Law enforcement agencies across the country are reeling. Incidents involving the shooting of African American men by officers have generated a firestorm of controversy. Most progressive law enforcement agencies are now in the process of reviewing and modifying their training, use of force policies and procedures around the use of force and deadly force. While necessary, these steps are only part of the picture. And taken alone, they don’t necessarily convince communities that the agency is truly committed to ensuring the public safety of all. No one gets excited by administrative action.

Deadly Force – What Should a Chief Do?

Perception is part of the challenge. Whether or not an incident is legally justifiable, some communities do not have trust in their police. When you’re talking about deadly force, most people remain uncomfortable with the concept of taking a life – particularly now that body-worn cameras and videos taken by passers-by can bring such incidents into the front rooms (or digital screens, as the case may be) of all of us.

So what is a chief to do about issues like the use of deadly force? More administration is not the answer, but rather an old stand-by – community policing. Not the structured problem solving of so many applications, but real community engagement. Flood the streets, not with armored patrols, but with senior law enforcement leaders. Walk a business district. Surprise a community meeting with your visit. Ride with your officers. Walk into a school at lunch time. Hang around at the end of a church service. Watch the local basketball game. And respond personally to routine calls for service. Be visible and approachable.

Community Policing – Don’t Just Be There

Engage and truly listen. What you will hear may be significantly different than your perceptions of the police service. Most residents will welcome you, some will not, but as my experience has taught me, almost all will tell you what they think of the police service and what they need and want from the police. And that information is a gold mine for going forward.

As day-to-day administrative demands consume the time of officers and command staff, it is easy to forget what policing is about. It is also easy to justify remaining at a desk as the work is endless. However, policing is not about numbers of calls answered, the increase or decrease in crime numbers, or even the ratio of discipline to complaints. Policing is about answering the call for help – when no one else can or will.

In the many community listening sessions, I’ve attended in the last year, I keep hearing the same thing from communities: they need a voice, a real voice, in the policing decisions that affect them. Some of the requests and perspectives may not be viable – but that is where communication starts. Some community members want to be heard, to have someone actually listen to their issue or complaint and engage in a response. Some want to thank you. Regardless, all people should have a voice in their society, in their democracy. We must always remember, we police with the consent of the community. Without their support, we cannot be effective in delivering public safety services.

Engaging with the community to hear what they want is the first step to building the bridge.