Building Trust: A Primer

Sometimes I scratch my head when the dialogue that should be happening in between police and the communities they serve doesn’t happen. After all, mistakes happen. But when it does, trust is eroded and yet trust is necessary for effective policing and community safety.

Let’s think about what should be done after there is a break in trust between police and community members.

I learned some things about building trust when I was a chief of police, but in the ensuing years as a practicing pastor, I learned a lot more.

Let’s look at it this way: what should happen when trust is broken between two people – between a husband and wife or between family members who wish to maintain the relationship? The key here is that both parties wish to rebuild the trust. They want to trust each another once again.

In my pastoral life, when I counseled couples in which trust has been broken (usually an extra-martial affair) some things needed to immediately happen if trust and the relationship was to be restored:

  1. There must be a sincere apology.
  2. There must be obvious and visible steps taken by the offender to reassure the offended person of his/her willingness to begin steps toward re-building the trust that was lost.

The first of those steps is transparency and visibility of the offender; that is, the offending person must open up his/her life and activities to the offended party (transparency) and be stand up for his/her behavior from this point on (accountability) in order to “re-connect” with the offended person. (In marital situations, this involved sharing mobile phones, credit card statements, etc.)

Now let’s apply this to policing. When a break in trust occurs (examples most often involve the use of physical force or physical arrest of a person in which the public feels offended by the behavior of police). [See also disparate trust levels between police and citizens of color.]

While the behavior of the police may be argued and defended to be both legal and according to policy and training methods, it is simply not perceived as right or fair by a substantial number of community members. (That is why arguing about an internal investigation, or the district attorney finding the officer’s behavior was legal or the police chief saying the behavior is consist with “policy and training” doesn’t get to the core issue which is the way in which people [often young or of color] are treated by “the system.”)

An example would be two white officers arresting a mouthy teenage girl of color by taking her to the pavement and handcuffing her is not an acceptable practice to many in the community. Questions arise — couldn’t the police use other methods and de-escalate the situation? Was this force necessary? For many, it will seem excessive and unnecessary — particularly to many members of racial or ethnic minority communities who have had negative police encounters. Even without personal experience, such acts tend to dredge up negative historical images. Couldn’t police be more sensitive to the situation? Are unconscious racial biases in operation here? Would they treat their own daughters in this manner?

What should a police chief do in situations like these? (Given policing today one would think that police leaders would in this day and age be very effective in responding to these situations. Nationally, my observation is that they are not.)

Incidents like these (and especially those resulting in a person’s death) have become part of urban political “theater” with these prominent roles of police chiefs and mayors (caught between the community, the police union, liberal and conservative elective officials, and various interest groups in the community calling for the officers to be either fired or backed up.

I suggest that when such an incident occurs the following needs to happen:

  1. The police chief stands up and generously listens to community members at various forums in order to hear and understand what is going on and the feelings that are present (which may only be part and parcel of the real problem within the community).
  2. Mistakes are sincerely acknowledged, believable apologies made when a mistake occurs.
  3. A remedial action plan is developed with community input. It is visibly and prominently put into operation and results measured.
  4. The police department surveys the community as to the effectiveness of “the plan” (which most likely will address issues of police use of force, respect to citizens, and various trust levels within the community).
  5. Information (data) is developed through these surveys (including input from persons who have contact with police including those who have been stopped and even arrested by police) and shared with the community.
  6. The data and responsive organizational improvements should drive visible, obvious, and verified improvements in police conduct and behavior within the community. Levels of trust within the community should increase.
  7. Police continue to be both transparent and accountable with regard to their work actions within the community. This means that positive, daily contacts between police and citizens in the affected community should be increasing – this is called “community-oriented policing” [enter “community oriented policing” into the search engine on this blog and you will find a variety of posts which explain this important way (not program) to deliver community police services.]

No one wants to live in a community in which the police are not trusted and supported. No one! Because, absent trust and support, the nature of keeping public order will result in police who are quick to use force, disrespectful of “civilians,” and will use fear and suspicion to maintain order.

The job of a police chief in a democracy, therefore, is to field and lead an organization that is respected, trusted and supported by those served.

When that occurs, crime and disorder will take care of itself because it’s a community responsibility and Robert Peel’s 7th principle of policing comes into effect:

“The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.”