Almost a year before Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, laying bare a raw nerve of distrust and hostility between the city’s black residents and its almost exclusively white police force, Attorney General Eric Holder stood before an international gathering of police chiefs in Philadelphia and said it was time to bridge the divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
“We’ve seen all too often that some law enforcement officers believe that community residents tolerate and even encourage disrespect for the law – while some citizens feel that the police unfairly target them for mistreatment and abuse,” he said.
This month the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice to find ways to rebuild strong police-community relations.
"The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved," Holder said in a statement announcing the initiative. “As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation – and a unique opportunity – to ensure fairness, eliminate bias and build community engagement."
As part of this initiative, the department awarded a three-year, $4.75 million grant to a consortium led by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to focus on five communities, to be chosen by next spring. The consortium members will look at the relationship between local law enforcement and community residents in each of the communities. Other members of the consortium include Yale Law School, the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA and the Urban Institute.
“We’re trying to bring resources and ideas and strategies to areas where both the community and law enforcement recognize that there’s an issue and want to do something to solve that,” said Ed Chung, senior policy adviser to the assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs.
Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay, said that communities interested in being considered for the project will need the full participation of their police departments, residents and elected officials.
“The biggest challenge is coming to terms with the dimensions of the issues on all sides," said Travis. "The sites that will be selected will be those that are willing to work hard on one of the most vexing issues facing law enforcement and community relations around the country.”
Travis said it is premature to say whether Ferguson could be considered as one of the five pilot communities, but he added that Ferguson was certainly the most recent example of the importance of the issues to be examined by the initiative.
Putting the initiative's aims into practice
Several offices within the Justice Department have worked on strengthening police-community relations for many years. One thing that distinguishes this new initiative, said Chung, is the department's "partnering with an outside group of experts to push this issue of trust between law enforcement and communities to a higher level of understanding.”
The consortium members are all academic institutions that have worked together on similar research and issues. “We care about data, we care about research, we care about ideas," said Travis, "but at the same time we all have… different relationships where we’ve been working with police departments around the country.”
Because of their experience working together, consortium members will be able to get started in the five pilot communities quickly. “So, the ideas that we’re going to be testing are very well developed and very practical and we have a lot of practical experience on the ground,” Travis said.
Travis described the three essentials to building trust between law enforcement and their communities:
- Procedural justice: If you treat people with respect, answer their questions and give them an opportunity to understand what is being done, they'll show “increased respect for the law.”
- Implicit bias: “We all walk around with biases of one sort or another and we can be taught to recognize them so that we can set those biases aside and counteract them and interact with people in ways that are neutral and respectful and don’t reflect biases.”
- Racial reconciliation: By talking about their differences and "ways that they have not worked together well in the past," communities and law enforcement agencies "develop common commitments to work differently in the collaboration going forward.”
One major challenge will be to develop measures and indicators of progress.
Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute,; said the Urban Institute is the group’s evaluation partner. “We’ll be going into communities and collecting baseline data on attitudes toward the police and then following up after the training and technical assistance has been provided to see if those attitudes and perceptions have improved over time."
She hopes that their findings can be shared "with the larger public in ways that can be used by police practitioners and understood by the larger community.”