Dialogue + Engagement: The Key Drivers of Change in Policing

Kenneth A. Bouche

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Nov 20, 2017

Last Thursday, Debra Kirby and I publicly presented the results of our final report on the Ann Arbor Police Department’s (AAPD) community engagement practices to both the community and the Human Rights Commission, with the Mayor and City Council in attendance. The report outlined that the AAPD is a good police agency that — like most police agencies — can improve, particularly in the areas of engagement, transparency and dialogue with its community.

I was moved by the passion I witnessed and the range of perspective that was shared. This included the fact that some members of the community criticized our approach, our methodology and what they described as our bias toward supporting the police. I disagreed with that characterization, but I recognized it as a valid perspective. Overall, the period of community comment was truly illuminating.

Building Blocks for Trust

Our practice is deeply engaged in assessing the mistrust that exists in many communities, and I personally spend a lot of time thinking about how we, as a society, can work together to repair that dynamic. Our meeting in Ann Arbor brought forward some of the ongoing issues that law enforcement and their communities face in developing fair, consistent police practices supported by transparency and mutual trust and engagement.

In the hopes of beginning a constructive dialogue, I approached a small group after the meeting who had demanded change and had offered a blistering critique of our work. I wanted to commend the individuals on their genuine enthusiasm regarding this issue and attempt to start a discussion about the importance of their work, beliefs and voice, despite our disagreement regarding my team’s approach.

And while we had just laid the groundwork for significant, groundbreaking changes to re-organize Ann Arbor’s policing strategy and drive community involvement, some members of the community did not see that; they wanted drastic change, and they wanted it now.

Change in Policing – It Is Not All or Nothing

Change is hard — and it takes time. Like a marriage, it requires commitment to a future that is more important than any individual goal, and it can’t be done alone. It requires mutual agreement on what success looks like for all aspects of the community, and the understanding that lasting change that improves everyone’s lives is always better than quick, drastic, punitive change, which we have seen repeatedly fail. It requires that both sides listen to one another, even if it means coming back to the table many times to develop a level of trust that allows mistakes to be made — and they will be made — that are used to learn, improve and progress.

Can change in policing happen quickly? In some cases, absolutely. For example, most professional police agencies recognize that police pursuits cause more harm than good, and have either banned them entirely or restricted them substantially. After Ferguson, many agencies saw that while the use of military equipment in policing may keep officers safe, it destroys community trust — this led to many communities and police departments across the country quickly discontinuing their use.

The issue at hand is one driven by perceptions and beliefs — actions by the police may be designed to keep officers safe and be legally correct, but they are often severe and, in some communities, have disparate impact, especially on minority groups. When people feel that they have been wronged — repeatedly — over a long period of time, anger, resentment and mistrust is natural. Change in these areas requires ownership, hard work, the ability to hold politicians and others accountable, and the willingness to openly discuss issues, viewpoints and solutions.

Encouraging Engagement and Dialogue

We recognize the most important factor in driving change is to promote open and honest dialogue like that at the Ann Arbor meeting — even if the conversations are uncomfortable. If we don’t listen, acknowledge and respect the viewpoints of all affected by a problem, we cannot find a common-ground solution. I have devoted most of my professional career to police service — but that does not mean that I or any other police officer cannot be part of the change to build community trust, dialogue and direct engagement on how police serve the community. Police see the need for change, and many officers and their families have directly experienced the issues that challenge our trust in law enforcement.

Just as the problems have emerged over time, so will the solutions. Not every stakeholder to the problem shares an identical perspective.

Effective policing only occurs with the consent of the people, and the responsibility for successful law enforcement is shared between the police and the community. The process needs to be mutually owned. That mutual ownership requires us to collectively understand that developing good police-community relationships is not about “them” – it is about “us,” and we all have to listen, especially when we disagree.

In the end, we are encouraged by the Ann Arbor presentation and subsequent discussions. The Mayor, City Council, Human Right Commission and members of the community were fully engaged and challenged many of our findings in a way that represented real commitment and a true desire to drive change. Because of this, I am optimistic that Ann Arbor is on a path to become a model for community-defined and engaged policing.