police-community-relationsA client commented on two buttons I had pinned on my office bulletin board. One said, “Black Lives Matter.” The other said, “Support Your Local Police.”

She said, “Can we be for both?”

My response was “How can we not?”

It has been my honor this spring and summer to facilitate Cultural Competency Seminars with several police departments. I’ve observed how all of society’s troubles get laid at a police department’s feet: unemployment, substandard schools, proliferation of guns, lack of drug treatment, a dearth of mental health services, and on and on.

I teach the officers and laugh at their jokes and am inspired by their insights and remember that they risk their lives everyday. That’s something that gets said lightly, but I picture them – now names and faces in front of me – and see loved ones saying goodbye to them before their day’s shift each with the same hope, “Please come home to me tonight.”

How many of us have a job where it’s a real, daily thought that “I might not come home tonight”?

Given the amount of crime police officers see and deal with and all the things that go right in so many highly dangerous situations, it is understandable that they can feel unfairly attacked when the public protests against them. No one comprehends all they go through like their own brothers and sisters on the force. It can become too easy for them to close ranks and become isolated from the communities they serve.

On the community side, racial profiling is a new name for a phenomenon that some people have been talking about and experiencing for decades. And, in some newer immigrant communities, the police represent a whole other level of authority and threat. Coming from countries where armed authorities had free reign, it is easy to see their new police force through the same lens.

You can’t take away people’s experience and history. Our police forces have been used to keep the haves and have-nots separated and those seen as “less than” in their place.

People want and deserve a police force that is understanding of and accountable to the communities they serve. However, our long history of racism and lack of opportunity breeds fear, anger and mistrust. Some people’s experience of the police has been the complete opposite of “Officer Friendly.”

Both cultures have biases about each other; both cultures, police and civilian, need conflict management skills and ways to interact that include a broad cross-section of viewpoints where we can build mutual respect, understanding and trust.

However, 70-90 % of police training is devoted to laws and internal police procedures while 70-90% of actual police duties call for skilled interpersonal interaction and communication. The police tell me they get very little firearms training let alone training to work with their biases (biases that we all have). Rarely do they learn and practice conflict resolution skills for the many complex and, frankly, bewildering conditions in which deadly force episodes can occur.

We need for police to be more involved in their communities to assess community tensions as well as community strengths. We need them to get to know people as people and understand that, at times, unjustified violence hasn’t simply been the result of a few “bad apples” but that police forces have been used as a tool of systemic oppression. Therefore, the mistrust in some communities goes much deeper than figuring out if an individual is a “good” or “bad” cop.

In many cities, there are wonderful outreach programs where police officers get involved in community sports teams or DARE and other programs in the schools. Some police forces have made herculean efforts to diversify their force so that people can see officers who look like them and who might understand their history of past and present experiences with the police.

But we also need the community to get more involved with the police. Every group of police officers I train asks for this. Many police forces run Citizens’ Academies where community people can learn from the inside out what police officers’ jobs entail and how they can help and support the police.

Better police and community relationships are essential and not a panacea for all of society’s ills. Together, we need to have the political will to take on our larger social issues. A multi-prong understanding of the issues we’ve inherited from a long history of racism and thoughtful, strategic action is the only way we will finally build healthy communities.

This article may be shared if the following credit is given: Susan O’Halloran works with police forces and other nonprofits plus for-profit businesses to help create a world that works for everyone. Sue can be reached at: www.SusanOHalloran.com