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Local, State and National Law Enforcement: Police/Community Relations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jeffrey Zimmerman
May 26, 2017

Law enforcement agencies at all levels, of all sizes and in all parts of our country have been addressing the issue of improving community relations from the creation of their respective agencies or departments. The task of improving community relations seems to be an ever-growing task depending on factors such as the demographics of the community, the demographics of the officers, the socio-economics of the community, etc. The task of beginning or improving community relations has taken many steps back in the past several years with the unfortunate deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO), Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD) and Eric Garner (New York, NY), Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos from the New York Police Department who were shot in the patrol cars, and lastly the five police officers from Dallas, TX who were killed. These are just a few examples of issues hindering the relationships between law enforcement and their respective communities that they are charged with serving and protecting. We can agree we are in a tumultuous time in our history regarding race relations, law enforcement and community relations. There are many variables to the equation that can be tabled for future discussions, this article will focus on how law enforcement agencies can use policies to address the community relation issues they have in their specific jurisdictions as well as nationally.


According to Helen Gibson and Babak Akhgar in a 2017 International Conference on Global Security, Safety, and Sustainability article titled “Towards and Enterprise Architecture Framework for Community Policing”, Community Policing (CP) is a concept which aims to develop a closer relationship between the police and the communities they serve to build better a better community environment for all. As opposed to normal policing methods, CP is inherently considered to be a more proactive approach compared to the reactive state of many policing activities, it requires citizen involvement and is decentralized. Therefore, the tactics, tasks and strategies employed for CP must be with the aim of improving and working together with the community. The million dollar question for law enforcement agencies nationally is: how to address the community relations issue in our respective jurisdictions?

There are many ways bureaucrats, administrators, chiefs, sheriff’s, politicians, community leaders, etc. can address this issue. The obvious first answer is to begin an open and honest discourse about the real issues within the specific jurisdictions and communities these leaders work and live in. The second answer is for the policy makers within the agencies by way of guidance from their legal departments and elected officials is to begin writing policies to address the community relationships (if a policy doesn’t exist) or to re-write their current policy to ensure it is up to date.

What is a policy? According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “policy” is as follows: 1a: prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs, b: management or procedure based primarily on material interest. 2a: a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and considering given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions, b: a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body. In simpler terms, a policy guides what a law enforcement agency can or cannot do as it relates to a specific area. What makes a good policy? Is a “good” policy judged by its outcomes, how the community perceives the policy, how the officers or agents perceive the policy, etc.? All of the above plus many more variables such as: is the policy reasonable, practical, the inputs versus the outputs, any performance metrics, other specific parameters within the policy itself.

Writing a policy is not as simple as putting words on a piece of paper and then getting the Chief, Sheriff or other top level Administrator to sign off on it. Writing effective, reasonable, pragmatic and efficient policies require research, analysis, discussions, re-writes, etc. Writing good effective policies to address specific issues are laborious tasks from inception and after the policy is approved and implemented. This is because a lot of work is required to ensure the policy is working the way it was intended and designed by leadership. This will require the employees to buy in to the policy and implement during their shifts, this will require a marketing campaign by the agency to the community that the policy will affect, this will require continuous communications, analysis and re-writing the policy in the future if it is determined the policy is no longer effective or serving its intended purpose.

If law enforcement agencies want to improve community relations, writing and implementing good effective policies is a great start. This foundation must be continued to be built upon by following up in the communities with discussions, events such as town hall debates, etc. Agencies must be proactive and collaborative to improve community relations.

Author: Jeffrey R. Zimmerman, Ph.D. I am currently serving as a Social Science/Education Research Associate for the North Carolina Justice Academy and as an adjunct professor in the MPA program with Strayer University. I can be reached via email at [email protected]

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