How Can Law Enforcement Improve Community Relations?

Improving police and community relations today comes with challenges. Discover five best practices and practical tools for overcoming those challenges.

April 30, 2024

Article Highlights

In law enforcement, a healthy relationship with the community is necessary, not just beneficial. It’s the foundation for effective policing.

Although police-community relations have faced serious challenges over the past several years, the national media narrative isn’t always reflective of local communities.

Many local law enforcement agencies have mutually beneficial relationships with their citizens. What are these police departments doing right?

In this article, we will explore the challenges of building strong community relations, solutions for doing so, and how technology can help.

Importance of Police and Community Relations

Strong police-community relations are the bedrock of public safety, benefitting both officers and citizens on a daily basis.

  • When officers act in a way that aligns with training, fairness, and professionalism (i.e. de-escalation best practices), it increases community trust.
  • As community trust increases, citizens become more willing to cooperate, report crime, and adhere to the law (i.e. joining citizen observer programs).

Obviously, improving community relations is more complex than the two steps above, and it’s certainly not a formula. But the progression above shows how healthy police and community relations create a safer environment for everyone. Not only that, it creates a positive cycle of trust.

Here’s another simple example:

  • When police departments are transparent about operations, decision-making processes, and the handling of incidents, it influences public trust.
  • As public trust grows, citizens become more willing to provide valuable feedback, voice needs, and collaborate with law enforcement to protect their community.

To borrow a popular aphorism, healthy police-community connections can become “a rising tide that lifts all boats.” Unfortunately, there are serious challenges to overcome.

Challenges to building strong community relations

Lack of transparency, miscommunication, insufficient training, historical grievances, and more can divide citizens and police. Every community presents different and dynamic challenges, requiring law enforcement agencies to adapt, listen, and engage, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Just like interpersonal relationships, healthy police and community relations are built on trust. Without trust, certain citizens may be anxious, fearful, or hostile—all factors that can lead to unsafe interactions.

The past several years have strained the relationship between communities and law enforcement. The national media narrative hasn’t helped. Many media outlets focus exclusively on negative police-citizen interactions instead of the positive interactions that occur on a daily basis in most communities. 

The national narrative has hurt public trust, as well as decreased officer morale in police departments across the country. The majority of officers are good men and women who are well-trained. They already put their lives on the line for little to no thanks. When you add criticism and distrust to the equation, morale plummets. Low morale leads to discouragement, mental health issues, officers leaving the force, and more.

How can your agency create a narrative that reflects the positive interactions between your officers and citizens? How can you raise morale at your agency? Keep reading to find out.

How can law enforcement improve community relations?

In 2015, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) hosted a day-long meeting with police and community leaders from across the country. Their goal: develop strategies for building trust between communities and law enforcement.

Every agency needs days like this, but every community’s needs are different. It’s up for each police department, at every level of government, to develop creative solutions to the unique challenges facing their citizens. Saying that, best practices are a great place to start. How can your agency customize the following best practices to the unique needs of your city, county, or state?

Be Transparent & Communicate

Transparency and communication go hand-in-hand. Transparency is about making information available early and often, from agency policies to community incidents. Communication is about relaying information clearly and consistently.

For example, when an incident occurs it’s important to be forthcoming. Release as much information as you can, as soon as you can. Communicate that the initial information is preliminary—it may not be 100% correct and it will likely evolve as more information becomes available. This protects your agency and keeps the community informed from the beginning.

As we’ve seen, incidents like controversial uses of force can create division, even if the incident did not occur in your region.

It’s important to acknowledge and understand the historical and present-day challenges of minorities, which still influence some people’s feelings about the police. Acknowledging these challenges, as well as some of the specific challenges your agency faces, demonstrates your commitment to transparency and learning.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Facilitate discussions with community and minority leaders
  • Consider establishing “duty to intervene” policies
  • Make agency policies easily accessible to the public
  • Communicate clearly about operations, incidents, etc.
  • Use channels like social media, press releases, media briefings, websites, newsletters, text alerts, etc. to communicate

Promote Accountability

Law enforcement agencies should keep websites updated and policies readily available to the public. Sharing your use of force policy, for example, demonstrates your agency’s commitment to proper use of force. The same goes for “duty to intervene” and other policies that promote accountability.

Accreditation is perhaps the best form of agency accountability. When your agency pursues and achieves accreditation, it demonstrates your commitment to excellence in leadership, resource management, training, delivery of services, and more. Accreditation with state and national accrediting bodies comes with many benefits:

  • Improved community relations: it provides tangible evidence that your agency is committed to the highest standards of law enforcement.
  • Save money on liability insurance: Many risk pools provide their members liability insurance discounts if they achieve and maintain accreditation.
  • Defense against civil lawsuits: Accreditation mitigates risk, but when a lawsuit does occur, it helps to protect your agency and officers.
  • Accountability within your agency: Accreditation standards provide leaders in your agency with a proven system of management that stays on the cutting edge of training, reporting, resource allocation, and more.

Here are some tips for funding accreditation for your agency. Are you concerned about having enough “manpower” to pursue accreditation? Solutions like PowerEngage can help. By automating citizen feedback surveys and reducing callbacks, you can save time on citizen interactions and even meet CALEA standard 45.2.2.

Grow in Cultural Competency

Training in diversity and implicit bias should be provided to officers across all ranks. Given the diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of many cities and towns, your officers need to be able to communicate effectively with these different groups and understand their cultural norms.

Create Police Community Outreach Programs

Many people don’t engage with police outside of law enforcement situations, which can lead to wrong assumptions and negative associations with police. Community outreach programs give agencies an opportunity to interact with citizens in a non-enforcement context. Programs like youth outreach and coffee with a cop can break down barriers, overcome stereotypes, and build bridges.

Learn more about implementing an outreach program strategically, and consider implementing some of the following police community outreach programs:

  • Coffee with a cop
  • Shop with a cop
  • National night out
  • Neighborhood watch
  • Dog walker watch
  • Community policing
  • Citizens police academy
  • Youth outreach
  • Ride-alongs

Here are some additional community outreach ideas for police:

  • Join a sports league
  • Participate in community events
  • Provide educational programs
  • Conduct neighborhood patrols
  • Host public safety workshops
  • Organize community service projects
  • Visit schools

Take Advantage of Technology

Every community is unique, requiring your agency to adapt, listen, and engage, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. One way to do this is with technology – specifically, citizen engagement tools. With the right technology solution, you can improve transparency, communicate with citizens more effectively, gather insights to better understand your community, and increase officer morale.

Citizen engagement software like PowerEngage comes with features built specifically for law enforcement agencies who want to improve and simplify community engagement. For example, with PowerEngage, you can:

  • Keep citizens informed with automatic text updates
  • Measure citizen satisfaction with text surveys
  • Better understand community needs and improve services
  • Boost morale with positive feedback and public recognition
  • Prove and share your agency’s positive community impact
  • Satisfy CALEA standards for citizen surveys and addressing negative feedback
  • And much more

By sending surveys to people who recently interacted with officers, you can better understand what citizens think about your public safety services. Then you can use the information gathered from surveys to strategize about the types of training and police community outreach programs you’ll offer in the future. Learn how other agencies benefitted from PowerEngage in this on-demand webinar.

How to get started

No one would disagree that police and community relations are important. When built on a foundation of trust, the relationship becomes a partnership, one that is mutually beneficial to citizens and officers alike.

Although there are many challenges, there are also many opportunities. From implementing community outreach programs to taking advantage of citizen engagement software, your agency can continue to build trust in your community. Discover how PowerEngage can help your agency today.

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