Police & Community Relationships of Trust

An Interview with Robert Wasserman on Ferguson & NYC


On July 17, 2014, NYPD officers on Staten Island confronted Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, in front of a convenience store. Garner resisted the police as they attempted to arrest him. As officers restrained Garner and forced him to the ground, he complained, “I can’t breathe.” On the ground, Garner became unresponsive and died. A medical examiner later determined that the “compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police”[1] caused his death. Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors.

Following this incident, community leaders in New York expressed outrage at the police and the crime strategy that led to Garner’s death. Peaceful protests were held, and Mayor Bill de Blasio organized a meeting between NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The NPYD announced that all officers would be retrained in use of force techniques.

On August 9, just a few weeks after Mr. Garner died, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man of Ferguson, MO, was killed after being shot at least six times by a white police officer. As citizens demonstrated in the following days, police monitored the activities in riot gear. The demonstrations turned violent, looting broke out, and police used tear gas, rubber bullets and other means to control the situation. Over the next several days, peaceful protests were punctuated by periods of violence and looting, the governor declared a state of emergency, and a curfew was instituted and defied.

Why did these two similar incidents result in such different community reactions? Did differences in the relationships between the communities and the police contribute to the difference in outcomes? Could the Ferguson police have handled the situation differently, allowing the outraged community to voice their discontent while preventing violent and lawless actions?

Robert Wasserman is a longtime police consultant who has worked with police in New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, CA and Detroit, and other places. In May he coauthored Building Relationships of Trust: Moving to Implementation with Zachary Ginsburg. I spoke with him about these two incidents and the importance of relationships between police and the community, both in dealing with crises like these and for everyday policing.

Jonathan Stewart: Why are police relationships with the community important?

Robert Wasserman: Relationships with the community are important because the community receives the service the police department provides. The police cannot be effective in dealing with the community’s problems and concerns if the community does not view the police as having legitimacy. If the community looks at the police as being an institution that does not serve them that is not fair in how it applies its enforcement action, then in the eyes of the community the police are not legitimate and people will not follow the lead the police can normally provide. The community will not view the police as legitimate, particularly in minority and ethnic minority communities, unless the police agency has developed a relationship with the community that gets them to trust in the police and see that the police care about them and are focused on helping the community improve its quality of life.

JS: How have relationships of trust affected the community response to the incidents in New York City and Ferguson, MO?

RW: One of the realities of policing in larger cities is that police respond to thousands and millions of situations every year and sometimes something goes wrong. That’s never going to change. We try to limit the degree to which things go wrong through good training, through strong community partnerships, but sometimes in the complexities of the situations we face something will go wrong. Without relationships of trust you will get a very strong reaction from the community. Certainly in Ferguson it appears that there were not relationships of trust between the police department and the minority community. So one can expect that when a particularly problematic situation arises then the community is going to express concern and to some degree outrage.

In the New York situation there is a higher level of community trust and the reaction is more subdued, and the department made quick commitments to understand what went wrong and to work with the community in seeing that what happened doesn’t happen again. You have to have relationships with the community in order to make that happen. And you have to bring the community into the process of figuring out how do you go forward in correcting what went wrong. That’s very hard to do during a crisis if you haven’t established those relationships already.

Getting those relationships in place and maintaining them before a crisis occurs is critical. Every police chief in America should now ask, “Do I have strong relationships of trust with my community and are those relationships being strengthened and developed and expanded even though there’s no crisis at the present time?” You can’t wait until the crisis occurs. If you have the relationship of trust dealing with the crisis is a lot easier because you have that relationship and can bring the community into working on dealing with what has happened and trying to learn from it and prevent it from happening in the future.

JS: But the Ferguson police are already in this crisis without strong relationships of trust. How should they deal with it?

RW: Well, I think they should start out as rapidly as possible and get the community leadership in and be sensitive to the fact that they’re going to take a lot of heat from them. They’re going to really scream and yell and everything else. You have to be willing to say, “You know, we haven’t done what we should have done, and we need to do it from here on out. I want you to be partners with us in straightening this out.”

Start there. Admit you haven’t done it. Say, “We need to fix it and you need to be an integral part of it every bit of the way. So that we will have relationships with the community that will ensure that we have legitimacy and are fair and unbiased in what we do. It’s going to be a major change. We need to work on that together. I need you to join me.”

JS: How can police departments not in a crisis build relationships of trust?

RW: The most important thing in terms of these relationships is that a police department engages a community and brings them in to policing in a way that is meaningful for them and gets the community to share responsibility for what the police do and the outcomes that they achieve. Many police departments do not have those kinds of relationships with the communities they serve, particularly in minority and ethnic minority communities. When they establish relationships with community leaders they often are superficial relationships and not relationships that result in collaboratively addressing the problems that concern the community.

Police executives who understand the importance of legitimacy and the importance of collaborative engagement with the community establish those relationships in a manner that members of the community feel they have a stake in the outcome and are participants in establishing priorities and identifying tactics that will solve the problem and that these tactics are applied in a manner that is acceptable to the community.

In minority communities there is a long history of mistreatment by the police that goes back many years. The sense of mistrust has carried forward through the generations and is a part of the perspective of that community. They view the police with suspicion and they never really get to know the police as individuals or recognize the police of today are not necessarily like police historically. Establishing those relationships is therefore particularly critical.

JS: What specific strategies can police departments use to establish and sustain relationships of trust?

RW: The most important thing that’s required is being able to sit with members of the community and listen to them to talk about their experiences and their perceptions. We don’t learn in policing how to listen very well, but that is a key strategy we must use in establishing relationships of trust. The community needs to see that you’re interested in what they’re saying and that you’re learning from what they’re saying. If you respond in a manner that shows you have an interest in what they say and you show respect for them, then you can start to develop a relationship with respect on both sides.

Sustaining relationships like that is more challenging because you must have those discussions on a regular basis. The chief can do that with citywide leadership. There are some departments, such as Cambridge for example, which have a citywide police advisory board that meets on a regular basis and the police chief of Cambridge, Commissioner Bob Haas, puts in front of this group new policies the department is developing for issues of complexity. The advisory committee is able to comment on the policies, and they provide important input. When the community is involved in the development of its policy and in tactics, they’re much more willing to accept the actions of the police and view the police actions as legitimate because the community has been involved with the department in the development of those policies and those tactics.

In many agencies police hold community meetings, but normally a police commander stands up and gives a report on crime. He tells what’s going on and then asks if there are any questions. Far more rarely do police have a community meeting in which they ask the question of the community, “What do you see as the primary issues in the community that we all need to address?”

I remember when I worked back in Boston heading police operations we used to hold community meetings. We understood that the community would often start to vent about things they were upset about. It was a time of school desegregation, and there were lots of issues in the community and people needed to sound off. When they were through sounding off, and our response was always, “That perspective is interesting and is something that ought to be considered.”

We would then focus the meeting on getting the community to list the three major problems in the neighborhood that we needed to address. On a flipchart at the front of the room we would list the things that people proposed as the priorities that required action. We then would work with the group to determine which three were the most important. For each one we would list it on a new flipchart and divide the flipchart in half. On the left side we would write “police” and on the right side we would write “community.” Then we would list things that we as a police department might be able to do that would impact that problem in a manner that the community would find acceptable. We’d have a discussion about that. Then we would say, “What is the community able to do that would contribute to solving that problem?” We would come up with a series of steps the community said they could take that in collaboration with the police could make a difference in dealing with that problem.

At the end of that exercise, I then would call up my officers that were there and we all would sign the police side of the flipchart with a pen and say, “We will take these actions and come back to you in six weeks and report on our progress and open it up for discussion.” We would then ask the community to come and sign their side, and they always would. Six weeks later we would all come back and review what was on the sheet and have a critique. We would then repeat the exercise on a new set of sheets. In that manner the community had a commitment to action it wasn’t just what can the police do. There are always things the community can do in working to solve problems along with the police that become collaborative actions. But that will never work unless the police have established relationships of trust with the community. The question always arises, “How do we do that?”  

Now there are lots of other ways of strengthening these relationships of trust. One of the things we found in focus groups in New York was that members of the community all complained that the police on patrol in the neighborhoods often just walk down the street ignoring them. They said, “They’re like an army of occupation. They don’t engage with us.” Indeed many new police officers don’t know how to engage in conversation, and they have to learn how to do that.  

George Kelling, the former, retired professor from Rutgers has often said what police have to do on patrol in the neighborhood is have a felt presence in the neighborhood. They have to touch everybody they pass when they’re walking down the street. Whether it’s a nod, a brief conversation, looking somebody in the eye, or saying “Hello.” That’s critically important, and it shows people that you’re acknowledging them and that you’re becoming a part of the community – that you’re not an army of occupation.

In congested urban areas where many people, particularly in the summertime, by spending time out on the street you’re actually walking through their front yard by going down the street. Engaging with people as you walk the street down is particularly important. We don’t really teach this in our police academies. It takes quite a bit of skill to be effective. 

In New York City we have 675 new police recruits that were assigned to high crime neighborhoods right out of the academy. In order to facilitate their transition into those areas, we identified partner officers to be field-training officers for the recruits and community partners who would orient the new recruits to the neighborhood. To orient the recruits to the neighborhood they would meet with the recruits and walk with them and introduce them to people on the street, people in shops, and community leadership.

It’s also useful to assign officers who establish those relationships at lower levels in the community and listen and understand and then share that information with members of the department and introduce the community to people, etc. Every police agency that I have ever known has a number of police officers who are particularly effective in establishing these kinds of relationships, but it’s often not the norm, and we have to make it the norm. The Los Angeles Police Department has a position called senior lead officers in every one of the patrol sectors in the city. Those senior lead officers spend their time establishing relationships of trust in the community. They meet with community leadership. They talk to people in the community. They bring them in to decision making and people begin to trust what the police say.

JS: What tools can a police departments use to manage relationships of trust over the long term?

RW: Almost every police department in the country now has in one way or another adopted the CompStat model of performance management. In CompStat meetings the focus is on “Where is crime and what actions are being taken to address the patterns?” In the earliest days in New York City when Jack Maple, who was a brilliant strategist, developed CompStat, the concern was that when you see a crime trend you put the cops on the dots and to do something about it. The community was not heavily involved in that strategy.

We now know that involving the community in these strategies is critically important so, in addition to crime patterns, CompStat has to start to focus on the quality of relationships and the community’s perceptions that police are fair and involved. We have to collect information not only about crime locations and trends, but also about community perceptions, levels of trust, and relationships with the police. That has to be reviewed in a CompStat type of performance management meeting as well. Officers on the street will do what they think is being measured. If you only talk at CompStat about crime and not the community, the police will not engage in the community at the operational level. You want officers on the street to know that establishing these relationships with members of the community on their beat is a critical responsibility.

Back in the early 1990s the level of crime in our major cities was a major concern. So the CompStat process was started and the focus of attention was doing something about crime. Crime is lower now and is not the crisis in many places that it was back in the 90s. However, the attention is now focused on relationships with the community in a way beyond community policing. Policing in collaboration with the community, not just outreach and telling people what’s going on, has never really gone to the level that it has to go if we’re really to be effective in having these kinds of relationships. So we’re now in a new stage of policing where we need to focus as much on building relationships, getting the community to share responsibility for what’s going on in their neighborhoods, as we do about police actions in driving down crime.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/23/us/new-york-choke-hold-rally/

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