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.



  1. Timely topic; see this Pew Center poll just released today:

    We are familiar with many of these sentiments, but there are two that merit more discussion. More than half (56%) of blacks polled believed that one of the drivers of the recent protests was an anti-police bias. A strong majority of whites and blacks also believe that the recent protests were driven by a genuine desire for accountability. The police abuse narrative is driven by those who benefit from that narrative. The preacher needs the devil. The crusader needs to find a wrong to be avenged. The sad paradox is illuminated by the second sentiment I’ll point out.

    More people, both black and white, have greater confidence in the police than the courts and government, but it is the police who are targets of black rage. Noticeably Hispanic sentiments about the police are largely positive. The police are the only group who still care about minority communities. All others have abandoned them and are silent on the sidelines hoping that no one notices their failures. If this continues even the police might abandon the helpless.

    The Ferguson effect is real and every police organization in America is having significant difficulty recruiting qualified applicants. Evaluation of policing has become unmoored from fact and a false narrative is now widely accepted.


  2. I just fail to see the logic or reason in a black woman calling anyone who points out the fact that her baby is much more at risk from other black babies a racist. We certainly do need to listen to each other better but angry rhetoric and name calling is not a way to get there.

    How about a reasonable, calm and considered discourse where we begin by identifying areas of agreement first?


    1. As a friend recently reminded me, “And whose ox is the one being gored, yours or…?” We are into an era of deep anger and emotions. Rational arguments usually do not work at that level.


  3. Mr. Bowman, if blacks have so much confidence in the police, would we not have race riots in this country’s history and the police not protecting the blacks from the KKK let alone keeping the institution of slavery alive, enforcing Jim Crow laws and Black Code Laws, plus all the shootings? Would the current police chief of Montogomery, Alabama, have to make a public apology on behalf of his department to the Afro-Americans for his department’s role in keeping them under control and not protecting them as the police are sworn to do so? On the show Democracy Now, they had a segment about the Tulsa race riot of 1921 where 300 blacks were killed. I doubt those Afro-Americans had a lot confidence in the police before and after the riots. You had the Chief of Tulsa making an apology for his department participating in the riot.

    “Evaluation of policing has become unmoored from fact and a false narrative is now widely accepted.”

    The police can’t seem to do their own evaluation of what constitutes policing in an impartial, fair manner.

    If the police are subject of black rage, the police play an enormous part in creating it and they know it.

    “”We certainly do need to listen to each other better but angry rhetoric and name calling is not a way to get there.”

    “How about a reasonable, calm and considered discourse where we begin by identifying areas of agreement first?”

    That would be fine if the police were trained to listen to people first, understand their point of view, and tried to reach some agreement with who they are talking to instead of trying to win every argument because they carry a badge. Of course, in the last 46 years, our top political, government, social, religious, and economic leaders don’t want to listen to the people below them because they have no interest in sharing power with the rest of the population plus creating a culture of the winner takes it all and the culture of that they are the boss and if you don’t like it, too bad.


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