The culture of policing should not be set solely by police departments, but through dialogue with the citizens they protect.
THE volatile community reaction in Ferguson, Mo., last year after the death of Michael Brown, and subsequent demonstrations around the nation in response to other controversial deaths involving police sparked a long-overdue discussion about the strained state of police-community relations. Despite differences from one community to the next, these are important discussions for all.
While much attention has been focused on the role of police departments in building or damaging that trust, a recently released U.S. Department of Justice report exposed the deep dysfunction and injustice of the entire Ferguson criminal justice system and local government. It shed light on a much larger issue: the role government plays in setting policy that impacts the manner in which police officers carry out their duties.
The requirement, in Ferguson and other small cities nearby, that police officers issue a certain number of tickets to meet their “quota” is a perfect example of a government policy, rather than public safety, driving enforcement strategies. The policy intent is to generate revenue for the municipalities, but the consequences for racial equality are disturbing. The blatant injustice and damage to public trust is obvious and few would disagree that this practice should be stopped.
Trust can also be eroded by a lack of public involvement in processes that affect the culture of police departments: the screening, hiring, certification and training of officers and their leaders. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing states that building public trust and legitimacy is the core foundational principle underlying police-community relations, and recommends, “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust.”
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Washington state has emerged as a national model in embracing this culture because of the work already under way at the state Criminal Justice Training Commission. The commission is responsible for developing high standards for screening, hiring, certifying and training law-enforcement personnel and — more importantly — delivering that training at a statewide academy. This model helps ensure that policing across the entire state is consistent, community-focused and constitutionally sound, while mitigating the issue of often inadequate funding for local jurisdictions.
There is still work to be done though.
The Legislature has an opportunity this session to fund the expansion of the cultural transformation toward trust and legitimacy recommended by the president’s task force.
The police academy’s proposed Building Public Trust Initiative — at an annual cost of $350,000 — would provide training and support for police agencies across the state to transform their individual local culture toward a guardian mindset and adopt strategies that focus not just on public safety, but also public trust and cooperation.
If we truly want to avert the deep divide and distrust seen in Ferguson between communities and their police departments, we must take advantage of these opportunities. This is especially true for our immigrant communities and communities of color, where trust is critical to an effective partnership. We must recognize that the culture of policing across this state cannot be set solely by police departments, but rather through dialogue with the citizens they protect.
We can do better for people of Washington state. It is time for the Legislature to fully support training and policies that bring police and communities together and improve public trust.