Karina Baba Grey

By Karina Baba • May 5, 2015

If recent protests and activism in response to police-involved deaths in U.S. cities have taught us anything, it is this: there are no quick and easy solutions to immediately fix the often fraught relationship between law enforcement and communities. Sustainable solutions are tailored to each context, constructed with each community, and flow from a combination of proactive leadership, long-term partnerships, and data.

This was the consensus of the discussion among U.S. city leaders and national experts at a session on effective policies and practices to build trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and communities during the most recent convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group (PMI-AG). Particularly amid heated debates about racial disparities, unconscious biases, and racial profiling, the group agreed that the starting point of any solution should be long-term partnerships among governments, police departments, and community organizations. Here are some of the main takeaways from their conversation:

Authentic and proactive leadership matters. City leaders repeatedly emphasized the importance of support from mayors and police commissioners during moments of tension between police and community. This is perhaps the most important starting point to build trust between parties. Amid recent protests and activism in Boston, for example, Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans spoke out in support of protesters’ freedom of expression and the need to engage in conversations about policing issues. At the same time, these leaders’ involvement was important to keep the morale of the police department intact.

Public statements bring credibility to the city’s efforts to address difficult issues. Involving the leadership is important to show communities that authorities are genuinely thinking about their concerns, actively taking actions, and, most importantly, inviting everyone to be part of the conversation and the solution.

Sustainable partnerships with community organizations are key to success. Long-lasting partnerships need to be inclusive and built over time. Responses to crisis are facilitated by long-term relationships of trust between different governmental departments, including the police, and a wide range of stakeholders (nonprofits, faith-based groups, neighborhood associations, and academia, among others). City leaders highlighted the need for police departments to work consistently with community leaders, who are engaging with the public on a daily basis.

In this sense, partnerships with community stakeholders should be seen as part of a proactive and integrated problem-solving strategy, rather than a reactive response to an occurrence. For this to happen, partnerships should cover a variety of issues, which may go beyond the typical scope of police departments, such as programs supporting at-risk youth, jobs creation, and community development.

City leaders agreed that partnerships should be complemented by public consultations as well as active communication with the general public, through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, etc.). In terms of the latter, participants of the PMI-AG described ways that police departments are using social media to improve their reputation and build trust by promoting two-way engagement and spreading knowledge.

Data is important to shape perceptions and earn support. In a scenario of tension and constrained resources, new ideas will likely face resistance and old ideas will be contested. In these moments, police departments and authorities should seek partnerships with academic researchers to gather and analyze data as well as other evidence of effectiveness of their programs. In Philadelphia, the city government and police department partnered with Temple University to understand the impact of foot patrols. The study demonstrated that foot patrols in hot spots reduced violence by 20 percent—evidence that was important to build support for the idea. Similarly, the Boston Police Department has been working with researchers from the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School on different fronts, including the development of the Safe Streets program to control violent crime hot spots.

Hard evidence not only brings credibility, shapes perceptions, and increases support for ideas, but it also provides authorities with valuable information for budget allocations, development of strategic plans, and design of solutions. Data is a powerful tool to improve accountability, monitoring, and communication.

Trust Legitimacy