-Defining Trust Between Police & Community

This article was published by LawEnforcementToday.com on March 18, 2018.



How Do You Define Trust Between a Police Department and its Community?

Captain Bob Woolverton (Ret)

March 2018


How do you define trust between a police department and its community?  This is a question I ask every Middle Management class I teach at the state police academy.  Normally this question is met with a response that sounds like crickets in an open field, coupled with blank stares that resemble a deer caught in the headlights of a car.  But that’s okay; we’re normally so busy with answering calls for service and all the other daily demands we don’t devote much thought to such a question.

Then I’ll ask for a show of hands of how many people in the class are married.  Since the class is mostly tenured officers with rank, nearly everyone raises their hand.  Then to facilitate a better understanding of the concept of trust, I modify the original question, “How do you define trust in a marriage?”  Again, crickets and blank stares.  I know everyone in the class knows what trust feels like, but we rarely take time to articulate into words what we feel.

After some prompting, spontaneous discussion ensues, and we ultimately agree on a definition that is something like:

Trust is the result of a shared value system and belief that when the trustee is faced with varying circumstances, their responsive behavior will progress along a predictable path, that is consistent with our shared values.

We can all visualize different circumstances surrounding our marriages and how this definition of a shared values system might apply to defining trust within our marriages.  The key point to understand is the components that build trust are the same regardless if it’s building trust in a marriage or building trust in a business relationship.  Now, let’s apply those same ideas of shared values and predictable responsive behaviors back to the original question.  How do you define trust between a police department and the community it serves?

Every community has expectations of its police department, and those expectations are a result of the value system the community has.  Therefore, the community’s expectation is when their police department is faced with varying circumstances, the police department’s responsive behavior will progress along a predictable path, that is consistent with the values of the community.  However, when an interpersonal contact occurs on the street, and the community has no trust regarding shared values, conflict and resistance usually results.

Value systems vary from community to community. Therefore there is not one universal solution applicable everywhere.  However, one thing appears to be universal in all communities – treating all people fairly.  In 2003, a MORI poll (MORI is the U.K. equivalent of a Gallup poll in the U.S.) asked respondents to rate the importance of 20 possible functions of the criminal justice system.  72% of the respondents rated treating all people fairly, as “absolutely essential,” making this function the most important function in the eyes of those polled.1  This result suggests treating all people fairly is a safe foundation to build upon for all community trust solutions.  Assuming we agree everyone wants the police to treat them fairly, and with dignity and respect, what’s the next step in identifying what your community values regarding police performance?

The next step sounds easy, but it is not.  Matter-of-fact, from what I’ve repeatedly seen at many different levels during my career, our industry does not execute the next step very well at all.  The next step is – Listen AND Understand.  Author and TED Celebrity Simon Sinek articulated the listening process perfectly in a speech to a Youth Leadership group.  While describing effective listening skills, Sinek said:

“Simply sit there, take it all in, and the only thing you’re allowed to do is ask questions, so you can understand what they mean, and why they have the opinion they have.  You must understand from where they are speaking.  Why they have the opinion they have – not just what they are saying.  And at the end, you will get your turn.  It sounds easy; it’s not.”2

Historically, as an industry, we are quick to defend our actions which pre-empts our ability to listen thoroughly and understand in the fashion Sinek describes.  A recent example is a commentary written by a former Assistant Director of the FBI and posted on cnsnews.com on November 17, 2017.  In the commentary, the former Assistant Director criticized U.S. Representative Shelia Jackson Lee for her comments towards and questions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a House Judiciary Committee meeting.  During this meeting, Representative Jackson Lee was questioning the title and content of a threat assessment issued by the FBI.  In his posted commentary the former Assistant Director was technically correct in all his assertions regarding intelligence activity at the Federal level and the contents of the threat assessment.  However, he also criticized the Representative for her personal bias, anti-police animosity, and described “ignorance” on multiple issues.3

The former Assistant Director’s commentary is merely one current example of how, as an industry, we are quick to defend our actions, and in cases like this disparage someone with an opposing viewpoint.  These behaviors do nothing to bridge the gap between law enforcement and ethnic minorities.  Matter-of-fact it broadens the divide and, as seen in this case, provides a platform for more divisive, aversive social behavior in the online comments section of the article.  In this example comments were written referring to the Representative as the N-word, as well as buffoon, stupid, ignorant, and “Sheila ‘Queen of the Jungle’ Jackson”.  The “invisible” nature of online interactions emboldens people to engage in commentary that would never happen in a face-to-face dialogue.4  Remember, this is a woman who has been elected repeatedly by her community – so she must be representing the views and values of her community.  But, as an industry, are we including her in a conversation that builds bridges and builds trust?  Are we even trying to “understand” from where she speaks?  Not in this case.

As an industry, we seem to repeat the same behaviors time and time again.  Let’s reflect on the past and evaluate what we have accomplished in regards to improving police and minority neighborhood relationships over the last 50 years.

Police use of force and mistreatment of minority citizens became a prominent theme during the 1960s. Research conducted during that period showed that many police officers held racist attitudes toward minorities.  Several of the riots that engulfed American cities occurred in the aftermath of police actions such as shootings, traffic stops, or raids occurring in minority neighborhoods.  The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968) found that “deep hostility between police and ghetto communities” was a primary determinant of the urban riots that it studied. The U.S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, began to scrutinize closely the activities of the police. In several “landmark” cases, the Court restricted the powers of the police to conduct searches, obtain confessions, or prevent detainees from consulting with an attorney. While civil libertarians praised this “due process revolution,” others complained loudly that these new rules interfered with the ability of the police to fight crime.  All of these factors combined to produce an epidemic crisis of legitimacy for the American police.

From 1968 to 1971, three national commissions recommended sweeping reforms intended to improve the relationships between police and communities, reduce the levels of racism, limit the use of force, and encourage lawful behavior by the police.”5

Here we are 50 years later, how have we done as an industry on improving relationships between the police and their minority communities?  It should go without saying we have not done well.  I have witnessed it time and time again – we do not listen very well.  As law enforcement, we are accustomed to exerting control over a situation and restoring order – in our minds, we know what is best. Our instinct is to exert control – that’s what we do on thousands of calls for service every day.  In discussions regarding trust, it is the wrong instinct.  We tend to exert the same controlling behaviors during public meetings and conversations – “we know what is best.”  What history has shown us is if we continue down the same path of “knowing what’s best” we will do nothing to bridge the gap between law enforcement and minority communities – evidenced by the lack of progress over the last 50 years.  If we fail as an industry to represent the values of our communities, we are essentially an invading force.  It is absolutely essential we listen to our communities.

When we explore techniques for effective listening, in his book, Never Split the  Difference – Negotiate as if your life depended on it, author and retired FBI Hostage Negotiator, Chris Voss, describes a listening and understanding process aspiring to hear the response, “that’s right.”  Voss describes a process of listening, asking clarifying questions to understand the other person’s perspective, and then paraphrasing the understanding.  The goal is to paraphrase the other person’s perspective accurately enough, so they respond with, “That’s right.”  The response may also come in the form of, “that’s it exactly,” or “you hit the nail on the head.”6

When the other person responds to your paraphrase with, “that’s right,” it creates a subconscious point of agreement (without having given-in) and affirms you now fully understand what they are trying to say.  It is at this point, and not anytime before this point the other person will be willing to listen to what you have to say.  I have used this technique many times, and frequently, especially with minor issues, what I find is when someone wants to file a complaint about the police, once we get to “that’s right” they are satisfied.  What they want is to have someone listen to them and understand their feelings.  It is more important they feel the police “understand” what they experienced more than filing a complaint.  Filing a complaint was merely a means to an outcome – an outcome of someone understanding their experience.

Our industry needs to spend more time seeking to understand before being understood, especially on big community issues.  Seeking to ask clarifying questions, so we truly understand the point of view a person holds and why they hold that view – and we only accomplish that by getting to, “that’s right.”  Once we get to “that’s right,” then we get our chance to share our perspective with a recipient that is now more receptive to what we have to say.

In the example earlier of the former Assistant Director and the U.S. Representative, imagine how an interaction could have been different if the goal was to understand why Representative Jackson Lee feels the way she feels, and from where she is speaking.  While a single conversation likely will not create an immediate resolution it could have been a step in the right direction of building trust.

Our communities are speaking to us and telling us loud and clear, they do not trust us.  In Washington State, there is an effort to modify state law making it easier to prosecute police officers who use lethal force.7  In January of 2018, a Federal Judge denied a Washington municipality’s request to overturn a $15.1 million jury verdict stemming from the fatal 2013 shooting of an unarmed black man.  The jury’s verdict awarded $8.6 million in compensatory damages, and another $6.5 million in punitive damages holding three SWAT officers personally liable for those damages.8  Our communities are speaking to us loud and clear.  Are we listening and understanding what they are saying?

There is a growing concern among many of my colleagues that our industry is on the verge of an epidemic crisis regarding community trust.  We must do something different.  What we have been doing for the last 50 years clearly is not working.  As an industry, we must become better listeners.  It is also essential our work performance reflects the values of our communities.  It is essential our communities trust us.  As we have seen in our definition of trust, trust only occurs once we embrace a shared values system – when the community is confident when the police are confronted with varying circumstances, the police response will proceed along a predictable path of fairness, dignity, and respect.

The first step to building trust is agreeing the foundational shared value is treating all people fairly and with dignity and respect.  The next step is to listen and understand the concerns and perspectives of people in our community by asking clarifying questions, properly paraphrasing and aspiring to get to the responsive statement of “that’s right.”  We must listen and understand what our communities are telling us.  Then, and only then, will we begin building shared values, begin building trust, provide the quality of police service the community desires, and avert a crisis of police legitimacy.



1.    Jonathan Jackson, Ben Bradford, “Trust and Confidence in The Police,” National Policing Improvement Agency policing “’Wiki’, p. 7

2.    Simon Sinek, “5 Rules to Follow as You Find Your Spark.” Lesson 4 10:14, retrieved 3-12-2018 from: https://youtu.be/8l-YpiiBH4o

3.    Ron Hosko, “Anti-Police Hypocrisy & Ignorance on Full Display in House Oversight Hearing,” CNSNews.com, retrieved 3-12-2018, https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/ron-hosko/anti-police-hypocrisy-ignorance-full-display-house-oversight-hearing-tuesday

4.    Martin Dempsey, Ori Brafman, “Radical Inclusion, What the Post-911 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership,” (Kindle Location 1063) Missionday LLC.  Kindle Edition

5.    Edward R. Maguire, “Measuring the Performance of Law Enforcement Agencies – Part 1 of a 2-Part article,” CALEA Update Magazine 2003, Issue 83, retrieved 3-12-2018 from: http://www.calea.org/calea-update-magazine/issue-83/measuring-performance-law-enforcement-agencies-part-1of-2-oart-articl

6.    Chris Voss, Tahl Raz, “Never Split the Difference, Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It,” (p.124). HarperCollins.  Kindle Edition.

7.    Bill Radke, Amina Al-Sadi, “Does Washington State Go Too Far in Protecting Police Who Use Deadly Force?” KUOW.org, Retrieved 3-12-2018: http://kuow.org/post/does-washington-state-go-too-far-protecting-police-who-use-deadly-force

8.    Sean Robinson, “Judge Upholds $15M Verdict Against Lakewood in Fatal Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Man,” TheNewsTribune.com, Retrieved 3-12-2018; http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/crime/article194396599.html



Capt. Bob Woolverton (ret), is a 34-year veteran of the Bothell, Washington police department, and is second-generation law enforcement.  (His father retired from the Seattle Police Department.)  He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, (Session 183), holds a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Leadership from Bluefield College, Bluefield, VA, and a Master’s degree in Management and Leadership from Western Governor’s University - Washington.  He is also a Leadership instructor at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center.  His personal mission statement is; Lead, Teach, and Inspire.  www.BobWoolverton.com