The relationship between communities and the police is often fraught with mutual distrust and skepticism. Our aim in this project was to explore possibilities for dialogue between average citizens and police officers on a variety of issues of mutual concern. We wanted to find out whether an honest and productive exchange of views among such participants was possible and if so, what kinds of discussions would develop, and toward what practical ends could they be applied? Could dialogue between community members and police increase public safety, promote healthier neighborhoods or alleviate tensions between the police and residents?
With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the New York Community Trust, Public Agenda conducted fieldwork in New Haven, Connecticut; San Antonio, Texas; and New York City during the latter half of 2004. Across the three sites, we interviewed numerous law enforcement officials, from patrol officers to upper brass, and held 12 focus groups with various kinds of residents. In addition, we developed four new Choicework guides (Preventing Crime, Promoting Public Safety; Improving Police-Community Relations; Ensuring School Safety and Preventing Terrorism and Protecting Civil Liberties) that were used to structure five dialogue sessions held across the three sites.
No matter in what capacity they serve, for most officials, "community forums" with the general public are often unproductive, unpleasant affairs; more gripe sessions than true problem-solving opportunities. In this project, we experimented with ways of organizing such dialogues that would avoid these problems and result in a constructive exchange of views leading to practical steps and solutions.
These sessions brought together several police officers and anywhere from eight to 30 members of the general public. In New York City for example, a special bi-lingual dialogue was held between members of the Latino immigrant community in Queens, and officers from the Community Affairs Department. We discovered that strong majorities of residents in all three cities wanted more contact and dialogue with the police. For their part, the police tended to be more divided on the issue--some saw developing their relationship with the community as integral to doing their job well, others were much more ambivalent about community involvement.
Yet whatever the starting point of participants, the pilot dialogues involving "regular" people and the police turned out to be highly civil, productive affairs that often led toward actionable results. Based on our experiences in this initiative, we believe that police-community dialogue offers a powerful tool to improve the relationship between communities and the police, as well as offering a complement to more traditional community policing strategies.