Building Police-Community Relationships

The relationship of the police to the community should be harmonious. The community relies upon the police department to “protect and serve” and the police, in return, rely upon community support and cooperation in order to be effective. When communication and trust deteriorate, tensions build between the community and police and undermine their shared goal of safer communities.

Poor communication between the police and communities served was the problem listed most frequently, in a variety of ways, by police and community members surveyed. When asked what the main problems are when it comes to police-community relations, police leaders listed “language barriers,” “connecting with the community,” and “lack of meaningful communication on both sides and lack of understanding of police practices” as obstacles to better relations. This list is similar to the one provided by community members, who listed “lack of communication,” “language barriers,” and “lack of relationships” as barriers to getting along with the police.

Communication is an active, not passive, process. It is not merely the provision of information or demands to another, rather it is a process of engagement, of listening, of seeking out and understanding what the other is trying to express. Where communities and police departments are communicating successfully with each other, how are they doing it? What are specific cities doing, either successfully or not so successfully? Are formal communications plans (at least between police leaders and the community) the way to go? What process should be instituted that would allow one group to understand the other so that trust might flourish?

In this section, we will discuss strategies that police can use in reaching out to communities. Such strategies include: incorporating accountability and transparency; creating opportunities for educational exchanges such as “citizens’ police academies;” establishing regular neighborhood meetings and maintaining communication and follow-up between these meetings; and organizing forums to discuss policies, tactics, or technology of interest to community. We will also examine the strategies used by the communities to reach out to and educate the police about the community, such as maintaining communication and follow up between neighborhood meetings, canvassing for volunteers and establishing an active roster, and raising awareness of neighborhood meetings.

What the Police Should Do

It is necessary to incorporate accountability and transparency

The police are responsible for trying to make communities safe by working to prevent criminal acts and enforcing the law. They are accountable to the community and its assessment of police successes and failures in preventing, fighting, and solving crimes. The police must also be open and transparent when dealing with the community and describing crime-fighting efforts.

This mantle of responsibility for fighting crime carries with it the obligation for the police to respect the rights of the community members, since the police can only accomplish their task with the cooperation and support of the community. When police fail to respect the rights of residents and police and political leaders fail to hold those who engage in misconduct accountable, the police-community relationship is put in jeopardy.

In our interviews, many members of the community noted the lack of trust in the police, due in large part to a perceived, or real, lack of accountability and transparency by the police. One area where there is a great deal of concern about accountability is in the handling of misconduct complaints. Police leaders must describe to the public how police are held accountable for misconduct. In addition to describing the investigative and disciplinary procedures, the police need to show outcomes that assure the public that those who do not follow the department’s rules, or the law, are disciplined appropriately.

In efforts to educate the public about policing, accountability systems should be described fully. Obvious questions from the public include:

  • How does the internal investigation work?

  • What are possible outcomes of an internal investigation?

  • Who decides about any disciplinary action, if misconduct is found?

  • Are there external oversight mechanisms? How do they work?

  • How long will all of the investigations typically take?

  • What is required of a complainant in this process?

  • What does the FBI or District Attorney’s office do, in relation to misconduct investigations or criminal prosecutors of law enforcement officials?

Community members want to be heard when they voice concerns about police actions and they want to understand what to expect. Residents also want police leaders to be candid and forthcoming. By educating the community about accountability systems and being as transparent as possible in general, but especially when it comes to community concerns about specific issues or incidents, police leaders will help lay the foundation for building trust.

The community wants more out of “community policing” than just to be an extra set of eyes and ears for the police. The community wants to have input into how the neighborhood is governed and policed. Although there is evidence from our surveys that the police departments are actively reaching out to the community the police are still hesitant to include the community in decision making or sharing power. Both of these elements are necessary if the community is to be a true partner with the police in making neighborhoods safer. The community should be allowed input into police officer evaluations and reviewing complaints. The community should be allowed input into police officer promotions and, as noted earlier, promotions should be based on the officers’ community policing efforts and involvement with the community (both on and off duty) as well as other merits.

In addition to community meetings and forums another method of for the police to discern concerns of the community is through surveys. A common method of conducting surveys is through mailing them out but, as described by Maya Harris West in her book, Community-centered Policing: A Force for Change, the Lincoln Police Department (Nebraska) uses police recruits to make random telephone calls throughout the year to those members of the community based upon three difference police-citizen contacts: drivers in accidents; victims of crime; and those who received a ticket. The use of the police recruits allows them first hand exposure to community concerns and input. For the Lincoln Police Department, the surveys provide insight into the perception of its police practices by the community. For example, through the surveys, it was revealed that there was dissatisfaction with the lack of police follow up on crimes reported by the victims. Upon investigation, the department discovered that it was not a lack of follow up but rather a lack of communicating to those victims that there was no follow up possible/necessary in their particular case. As a result, officers investigating these calls were instructed to explain to the victim whether follow up was possible or not and why, so the victim would know what to expect.1

Create opportunities for educational exchanges between the police and the community.

A common method of educational exchange is for police departments to host a “citizens’ police academy” to offer members of the community a chance to experience and better understand aspects of the police officer’s job. citizens’ police academies, which utilize a one-way educational process consisting of police instructing the community, should be supplemented by departmental consultation with residents as its policies and strategies are developed. (Community approaches to educating the police are described in the “What the Community Should Do” section below.)

Create “citizens’ police academies” to educate the community about policing.

Citizen academies are becoming very common and are popular with the public because the creation of citizens’ police academies by police departments allows community members some insight into police policies, tactics and training and is seen as a positive development by the community.2 In order to provide a better view of policing and the obstacles which police officers face a police chief suggests the “use [of] citizen police academies [and] scenarios for civilians to illustrate what officers face on the job.”

The citizens’ police academy typically runs one night a week for approximately two to three hours over a period of 9 to 16 weeks. Police personnel typically teach the classes, with trainers with specific expertise responsible for certain sessions. Topics covered include:

  • Crime-scene investigation

  • Traffic accident investigation

  • Drug investigations

  • Criminal law

  • Patrol procedures

  • Communications

  • Crime prevention

  • Courtroom procedures

The citizens’ academies also offer the opportunity for members of communities to see “behind the scenes” work of the police departments, with presentations on subjects including: anti-gang, SWAT, and bomb squads; narcotics and vice investigations; and traffic radar enforcement.

The training is not all lectures -- citizens’ academies offer members of the community opportunities for hands-on training on firearms, fingerprinting, precision-course driving, defensive tactics, criminal investigations, mock traffic stops, and crime scene processing. There may also be field trips or tours to police-related facilities, including detention centers, emergency communications center, crime labs, special investigative units, and ride-alongs with officers during a working shift.

Because of the popularity of the academies, one police chief wants to expand the citizen’s academy, as well as create a “mini-academy” which is focused on more particular issues such as gangs or drugs (for particular neighborhoods). Another police department, in addition to a 13-week (one day a week) police academy program, has created a “Senior Citizens Police Academy” which runs over the course of one week, four hours a day, and a “Teen Police Academy” which is scheduled during the summer for a week.

Establish regular neighborhood meetings between the police and community members.

A regularly scheduled weekly or monthly meeting with the community liaison officer, as well as area patrol officers, allows the community time to voice their concerns and get to know the officers (and the officers to know the members of the community). The meetings are important in that they help engage the community in a meaningful way, identify and prioritize issues of concern, monitor changing community needs, and help solve problems before they grow. The regular meetings offer an opportunity to discover “what is going on in the neighborhood and offer a great conduit for [communication] and there is lots of input from various people” according to one chief of police while another states that the meetings offer “open communication, partnerships and collaboration.”

Maintain communication and follow-up between meetings.

The neighborhood meetings provide an opportunity for the police and the community to interact. Beyond meetings, there need to be open lines of communication so that community members feel comfortable approaching the police with non-emergency concerns. This is especially important in communities where some members may not feel at ease to raise issues of concern publicly at regularly scheduled, formal meetings.

Other communication methods include:

  • community satisfaction surveys

  • videos, information and training made freely available for loan

  • internet with web casts, interactive websites, web conferencing

  • forums (large and small), for both the community leaders as well as people on the street and patrol officers

  • making sure materials are available in the languages of the communities served

Organize forums to discuss policies, tactics, or technology of interest to community.

Policies, tactics, and technology used by police officers may be a mystery to most members of the community. When concerns are raised about certain policies, tactics, or technology – or when police leaders should reasonably predict that concerns will be raised – community forums should be organized to provide information to residents.

The forums should also be used to provide the opportunity for community members to convey related concerns.

For example, if a police department is considering providing Tasers for use by its officers, police leaders should consult with the community and describe why they are considering using the technology. Police leaders should get feedback from the community and respond to its concerns. At the very least, if a department has decided to purchase a new weapon and has failed to consult with the community, it should organize a forum to demonstrate how and why the weapon is used, why the department chose it, how the officers will be trained on it, and so on. Apprehensions regarding certain policies, tactics, and technology can be greatly reduced if police take the time to consult with, and educate, the public about its decisions.

What the Community Should Do

Maintain communication and follow up with the police between neighborhood meetings.

Police leaders are not the only ones responsible for improving communication and follow up. Community leaders should follow up with the police and should make sure that information about police-community efforts is conveyed to the community at large.

To follow up with the police, community leaders should stay in touch by telephone or email.

Several police departments provide for means of maintaining communication and follow-up between meetings through email and cellular telephone contact numbers provided by the police department. However some police officers, once they have gained a rapport with the community leader(s), provide their personal cell phone number so that there is immediate communication if needed. The most commonly used method of follow up is the distribution of the meeting’s minutes which are mailed or emailed out and/or reliance upon the community liaison officer.

Progress Chart (keeping track of identified problems)






(task # 1 to undertake)

Who is responsible for this task

Timetable for completion


Problems encountered

(task # 2 to undertake)

Who is responsible for this task

Timetable for completion


Problems encountered

(task # 2 to undertake)

Who is responsible for this task

Timetable for completion


Problems encountered

Adapted from Joint Community Police Training handbook, issued by the Chicago Police Department (1996).

Canvass for volunteers and establish an active roster.

One of the big difficulties facing community police relations is to maintain the continuing interest and participation of members of the community in neighborhood committees. The police department has continuity because, as an agency, it will ensure that it will continuously have an officer assigned to liaise with the neighborhood (a paid position) as opposed to the community members are all volunteers who have to commit their spare time and resources to the meetings. As one community member notes “The economy is tough, people just don’t have the time to put the effort in to attending regular meetings [so] meetings are usually attended by older people.” Working one or more jobs, family commitments and other pressures may present obstacles to some for a long-term commitment. There are also other challenges in canvassing for volunteers. In discussing the challenges encountered in trying to recruit individuals from smaller minority groups, one community member told us that members of the smaller groups “appear more apathetic or hesitant to advocate, it is hard to identify the leaders or even if there is one”.

Another issue is the community’s antagonism toward the police in some neighborhoods, especially in lower-income areas or in neighborhoods where residents have endured what they consider racially-biased policing or experienced “rougher” policing tactics in relation to problems like drug dealing or gang violence.. That antagonism may also manifest itself towards those individuals or groups who are seen to “cooperate” with the police in such program as Block Watch or neighborhood committees and hence make volunteers less willing to come forward.

Raise awareness of neighborhood meetings.

The time, location, and date of police-community meetings need to be publicized on a continuous and proactive basis. One community activist uses “radio, events and festivals, word of mouth, ESL and literacy programs” to recruit community members and raise awareness, while another states that to reach out, he uses “mailings to those outside the network, faith-based, business, minorities: for example for the Burmese [community] a volunteer will translate [the material] and liaise with [that] community”.

Identify and utilize community assets.

For developing resources and expertise a neighborhood can use “resource mapping” or “asset mapping” which is a process of canvassing the community of the resources which reside within it, financial, technical and personal expertise, so as to use them in the most efficient manner. This can be accomplished through door-to-door surveys or through forums3. Clearly one of the resources is the police officers in the neighborhood, but there are also the social service agencies, the local schools, local businesses and governmental agencies, all of which may have programs available (or a desire to participate in programs) to address community concerns if approached. While not an end in itself, developing an inventory of community assets is also a vehicle for bringing members of the community together, to meet, and to learn from each other. Resource mapping will assist in initializing dialogue with the police and the community about what resources are available, what can be achieved and the commitment needed.

1 West, Maya Harris. Community-centered Policing: A Force for Change. Oakland CA: PolicyLink, 2001, 119-120

2 For more information about citizens’ police academies, see "National Citizens Police Academy Association" at

For Next Chapter click Sustaining Collaborations


Getting Started

Building Police-Community Relationships

Sustaining Collaborations

Bridging the Gap Between Diverse Cultures

Being Prepared for a Crisis



“How-To” Check List for the Community and Police

Sample Scenario

Appendix 1

Appendix 2


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