Police–Community Relations

III. Strategies to Address Police–Community Relations

Efforts to improve police–community relations have intensified during the community era, but attention to this challenge preceded this period by decades. As discussed earlier in this research paper, by the late 1960s American policing was facing a significant community relations crisis; however, the police–community relations movement got its start at least a decade earlier. In 1955, the National Institute on Police and Community Relations was held at Michigan State University. This 5-day conference was cosponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Michigan State University School of Police Administration and Public Safety (Carter & Radelet, 1998). This conference, the discussions that it spawned, and the annual conferences that would follow moved the discussion of police–community relations to the forefront of the police agenda. Since the 1950s, a number of specific approaches have been taken in an attempt to address this problem and bring police and communities closer together. These strategies have been as simple as the development of police athletic leagues to support youth development and as complex as completely reorienting the philosophy of entire police departments. Taken as a whole, these strategies can be classified into three broad categories: (1) public relations efforts, (2) community service activities, and (3) community policing.

A. Public Relations

Some of the earliest efforts to improve police– community relations can be considered public relations efforts. Although public relations models differ in their scope and approach, they share a number of common characteristics. First, public relations approaches make a common assumption about the cause or origins of poor police– community relations. It is assumed that problems with this relationship exist because the public fails to fully understand the complexity and challenge associated with the job the police are trying to accomplish. Alternatively, poor police– community relations could simply be due to the fact that the public has an inaccurate or unfavorable perception of the police. This underlying assumption lays the foundation for the next characteristic of the public relations strategy. The second common element of the public relations approach reflects efforts to improve the public’s perception of the police. In some respects, this involves reeducating communities about what reasonable expectations they should hold of the police. This strategy has been carried out in a number of ways. Some police departments have created specialized police–community relations units to carry out these efforts. These units are composed of officers who have received special training in police–community relations, and their focus, in part, is on developing and maintaining a more favorable public image of the police. Other police departments have engaged in media campaigns, hosted open houses at local police precincts, developed civilian ridealong programs, and operated citizen “police academies.” The shared purpose of these activities is to create an environment in which to play host to more positive interactions between police and residents and to assist the police in educating the public about police work. If the public perception of the police is to blame, public relations models simply try to modify these perceptions to ones that are more favorable of the police.

There are a number of problems or limitations associated with the public relations approach. Some critics have argued that the public relations approach simply represents one-way communication between police and communities (Carter & Radelet, 1998); in other words, the police explain to the public what they should expect or how the police can best realistically meet their needs. The trouble with this approach, it is argued, is that it fails to provide an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns to the police. It is important to note that what the police are telling residents they should be concerned with may be completely different from what residents are truly concerned about, or the expectations the police think a community should have of them may be inconsistent with what the community actually expects of the police. The problem with this limitation is that it usually fails to provide an avenue for discussion of the real issues that represent barriers to more positive police– community relations.

A second, but related criticism of some of the public relations strategies is that they may be most effective at reaching an audience that already shares a favorable opinion of the police. This criticism is commonly associated with evaluations of strategies like civilian ride-along programs and citizen police academies. These evaluations have found that civilian participants tend to be individuals who are already overwhelmingly supportive of the police. Also, civilian participants in these programs tend to come from neighborhoods where police–community relations are not serious or challenging issues. In this respect, the residents and communities that the police need to reach out to the most fail to be engaged in any meaningful interaction or dialogue with the police. As a result, the problems of poor police–community relations go unaddressed in the very communities where these issues are most pronounced.

Finally, some critics of the public relations model have observed that the officers who are most active in these efforts frequently are not representative of the typical officer on the police force. Officers selected for police–community relations units, or similar activities, typically receive special training, may already have a more positive rapport with citizens, and are less likely to have had civilian complaints filed against them in the past. This can be problematic for at least two reasons. First, it may encourage the average police officer to be less motivated to develop positive police– community interactions in his or her day-to-day activities. After all, it can be argued, there are specific officers designed to deal with the hard work of developing these relationships. The second reason this is problematic is that it fails to address the conduct of specific officers who are arguably the target of most civilian complaints. In this respect, the officers engaged in the targeted interactions with citizens are not the officers on the force who are problematic from the police– community relations standpoint. This cosmetic approach frequently fails to deal with the small percentage of the police officers who are generating the majority of citizen complaints and therefore the biggest impediment to more positive police–community relations.

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