Gains in Police-Community Trust Slow but ‘Notable’ in Cities Targeted by National Initiative

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Photo by Giordio Montersino via flickr

An ambitious initiative to improve police-community relations and begin the process of “reconciliation” between law enforcement and communities that have experienced a history of systemic bias at the hands of authorities has achieved some modest successes, according to an Urban Institute study released Thursday.

In the vast majority of communities that experience high levels of crime —particularly communities of color—strong feelings of distrust in the police are linked to low rates of citizen reporting of crime.

To combat this, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, launched in 2014 what the Urban Institute called the “largest and most comprehensive effort ever undertaken to tackle police-community trust and mistrust in the United States.”

The Initiative, which included targeted training of police officers in the areas of community relations and recommendations for changes in departmental policy, has achieved notable, though moderate, increases in community confidence and a corresponding modest boost in police legitimacy between 2015 and 2017, according to the four-part study.

For example, 56 percent of residents surveyed in the six cities that were the focus of the Initiative, residents agreed with the statement that “police officers will treat you differently because of your race/ethnicity.”

Two years later, a second survey found the percentage had dropped to 49 percent.

Only 30 percent of community residents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that police “treat people with dignity and respect” in 2015.  In 2017, the number had increased to 38 percent.

While the changes in opinion may seem small, researchers said they represented steps in the right direction, and reflected the fact that changes of opinions in an area as sensitive as policing wouldn’t happen overnight.

The researchers noted that the “moderate” success so far of the model in the cities examined by the study had to be balanced against an increasingly fierce debate about policing in at-risk communities.

“The evaluation findings show promise for the National Initiative model and suggest that the initiative was moderately successful in achieving its intended goals of training officers to be more equitable and respectful of community officers and improving police practices and police-community relations,” the researchers said in a summary of their findings.

“However, we are unable to conclude that the National Initiative activities were the sole causes of the measured improvements in residents’ perceptions. Changes in community conditions and incidents within the departments and in American policing more broadly could have influenced residents’ perceptions of the police and their neighborhood conditions.

“Nevertheless, the results suggest key and notable improvements, particularly in the cities that implemented the training early on and engaged in comprehensive and extensive reconciliation conversations.”

The partner cities studied by the researchers were: Birmingham, Ala., Fort Worth, Tx., Gary, In., Minneapolis, Minn., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Stockton, Ca.

The initiative was spearheaded by John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), in partnership with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), and Yale Law School (YLS).

The Urban Institute focused on police officer training, departmental policy changes, and community engagement “designed to repair and strengthen police-community relationships by addressing the deep historical roots of distrust in the police among people of color and other marginalized populations.”

“It is crucial to note that although community perceptions improved in the aggregate, views of police and police legitimacy remain largely negative in the neighborhoods most affected by crime and disadvantage,” the study said.

 The Initiative focused on three pillars of change.

The first pillar was procedural justice, which focused on how interactions and how that relates to crime rates.

The second pillar, implicit bias, focused on “how unconscious biases may shape police officers’ interactions with members of the public and result in racially disparate outcomes even when those interactions are not overtly racist.”

The third pillar was reconciliation, which focused on having candid conversations between residents and police alike.

As many expected, not everything was smooth sailing at the start of the program.

The Initiative was met with skepticism stemming from both parties, the Urban Institute researchers reported, noting that officers felt that the outside experts from the Initiative were not “sufficiently informed,” while the community members were reluctant to become involved .

In 2015, researchers sought out residents to complete an initial opinion-based survey. After knocking on 3,947 doors across all six cities, researchers could never get more than 43 percent of a response rate.

The surveys included a broad range of questions about their thoughts about the police department, police’s potential bias, their use of force, and how effectively they follow the law.

Researchers followed up with the same questionnaire in 2017 to see if the opinions changed— and the opinions changed consistently on each question for the better.

Among those surveyed in the first wave of 2015 and the final wave in 2017, the average age was 47.5, and African-American residents in the cities made up an average of 61.4 percent of the demographics.

Over the course of the program, the Initiative developed a “Reconciliation Process” for local police and the neighborhoods, which involved candid conversations about their experiences, and “listening sessions”crafted to allow the communication of different  perspectives while refraining from “reacting defensively to critical or emotional statements.”

Researchers found that  addressing challenges head on  boosted overall morale and made other policy implementations easier.

The new police department policy implementations that were conceived from the “Reconciliation Process” sit-downs included:

        • Birmingham modified policy language to explicitly reinforce commitment to unbiased policing (2017);
        • Fort Worth created a new Police and Community Relationships general order, including the role of Procedural Justice Unit (2018);
        • Minneapolis began reporting officer use-of-force, complaint, stop, crime, and arrest statistics online (2017);
        • Pittsburgh began posting all policies online for transparency (2018), and;
        • Stockton modified field training officer evaluations on their understanding of “procedural justice” (2016).

But the study noted that the city of Gary, In., reported no policy changes or new implementations.

One of the principal takeaways from the study was that without consistent leadership from the senior management of police agencies, the process of building trust was unlikely to be successful. Researchers noted that in four of the six cities, police chiefs had changed during the course of the period studied.

“Changes in police leadership particularly disrupted the reconciliation and policy change work, delaying progress even when the new chief supported the work,” the researchers said.

Police officers in the cities reported feeling that if they had someone to manage them while going through a transition like this, it would make changes a lot easier.

The full three reports on the Initiative can be downloaded here. An overview of the research findings can be downloaded here.

Additional Reading: Let’s Keep Bias Out of Our Legal System

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.

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