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 (NCBI), a nonprofit leadership program headquartered in Washington DC, whose leaders I spoke with recently.
Founded in 1984, NCBI 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 NCBI’s key programs, the Law Enforcement Community Citizen Project, focuses on building productive relationships between police and the communities they serve.
The NCBI Law Enforcement Community Citizen Project was 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, PA and King County, WA. Since then the program has been implemented in Atlantic City, NJ as well as numerous communities throughout Pennsylvania, Missoula, MO, and Seattle, WA.
NCBI is called on to bridge the divide between community members and police officers. NCBI leads Train the Trainer programs, Welcoming Diversity and Inclusion Workshops, and Leadership Institutes for officers and community activists to educate them in skills to foster cooperative relationships. Some communities have contacted NCBI 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, NCBI has learned that it is best to offer communities a prevention-oriented, trust building approach. This way, NCBI builds 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 NCBI’s Law Enforcement Program. Brooks is a retired Chief of Detectives for the King County Police Department in Seattle, WA. 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 NCBI 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 NCBI Law Enforcement Community 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. In addition, NCBI teaches specific skill sets that help each side to confront the biases they have learned about each other that get in the way of equitable treatment of the entire community– particularly the equitable treatment of people from different racial groups. NCBI believes in practices that will bring about institutional change not one-time trainings or quick fixes.
As just one example of the outcomes of the NCBI’s COPS and Community project, consider what happened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 2005, a pool frequented by Latino young people had been closed for repairs and the young people went to another pool. Within minutes, the mainly white life guards felt threatened by the presence of the Latino young people, called the police and the police, ignoring the pleas of the Latino parents for calm, called for increased back up.
A huge altercation between the parents and the police continued for months. The NCBI trained police/ community activist team was able to bring the parents and police together, and using their NCBI skills, bring about increased trust and understanding.
In Ferguson, Former Chief Brooks sees an opportunity for an effective community-policing program to emerge from the chaos and violence of the past few weeks. “Now, there is a chance for police and the community to hear each other,” she said. “The focus needs to be on how people are treated. If you can train officers how to treat ALL people with dignity and respect – that is a victory.”
Brook’s co-director Guillermo Lopez explained that community policing cannot be accomplished with the wave of a wand, “You don’t go in trying to change a whole department; you go in trying to change a few people, who eventually come to change the whole department. We can start by focusing attention and financial resources on organizations like NCBI, so they can continue spreading the word that emphasize the ‘serve’ aspect of “Protect and Serve”.
“The establishment of a sustained value and practice for coalition building skills between Community and Law Enforcement is a pathway to conflict resolution and will create a climate which fosters violence prevention.” Joyce Shabazz, Consulting Associate Senior Trainer/Director Of Affinity Caucus Programs.
As Brooks told me, “Police officers meet with the community, hear tough things, say tough things and confront their prejudices together – this is how we will move forward.”