Three lessons learned on community-police relations

Charlotte is the just latest scene of the nationwide challenge of solving fraying community-police relations.
Charlotte is the just latest scene of the nationwide challenge of solving fraying community-police relations.

Incidents around the country of alleged and/or proven use of excessive police force against minority citizens and subsequent protests have sparked soul-searching by public officials and calls for action. Charlotte is the latest scene for this unsettling challenge.

I’d like to share three basic lessons that emerged from my participation in two recent responses: a series of police-community conversations over the past year in Wilmington and a recent panel discussion between Charlotte public administrators (representing city and county governments and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police) for students in UNC Charlotte’s Master of Public Administration program.

Symptoms of deeper issues

Attention to law enforcement officers and to government response to protests is certainly important. One police official noted we need to learn from training in other countries where there is greater emphasis on first creating distance and assessing a threatening situation instead of immediate engagement. Managing protests requires on-the-ground coordination and understanding the delicate balance between respecting the public right to protest and protecting property and public safety.

On a deeper level, it’s equally critical to address the fear among police operating in African-American neighborhoods that have a history of distrusting law enforcement and “guns everywhere,” as one police official said. In turn, residents fear police who seem to face little accountability for their actions. After the protests, one government official noted how they underestimated the level of pain and frustration in the community over conditions such as affordable housing, jobs, and an overall sense of inequality and powerlessness.

Social media – blessing and curse

The “new normal” means many residents can record events and make them instantly available to scores of people. In the Charlotte shooting of Keith Scott, the cell phone recording released by the family was seen by 500,000 people within hours. Viewers quickly make their own assessments of what they see without context. Unlike years past, today statements flow without any filtering by professional journalists who work to verify information before publication or broadcasting.

Such technology’s potential benefit is a more transparent society where those with authority and power have checks on behavior that in the past was not visible to the public. The potential disadvantage is a limited ability by public officials and professional journalists to interpret events, provide context and add to public understanding.

Better outreach needed

A police official stressed that for community relations to improve, police must be better listeners. Listening is not always easy for people accustomed to giving orders and telling the public procedures to follow. At the same time, members of the public don’t always encounter police with an open mind. They may make assumptions about motives because of history and can be openly hostile to police who are just doing their jobs.

Community policing efforts are an attempt to make police more visible in neighborhoods beyond just arrests, to increase familiarity and build relationships. But it will take a change of heart on both sides for things to improve. An old saying applies: To get respect you have to give respect. For government officials other than police, it is also clear more effective, continuous approaches – such as ongoing engagement and dialogue – are needed for local officials to better feel the pulse of the community. Inviting residents to open venting sessions at the government center is not enough; local officials need to go into communities and engage all types of grassroots groups, not just those reached through traditional paths, such as religious leaders.

These themes are just a sample of what is being learned by efforts across the country to address police-community relations and tension in neighborhoods where anger and frustration roil beneath the surface. In Charlotte as elsewhere, we need the collaboration of government, nonprofits, universities and community gatekeepers to focus energy and resources on the deeper issues in play.

Perhaps most important, we need everyone to see shootings and protests as our issue, not their issue, and to hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for real dialogue and concrete action.

Tom Barth is director of UNC Charlotte’s master of public administration program. Email: