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Over time, the role of community engagement in policing has evolved. This evolution continues following weeks of protests and continued news of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) dying during interactions with police.

In order to understand how we arrived here – and more importantly, how we can move forward – we must analyze the fundamentals of community policing. As experts in law enforcement and public safety policy and execution, we still hold fast to the theory that by strengthening their relationship with the community, police departments can better serve them. But true progressive policing, which we identify as the Co-Produced Public Safety (CPPS) model, understands that certain aspects of community policing have failed to address the inequities and injustices taking place in our most vulnerable communities and neighborhoods.

Distinguishing Community from Police Leads to Flawed Solutions

The fundamental flaw in many community engagement programs is the assumption or perception that the police and community are divided. Community engagement initiatives typically start with the police selecting, inviting and organizing residents to discuss what the department considers to be the central focus of public safety: protecting the community, addressing crime and reducing fear. In most instances, the police convene these meetings and generally direct the conversation, often leaving members of the community to serve as spectators rather than equal partners in determining key priorities.

This dynamic reflects traditional police parlance, whereby police see themselves as professionals doing something for the community and that community is seen as having a monolithic, collective identity. But in reality, communities, and the jurisdictions in which police departments operate, are made up of diverse social groupings of people. And the police, regardless of their professional stature and job description, should not hold any advantages over community members or consider their interactions a “one-way street.” The police should also not assume they know what is in the best interest of these communities. This belief is often misplaced and does not match community members’ perceptions and their varying beliefs, viewpoints and realities.

By Definition, Community Engagement Should Be All Inclusive

So much harm has been inflicted on communities of color that it’s incumbent on the police to begin acknowledging and recognizing the underlying reasons why the community mistrusts them. They must then demonstrate through action that they want to earn the communities’ trust in order to begin having an open and honest dialogue that will lead to better outcomes.

When police personnel hold the keys to community engagement, they can also – purposefully or inadvertently – select with whom they convene. Many have a natural tendency to partner with those who share a common view of policing and public safety – namely, community members who look like them and come from a similar background. Another reason the process fails is that it is “self-selective” in nature. If police are holding a community gathering, it is inherently restricted to individuals already willing to come to the table. This excludes individuals who don’t feel safe approaching police in any environment, are physically or financially unable to attend such a meeting, or never heard about it in the first place. This means that community members, whose voices and life experiences may be the most critical in helping the police assist their communities are left out of these conversations.

The Solution? Transfer Leadership in Community Policing

Community policing often fails because it stumbles into the pitfalls described above: a skewed power dynamic between the police and members of the community and non-inclusive means of discussing and developing strategies.

Fortunately, this obstacle can be resolved. Under a CPPS model, community members instead take a leadership role in collaborating and communicating with the police department. They are viewed as partners rather than spectators, and experts in their own right. The police department listens and learns about community members’ visions of public safety – and what services they truly need.

This community-led dynamic can also empower those members of the community who have not had the same opportunities in defining how they feel safe. In a CPPS model, police work with all community members – regardless of their pre-existing relationship with the police and whether or not they are connected to a social network, special interest or affiliation – to identify and address issues affecting their well-being. This gives the community’s perspective far greater influence over how the police define their mission and roles.

Accountability is Key

Ultimately, CPPS requires a willingness on the part of the police to hold themselves accountable to the community. Community sentiment and perceptions matter, if the police hope to become a viable community partner. Though CPPS may sound different than more traditional policing strategies, it reflects core public safety values. By holding themselves accountable to the community, the police fulfill their obligation to acknowledge and understand the injustices and denials of equal protection of the law in their jurisdiction.

Going beyond typical community engagement, CPPS involves a deliberate, explicit and transparent partnership between the police and community to start the conversations and address the obstacles to diverse viewpoints at the table so that police personnel can understand and internalize the community’s reality as their truths.

Learn more about the Co-Production of Public Safety model.
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