakers believe that three types of solutions can get us there. First, we should combat the root causes of crime by giving officers tools to divert people from the criminal justice system who would be more effectively dealt with elsewhere.

Police officers are repeatedly called to deal with the same individuals struggling with mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness. Arresting them creates no long-term change because the root causes of their behavior have not been addressed. Diversion programs equip officers with a new tool—the option to bring these individuals into intensive support programs that combat these root issues.

The LEAD program enables officers to divert individuals who commit crimes due to drug addiction to specially trained case managers. These case managers coordinate addiction and mental health treatment, shelter, housing, health care, counseling, social services, and employment. Evaluations have shown that LEAD reduces recidivism, felony crime, homelessness, and unemployment, while improving citizen perceptions of the police.6

Mental health diversion programs like Miami-Dade’s Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) dispatch specially trained officers to emergency calls that may involve mental illness. These officers bring in offenders for mental health evaluation, safely diverting many from jail to support services that include medication, counseling, housing, and help navigating government bureaucracy. CMHP has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism, incarceration, and criminal justice spending.7

Policing is a difficult job, and many police officers develop PTSD and other mental health issues due to work-related stress. For many, however, the only option is to hide their symptoms because of departmental policies that force them into retirement for liability reasons.8 As a result, untreated PTSD can make officers a danger to themselves and others. To ensure that officers have access to counseling when they need it, departments should make treatment confidential and encourage officers to use it when needed.

Police training has not kept pace with society's demands on officers; it is shorter and less effective than for many less dangerous careers. While police officers are frequently called to deal with mentally ill individuals, few are trained to de-escalate confrontations with the mentally ill. Defusing conflict while minimizing the use of force requires building relationships proactively and deploying "verbal judo," yet few academies equip officers with these techniques.9 Funding should be increased for advanced training that prepares officers to handle tough situations while winning the trust of the community.

Research shows that police forces can increase community cooperation and increase their own safety by giving offenders a chance to speak and treating them with respect and neutrality. Instead, many officers are taught that dominance and retribution will make their job easier.10 Academies should provide procedural justice training, which teaches officers how to increase their safety and effectiveness by establishing a reputation for fair, neutral policing.


Second, we should abolish the laws and practices that pit the police against the community, increasing the use of force without increasing public safety.

Our law enforcement-based response to illicit drugs forces officers to aggressively pursue, search, arrest, and interrogate many individuals who do not pose a public safety threat.11 Changing the drug laws and tackling drug use primarily through the public health system would increase public safety while greatly reducing the use of force, helping to rebuild police-community trust.

Communities of color distrust police in part due to racial disparities at every stage of the justice system. Black people are punished more harshly than white people for the same crimes, from students in elementary school to juvenile offenders and adults.12 For example, white and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates,13 but black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.14 Studies link these disparities to unconscious bias, since most people perceive black kids as older and guiltier than white kids15 and support harsher punishment when the offenders are black.16 To restore police-community trust, we must examine the role that race plays in our justice system.

Officers are allowed to conduct pat-downs when dealing with a suspect who may be armed, which is essential for officer safety. However, stop and frisk programs turn this protection on its head, dispatching officers to conduct mass pat-downs of young men to search randomly for guns and drugs.

While experience shows that only one in a thousand of these random pat-downs produces a gun,17 they greatly increase the hostility and chances of violence between officers and citizens. Dismantling stop and frisk programs minimizes police use of force, increasing trust in police and officer safety without reducing public safety.18

Police need access to new technologies that help them do their job more effectively. Every year, the federal government supplies state and local police departments with billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. This equipment, combined with proper training and strict usage guidelines, can be used effectively in certain hostage situations and active shooter scenarios. But today, the routine use of military equipment19 in inappropriate situations, such as to carry out drug search warrants,20 is greatly damaging police-community trust. We should reform the 1033 Program and other initiatives that encourage routine police use of military equipment, especially requirements that police "use it or lose it."21

CAF statutes allow the government to seize assets tied to criminal activity without charging the owner with a crime. As many departments have been forced to rely on CAF funds for budget support,22 they have redirected their operations toward drug money seizures at the expense of crime scene investigation and other functions crucial to public safety. By abolishing CAF and adequately funding departments, we can restore sensible police priorities, rebuilding police-community trust and increasing public safety.

Police administrators and federal grant programs often evaluate police performance using arrest totals. As a result, officers are pressured to post high volumes of arrests. However, seeking out easy arrests can place officers at unnecessary risk, slow down important investigations, and increase tension with the community without benefit to public safety. Police effectiveness should be determined not by the visibility of police activity but through improvements in crime rates and other safety indicators.23


Finally, we should involve community members in public safety decision-making while improving communication between the community and the police department.

Departments can improve their relationship with the community, making the police safer and more effective, by making sure that the department reflects the community. Departments can win trust at no cost by recruiting new officers from the community, enlisting community members to assist with training new recruits at the academy, and giving community leaders a true voice in determining public safety priorities.

While policing is a tough job, departments can improve their effectiveness and the safety of their officers by being transparent and accountable, particularly in moments of tension.24 After use of force incidents, departments should allow independent investigations, keep the public informed, and retrain or remove officers when warranted. By pruning individual bad apples, departments prove the health of the tree.

Body cameras enable departments to disprove citizens' false complaints and root out misconduct.25 While they are not perfect solutions, they are a helpful tool to increase police-community trust in the interest of public and officer safety. Police officers should record all of their citizen interactions using body cameras.26

A Closer Look...

What tobacco bans mean for police-community relations

The Law Enforcement Action Partnership fully acknowledges the potential health implications of using tobacco products. However, as we’ve seen with drug prohibition, and with alcohol prohibition before that, banning a substance does not stop use; it drives the market underground, making regulation impossible, and creating tension between the community and the police, who are charged with enforcing prohibitive measures. With the conversation about a ban on menthol tobacco products picking up steam, we are concerned by the damage such a ban could do.

As with drug prohibition, tobacco bans disproportionately impact communities of color. Research shows that 85% of all African-American smokers (age 12+) smoke menthol cigarettes. (source: Villanti, AC et al. “Changes in the prevalence and correlates of menthol cigarette use in the USA, 2004-2014” Tobacco Control, published online October 20, 2016)

When police spend their time enforcing drug prohibition or tobacco bans, they aren’t focused on solving violent crime. Compounding that problem, when police arrest people for low-level offenses like purchasing marijuana or selling loose cigarettes, the community stops trusting the police. They view the police as the enemy, not as the protectors of the community. This distrust makes it unlikely that community members will work with the police and come forward with information when more serious crimes occur.

Worse, the tension between police and community can escalate to a point where violence erupts, as we saw in the case of Eric Garner, a father of six who was making ends meet by selling untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk in Staten Island, NY. When confronted by officers on July 17, 2014, Mr. Garner resisted arrest, saying he was tired of being harassed. The confrontation turned violent as officers tried to restrain Mr. Garner, putting him in a chokehold that proved fatal. A man lost his life over the sale of loose cigarettes and the resentment toward police that followed was felt across the country.

Simply put, prohibition doesn’t work.

What works? Education and treatment. Young people are less likely to fall into substance abuse when they’ve received open, honest education (not scare tactics), and people who struggle with addictions are more likely to make healthier decisions when they have access to treatment without the threat of punishment. We need to direct our resources toward helping people and making communities stronger, not toward prohibition-style bans that lead us right back to the same unintended consequences.

  1. Desmond, Papachristos, and Kirk. “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community.” American Sociological Association website. Oct. 2016. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/oct16asrfeature.pdf.
  2. Behrman, Elizabeth. “‘No snitch’ rule hamstrings police investigations of shootings.” Tampa Bay Times. 29 Mar. 2015. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.tbo.com/news/crime/no-snitch-rule-hamstrings-police-investigations-of-shootings-20150329/.
  3. Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Crime Survivors Speak.”  Alliance for Safety and Justice website.  Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at https://www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/Crime%20Survivors%20Speak%20Report.pdf.
  4. Desmond, Papachristos, and Kirk. “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community.” American Sociological Association website. Oct. 2016. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/oct16asrfeature.pdf.
  5. NewsOne Now. “Have Race Relations & Community Police Relations Worsened Since Obama Took Office?” NewsOne, August 2016. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://newsone.com/3499463/have-race-relations-community-police-relations-worsened-since-obama-took-office/.
  6. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion."LEAD Evaluation." Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion website. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://leadkingcounty.org/lead-evaluation/.
  7. hang, Daniel. “Criminal mental health program in Miami-Dade seen as a model for nation” The Miami Herald. 21 May. 2016. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article79004057.html
  8. Jack Smith IV. “To Stop Police Brutality, We Must End the Epidemic of PTSD Among Officers.” Mic.com. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://m.mic.com/articles/154241/to-stop-police-brutality-we-must-end-the-epidemic-of-ptsd-among-officers#.PGs0auT9p.
  9. Stoughton, Seth. “How Police Training Contributes to Avoidable Deaths”. The Atlantic. 12 Dec. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/police-gun-shooting-training-ferguson/383681/
  10. L. Mazerolle, S. Bennett, E. Antrobus, and E. Eggins, “Procedural justice, routine encounters and citizen perceptions of police: main findings from the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET),” Journal of Experimental Criminology 8 (2012): 343 –367.
  11. Schuessler, Jennifer. “Fieldwork of Total Immersion Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood”. The New York Times. 29 Apr. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/30/books/alice-goffman-researches-poor-black-men-in-on-the-run.html?_r=0
  12. Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong. “Created Equal.” National Council on Crime and Deliquency Report, March 2009. Accessed January 13, 2017, at http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/created-equal.pdf
    US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Issue Brief No. 1, March 21, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf.
  13. SAMHSA. “Table 1.19B.” National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2012. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://archive.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2012SummNatFindDetTables/DetTabs/NSDUH-DetTabsSect1peTabs1to46-2012.htm#Tab1.19B.
    Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund. “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report.” National Center for Juvenile Justice report, March 2006. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/nr2006.pdf.
  14. Human Rights Watch. “Decades of Disparity Drug Arrests and Race in the United States.” Human Rights Watch report, March 2009. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0309web_1.pdf.
    Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi. “Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker.” Yale Law Journal 123(1), October 2013. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/mandatory-sentencing-and-racial-disparity-assessing-the-role-of-prosecutors-and-the-effects-of-booker.
  15. American Psychological Association. “Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds.” American Psychological Association website, March 6, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx.
  16. Nazgol Ghandnoosh. “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crim and Support for Punitive Policies.” Sentencing Project report, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/app/uploads/2015/09/Report-Race-and-Punishment.pdf.
  17. Libresco, Leah. “It Takes A Lot Of Stop-And-Frisks To Find One Gun”. Fivethirtyeight. 3 Jun. 2015. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/it-takes-a-lot-of-stop-and-frisks-to-find-one-gun/
  18. Tyler, Fagan, and Geller. “Street Stops and Police Legitimacy: Teachable Moments in Young Urban Men’s Legal Socialization”. Social Science Research Network. 15 Apr. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2289244
  19. Ceasar, Stephen. “L.A. schools police will return grenade launchers but keep rifles, armored vehicle”. The Los Angeles Times. 16 Sept. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-schools-weapons-20140917-story.html
  20. American Civil Liberties Union. “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” American Civil Liberties Union report, June 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at https://www.aclu.org/report/war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-police
  21. Brinkerhoff, Noel. “Tanks on the Streets? Police Required to Use Military Equipment within a Year or Return It.” AllGov. 26 Aug. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/tanks-on-the-streets-police-required-to-use-military-equipment-within-a-year-or-return-it-140826?news=854075
  22. Bernick, Evan. “Law Enforcement’s Dependence on Civil Asset Forfeiture in Georgia and Texas”. The Heritage Foundation, 26 Mar. 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/03/law-enforcements-dependence-on-civil-asset-forfeiture-in-georgia-and-texas
  23. Fortier, Nicole & Chettiar, Inimai. “Success-Oriented Funding: Reforming Federal Criminal Justice Grants”. Brennan Center for Justice, 2014. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/SuccessOrientedFunding_ReformingFederalCriminalJusticeGrants.pdf
  24. Jackson, Brian A. Respect and Legitimacy—A Two-Way Street: Strengthening Trust Between Police and the Public in an Era of Increasing Transparency. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE154.html.
  25. Franklin, Neill. “Body Cameras Could Restore Trust in Police”. The New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/22/should-police-wear-cameras/body-cameras-could-restore-trust-in-police
  26. Franklin, Neill. “Body Cameras Could Restore Trust in Police”. The New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/22/should-police-wear-cameras/body-cameras-could-restore-trust-in-police.