Promoting Positive Policing Approaches in Communities of Color

The recent civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, highlights a not-so-new divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve. CNA Corporation has spent years talking with police officers from more than 50 police agencies to find ways to build mutual trust and respect between these two groups. Its findings are now available.

The Paradox of Evidence-Based Policing

With recent movement toward evidence-based policing, police agencies have focused their operations on concentrated geographic areas that experience the highest levels of violent crime (in some cases, angering community residents), while in pursuit of one of their most important missions – protecting community members from violence. However, the culture of policing sometimes promotes an “us vs. them” attitude, which can lead to a mistrustful view of residents in violent communities. Such are frequently communities of color, which perceive that the focus of police agencies’ enforcement actions are in disproportionate numbers compared to the rest of the population. In addition, though police deaths by assailants and police injuries from assaults have been trending downward for the past decade, some police officers still express wariness when working in violent communities. Although this is certainly warranted in some cases, it is not warranted in all. In fact, in crime hot spots, a majority of residents report in surveys conducted by Prof. David Weisburd of George Mason University that they are willing to help out and intervene when community problems present themselves.

As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, show, there is a certain level of mistrust between communities and the police who have sworn to serve them. Repairing the trust of communities of color can be achieved by changing deeply engrained practices within police organizations, such as the stop-and-frisk method, which was recently deemed an unconstitutional practice by a federal judge in New York. Public officials must find ways to change deeply engrained, potentially damaging cultural beliefs or practices in police organizations. Implementing these changes may not be easy, but the well-being of the community as a whole is at stake. In addition, history leaves memories, and recent violence – on the parts of communities and police, alike – rekindles recollections of past violence.

Positive Policing

Police agencies can take steps to promote positive relationships in communities of color, while maintaining their commitment to public safety and enforcement of the Constitution. They can also achieve meaningful engagement with communities of color by treating community members with empathy and respect. A number of police departments across the country, including the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department, the New York City Police Department, and the Oakland Police Department, have implemented outreach programs to gradually improve relationships with their respective communities.

The development of caring and sincere relationships – person by person – furthers the goals of law enforcement, including building trust, obtaining helpful information to solve crimes, having a positive influence on youth, protecting vulnerable populations, recruiting quality officer candidates, training officers well, and receiving sincere feedback. These actions should, of course, be bolstered by thorough review of policies and procedures relating to the use of force, citizen complaints, investigative practices, and police shooting review boards, with citizen input and oversight. The realignment of those policies should occur where needed along with the adoption of contemporary constitutional practices.

For several years – predating the 2014 publicized police shootings of civilians or death-in-custody cases in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland – CNA Corporation analysts have heard from police officers at all ranks about their desire for better approaches to community collaboration and a better understanding of how to develop productive relationships with communities of color. Achieving positive policing in these communities involves: training (affecting how police officers are socialized into their profession); experimentation and research; leadership by example; cultivation of mutually respectful attitudes; federal leadership; and willingness to form new relationships within the community, perhaps with marginalized community members. Experience suggests that familiarity breeds respect (not contempt), and the gradual building of respectful relationships will help to create productive relationships between police and communities of color.

For the full report that CNA conducted on this topic, please visit

James R. (Chip) Coldren Jr.

James R. (Chip) Coldren Jr. is the managing director of Justice Programs in CNA’s Institute for Public Research. He directs several law enforcement related reform and technical assistance projects, and serves as principle investigator for several national research projects concerning utilization of technology in law enforcement and corrections.

Rachel Mathieu

Rachel Mathieu is an associate research analyst in CNA Corporation’s Safety and Security division and has over nine years of experience conducting research and providing technical assistance to government agencies. She currently supports the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services National Background Check Program as a state liaison, where she provides technical assistance to states implementing background check programs that screen individuals applying to work in long-term care facilities. She also supports a number of projects within CNA Corporation’s Justice Programs including the Collaborative Reform Initiative.



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