Police-Community Relations


The key to improving police effectiveness and public safety is to return to the fundamental principles of modern policing, which means both increasing police-community trust and preventing crime instead of reacting to crime. Law enforcement agencies need four types of solutions to accomplish these goals: improving support for officers like us, equipping us with tools to prevent rather than react, focusing our efforts on public safety priorities, and directly engaging the community in our work.


  1. Increase Support
    Our agencies must improve support for us.

Many officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues due to work-related stressors, yet we routinely hide our symptoms so that our departments do not sideline us for liability reasons.6 As a result, untreated PTSD can make us a danger to ourselves and to others. To ensure that we access counseling when we need it, departments must make counseling confidential and establish a culture that encourages us to seek help.

We support increased training for officers, because in many localities, training has not kept pace with society's demands. In addition to having to make split-second decisions on incomplete information with potentially life-or-death consequences, we must respond to medical emergencies, intervene in family disputes, and talk people through crisis. Yet our training is shorter and less effective than for far less critical careers.7  In particular, while we are frequently called to deal with mentally ill individuals, few of us are trained to de-escalate confrontations with these individuals. Defusing conflict while minimizing the use of force requires building relationships proactively and employing proven de-escalation techniques, yet few academy or field training programs equip us with the power of these techniques.8 Funding must be expanded for advanced training that prepares us to handle tough situations while earning community trust.

Body cameras enable departments to disprove false accusations and root out officer misconduct.9 While cameras are not a perfect tool, with appropriate safeguards they can be helpful for improving police-community trust in the interest of public and officer safety.

Research shows that officers can improve community cooperation and secure our own safety by giving offenders a chance to speak and treating them with respect and neutrality.10 Both academy and field training programs need to provide procedural justice training, which teaches us to increase our safety and effectiveness by establishing a reputation for fair, neutral policing.

In over ninety percent of sexual assault cases, after we collect evidence, the case is declined by the prosecutor.11 We are failing to collect the evidence necessary to convict the perpetrators because we are not properly trained to recognize trauma and interview traumatized victims. In the year after receiving training in the neurobiology of trauma, the West Valley City Police Department increased prosecution rates from 6 to 24 percent and reduced the pain that victims feel during investigation.12

Rape victims undergo invasive exams that may take four to six hours so that we can use the “rape kit” of meticulously collected DNA evidence to bring their perpetrators to justice and prevent future assaults.13 However, across the country, hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits are collecting dust in evidence rooms because crime labs are busy with drug samples and crime scene evidence.14 Many of our departments do not prioritize rape kit testing when the perpetrator’s identity has already been established or the case seems difficult to win. However, when Detroit tested over 11,000 kits in storage, it identified matches in 2,616 cases, corresponding to 784 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states.15 Testing every rape kit allows our departments to identify serial rapists, fulfilling our promise to protect victims and prevent future crimes.

Swift, judicious responses to domestic violence are necessary to prevent violent crime. People who abuse their families often commit violent crimes outside the home. Their family members become more likely to develop mental health issues, suffer from addiction, and commit acts of violence themselves. Police departments can reduce the overall level of violence by investing time in investigations; building relationships with victims; and training employers, churches, and community groups to recognize and report abuse. By proving to every family that violence within the home will not be tolerated, agencies like the Longmont Public Safety Department in Colorado are proactively preventing crime and protecting victims.

  1. Provide Tools
    Our agencies must equip us with new preventive tools that combat the root causes of crime, since these tools can increase public safety while decreasing the use of force and punishment.

Officers are called over and over to deal with the same individuals struggling with mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness. Arresting them does little to change their behavior, while wasting time that could be spent preventing and investigating crime. Diversion programs improve public safety by equipping us with a new, proven tool—the option to bring these individuals into intensive support programs that can resolve the root issues causing these calls for service.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (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, bureaucracy, and employment. Evaluations have shown that LEAD reduces recidivism, felony crime, homelessness, and unemployment, while improving citizen perceptions of the police.16

Mental health diversion programs like Miami-Dade’s Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) dispatch specially trained officers to emergency calls that may involve mentally 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.17

Roughly two-thirds of all prison inmates dropped out of high school.18 Research shows that communities can prevent crime by investing in early childhood education and ensuring that more students graduate from high school19 One study estimates that raising the male graduation rate by ten percent would lower murder and assault rates by 20 percent.20 By investing in childhood education, communities can reduce crime and enable officers to focus on serious public safety threats.

Investing in housing and treatment infrastructure can prevent crime and free us to pursue real public safety threats. In every American city, a tiny percentage of individuals are responsible for a large percentage of arrests, jail bookings, ambulance rides, and hospital visits. These “frequent fliers” cycle in and out of jails and hospitals due to homelessness, untreated trauma and mental illness, and drug addiction.21 Project 25 in San Diego, California has made the switch from crisis response to prevention by enrolling the city’s 33 top utilizers of jail and hospital services in permanent housing and assigning them case managers to prevent crises in their mental and physical health. Despite having only 33 participants, the program is saving $2.1 million per year by keeping these frequent fliers out of the city’s jails and hospitals.22 Project 25 is not an anomaly; evaluations of similar programs nationwide show that redirecting funding from our prisons to both housing programs and drug treatment and mental health clinics reduces crime.23

Supporting crime victims can also reduce crime and free us to focus on the greatest threats to public safety. Many victims of traumatic crimes go on to commit crimes, particularly when their trauma is left untreated.24 In fact, exposure to physical and sexual abuse or gun violence as a child roughly doubles the chance that an individual will commit crimes later in life.25 Yet although eight out of ten violent crime victims report symptoms of trauma,26 only a third of all violent crime survivors receive any form of treatment or mental health support.27 Trauma recovery centers address this issue by providing mental health treatment, counseling, relocation assistance and compensation support for crime survivors.28 These centers can both heal their wounds and prevent future crime.

Preventing gang violence greatly increases our safety and the safety of the community, while freeing us to focus on other public safety threats. Youth who live in high crime neighborhoods face pressure to join gangs to protect themselves. These gangs are trapped in such vicious cycles of revenge that the leading cause of death among young black men today is homicide.29 This violence is preventable because the number of perpetrators is actually quite small. To prevent gang-related homicide, every year the city of Richmond, CA identifies a small group of the most heavily gang-involved youth and provides them with mentors, counseling, jobs, and seed funding to turn their lives around. Homicide in Richmond has dropped by 50 percent since the city began intensively mentoring and investing in small groups of gang-involved youth.30

  1. Remove Barriers
    We must abolish the laws and practices that pit the police against the community, increasing the use of force and decreasing public safety.

Our communities’ law enforcement-based response to illegal drugs forces us to aggressively pursue, search, arrest, and interrogate individuals who do not pose a public safety threat, damaging police-community trust.31 In order to reduce this use of force to rebuild this trust and improve public safety, our communities must change the drug laws and approach drug use primarily through the public health system.

It is no secret that officers need access to new technologies to do our jobs more effectively. Every year, the federal government supplies our state and local agencies billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment.32 While military equipment can be used effectively in hostage situations and active shooter scenarios, when it is used routinely, our communities come to feel that they are under military occupation. Today, the overuse of military equipment to carry out drug search warrants and other routine matters33 is greatly damaging police-community trust and safety. Federal agencies should reform programs that encourage routine local use of military equipment, particularly requirements that we "use it or lose it."34 And those communities that are in need of such equipment should have strict guidelines regulating its employment as well as robust training programs in place that ensure its safe use.

CAF statutes allow us to seize assets allegedly tied to criminal activity without ever having to prove those ties. The problem is that in many jurisdictions, local politicians are cutting funding for law enforcement and pressuring our agencies to seize CAF revenue to make up the holes in their budgets.35 In response, our agencies have redirected us toward drug money seizures at the expense of crime scene investigation and other functions crucial to public safety. Our communities must reset our focus from fundraising to public safety by adequately funding our agencies and removing CAF as a fundraising tool.

A Diverse Workforce
We need to increase diversity within law enforcement through recruitment and retention efforts. Officers are more effective at building trust when they understand and reflect the communities in which they serve. Increasing racial diversity can help reduce the sway of a negative "us vs. them" police culture across an agency. Gender diversity can help balance police culture and improve performance -- research shows that female officers use less force to resolve situations compared to male officers. However, physical fitness tests and other barriers prevent women from joining police forces. Our agencies must prioritize racial and gender diversity in recruitment and identify barriers to hiring and retention.

Police administrators and federal grant programs often evaluate police performance by counting arrests and citations, pressuring officers to make high volumes of arrests even when those arrests do not necessarily improve public safety. Seeking out easy arrests can place us at unnecessary risk, slow down important investigations, and increase tension with the community. Police effectiveness should be determined not by the visibility of police activity but through improvements in crime rates and other safety indicators.36

As officers, it is essential for our safety that we are allowed to conduct pat-downs when dealing with a suspect who may be armed. However, many agencies turn this protection on its head, dispatching us to conduct mass pat-downs of young men to search randomly for guns and drugs. While only one in a thousand of these random pat-downs produces a gun,37 the mass pat-downs increase both hostility toward us and the opportunities for assault on us. These operations also take us away from investigations and other police work crucial to public safety by stopping mass random pat-down programs.38

In every community, officers currently have to arrest and jail individuals for behavior that should be dealt with outside the justice system, but the problem is most severe for us in communities of color. Black people are punished more harshly than white people for the same crimes, from students in elementary school to juvenile offenders and adults.39 While white and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates,40 black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.41 Studies show that most people perceive black children as older and guiltier than white children42 and support harsher punishment when an offender is black.43 As a result of frequent negative experiences with law enforcement, entire communities of color have lost trust in and stopped cooperating with us. To address the root causes of crime, improve public safety, and restore police-community trust, we must confront the role that race plays in our justice system.

Menthol cigarettes, which mask the harsh taste of tobacco with a minty flavor, are particularly popular with teenagers and African-Americans. We support and encourage public health campaigns and advertising restrictions to reduce cigarette use. However, we cannot in good conscience support local or national attempts to ban menthol or other flavored tobacco products, because these bans move the sale from licensed stores to illicit street corner sellers. This shift forces us into more confrontations and arrests in African-American neighborhoods. These arrests waste resources that should be focused on pursuing serious crime, increase the risk of violent interactions, and destroy the police-community trust that ensures victims and witnesses feel safe giving police the information we rely on to be able to prevent and solve crime.

Since police prevent and solve violent crime by gathering intelligence from our community members, it is our duty to maintain the trust of every neighborhood. We cannot maintain this trust if the federal government forces us to dedicate scarce local resources to federal immigration policy. Sexual assault and domestic abuse reporting among Latinos has fallen steeply as entire communities stop talking to the police out of fear of arrest and being separated from their families or children. To keep everyone in America safe, we must prioritize building trust with everyone in our community.

  1. Improve Communication
    Our agencies must involve community members in public safety decision-making while improving communication between us and the community.

As Robert Peel said, the police are the public and the public are the police. Law enforcement agencies can improve our relationships with the community and make the police safer and more effective by making sure that we reflect the community. Agencies should prioritize recruiting new officers from the community, enlisting local members to assist with training new recruits at the academy, and giving local leaders a true voice in determining public safety priorities.

Policing is one of the country’s most difficult jobs, and departments should protect their officers, ensuring that we receive a fair trial. But when communities believe that one of us has broken the law without facing repercussions, it makes all of our jobs more difficult and dangerous. Departments should respect the criminal justice system by applying it equally to everyone, including us, and remaining transparent and accountable, particularly in moments of tension.44For a discussion of transparency and accountability see:  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. http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE154.html.45 Our departments are sacrificing police effectiveness and officer safety if they block independent investigations, refuse to release information, or fail to hold us accountable for criminal conduct.

For sources, and with any other questions, please contact OurIssues@LawEnforcementAction.org

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. http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=2452&issue_id=82011http://www.policesuicidestudy.com/id5.htmlhttps://m.mic.com/articles/154241/to-stop-police-brutality-we-must-end-the-epidemic-of-ptsd-among-officers#.PGs0auT9p
  7. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/28/us/jobs-training-police-trnd/
  8. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/police-gun-shooting-training-ferguson/383681/ and http://www.joincampaignzero.org/train
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/22/should-police-wear-cameras/body-cameras-could-restore-trust-in-police
  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. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
  12. https://news.byu.edu/news/byu-professor-works-help-victims-rape-through-depth-research-and-training
  13. http://time.com/3001467/heres-what-happens-when-you-get-a-rape-kit-exam/
  14. http://www.endthebacklog.org/backlog/where-backlog-exists-and-whats-happening-end-it
  15. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/04/02/detroits-untested-rape-kits/99958628/?hootPostID=e1dfa6193302618a8ae6a7cd853b9292
  16. http://leadkingcounty.org/lead-evaluation/
  17. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article79004057.html
  18. http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/SavingFutures.pdf
  19. http://repec.iza.org/dp5000.pdf http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten/Pre-kindergarten-What-the-research-shows.html
  20. https://www.tc.columbia.edu/centers/EquitySymposium/symposium/resourceDetails.asp?PresId=6
  21. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0072946
  22. https://www.slideshare.net/KarinaPartovi/final-report-on-project-25
  23. http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2016/02/11/waiting-lists-grow-for-medicine-to-fight-opioid-addictionhttps://www.naminh.org/sites/default/files/Summary%20Report%2004%2028%2014%20Waiting%20for%20Help%20FINAL2.pdf
  24. http://static.prisonpolicy.org/scans/ojjdp/195737.pdf https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083990/
  25. http://www.nber.org/digest/jan07/w12171.html
  26. https://www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/Crime%20Survivors%20Speak%20Report.pdf
  27. https://www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/Crime%20Survivors%20Speak%20Report.pdf
  28. http://traumarecoverycenter.org/
  29. https://www.vera.org/publications/young-men-of-color-and-the-other-side-of-harm-addressing-disparities-in-our-responses-to-violence
  30. http://www.npr.org/2016/03/28/472138377/to-reduce-gun-violence-potential-offenders-offered-support-and-cash
  31. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/30/books/alice-goffman-researches-poor-black-men-in-on-the-run.html
  32. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-schools-weapons-20140917-story.html
  33. https://www.aclu.org/feature/war-comes-home?redirect=war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-policing
  34. 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
  35. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/03/law-enforcements-dependence-on-civil-asset-forfeiture-in-georgia-and-texas
  36. https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/SuccessOrientedFunding_ReformingFederalCriminalJusticeGrants.pdf
  37. http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/it-takes-a-lot-of-stop-and-frisks-to-find-one-gun/
  38. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2289244
  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.