Is Community Control the Answer?

An argument for giving citizens free rein to hire, discipline and train police in their neighborhoods.

[My article was originally published online Sept. 28, 2019, 7:55 p.m. EDT  by USA TODAY.]

In the police world, there are two viewpoints that drive just about everything that happens: There’s the police view and the even more internal police view. Traditionally, everyone else’s is secondary.

When I was considering retirement from the force, my police officer wife knew what was ahead. She said, “David, if you still want to be a change agent and want police to listen to what you have to say, don’t retire. Once you’re out the door, you’re out. No one listens to consultants.” She was right.

Nevertheless, I’ve pressed on for police improvement. After retirement, I went back to academia to teach introduction to criminal justice at a small Wisconsin university. My colleagues and I recently hosted our second annual conference on building police trust and legitimacy — one of the pillars of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. For the second year now, we’ve brought police practitioners and community leaders together so that they can figure out what needs to change in order to improve police practices in underserved communities.

But as I sat through conference meetings, I realized that these two groups — cops and citizens — are no closer to being able to listen to one another.

I was struck by the cry of a young black woman who stood before a crowded room of cops cradling her newborn in her arms. She very frankly explained her worst fear: that one day, after her son was grown, an officer would kill him. She was a college graduate, an activist, a single mother and an organizer for her local chapter of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition — a group that was formed last year after a Madison police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson. Too many black men across America are dying, she said. Her response has been to advocate for community control of police — the people would have the authority to hire, discipline and train cops and develop police policy.

This young mother wasn’t calling for a takeover of her local police force. She wanted to ensure the safety of her son. She and many African-American activists like her are scared. Their goal is to build trust.

Allowing citizens to help ensure that good men and good women are recruited as cops is a step in the right direction. Paying cops well is another step. We must expand their training. And we must give the community a bigger voice and role in training and discipline. Police must start thinking of themselves as lifesavers and peacekeepers.

If I could share one thing with young police officers today it’s this: Your safety and your effectiveness depend on your ability to listen, understand and relate to those you serve. It requires that you work to overcome your biases and make fair, respectful decisions.

If police officers cannot or will not do this, we are destined to experience a continuing number of protests across our nation in response to police shootings.