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Police, Brutality and the Prevalence of Racial Bias

Increasing trust between police and the community

Ben Jealous | 11/19/2014, 2:57 p.m.
What is community policing? In the wake of increased shootings in Ferguson and around the country, there has been a ...
Ben Jealous is former president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, and a partner at Kapor Capital, a social impact investing firm that invests in Pigeonly and Jail Education Solutions.

What is community policing? In the wake of increased shootings in Ferguson and around the country, there has been a renewed public interest in the role of police, the extent of police brutality, and the prevalence of racial bias.

These are not new issues, and in fact a number of organizations have been working for decades to increase trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Among these is the National Coalition Building Institute, a nonprofit leadership program headquartered in Washington D.C.

Founded in 1984, the institute focuses on eliminating prejudice and resolving inter-group conflict. They work in cities across the U.S. and overseas to build the capacity of local leaders in schools, college campuses, police departments, and environmental organizations to lead prevention-oriented workshops and to intervene in the face of tough inter group conflict. One of the group's key programs, the Law Enforcement Community Citizen Project, focuses on building productive relationships between police and the communities they serve.

Initially funded in 2002 by a grant from the COPS office (the office of Community Policing at the US Department of Justice) to work in Bethlehem, Penn. and King County, Wash., the project has since been implemented in numerous communities.

Called on to bridge the divide between community members and police officers, the group leads training, diversity, and inclusion and leadership workshops for officers and community activists to educate them in skills to foster cooperative relationships.

Some communities have contacted the institute when there have been specific difficulties between white police officers and people or neighborhoods of color that have been singled out by police. From their experience, the coalition has learned that it is best to offer communities a prevention-oriented, trust building approach. This way, they build the ongoing capacity of law enforcement and community activists to work in partnership to increase safety for all citizens in the community.

I spoke with Fabienne Brooks, who along with Guillermo Lopez is co-director of the institute’s Law Enforcement Program. Brooks is a retired chief of detectives for the King County Police Department in Seattle. She was the first black female officer in county history to be hired as a deputy, and throughout her career she made a point to immerse herself in the community that she served. The neighborhood she patrolled was the same neighborhood where she attended church and raised her family. After 26 years on the job, she retired and joined the institute so she could continue her passion for community policing.

Ms. Brooks told me that "an important part of community policing occurs when an officer recognizes that they are part of a community, and the community understands the same about the officer. It includes forming empathetic relationships between law enforcement and community members, which results in increased officer safety and safety for all members of the community."

The partnership project builds trust between law enforcement and community leaders by helping each side to understand the daily realities of the other. Each has a key story to tell. Each deserves respectful listening. By teaching listening skills and conflict resolution practices and by helping each side see the humanity and legitimate concerns of the other, trust and partnership increases.