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Healing Divisions Between Police and the Public

Healing Divisions Between Police and the Public


By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University and Bruce Razey, 35-year police veteran

After a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas, Police Chief David Brown said, “This divisiveness has to stop! We [police] don’t feel much support most days. Let’s not make today most days.”

But how do you stop the divisiveness and start healing divisions between the public and law enforcement? How do you build trust while also maintaining order? It is a complex issue. Everyone wants fair and equal treatment without crime and disorder; however, achieving this goal remains elusive.

Every day, politicians talk about the importance of starting a “dialogue.” Yes, there needs to be better communication, but there needs to be more than just talking. Both citizens and police want action.

What Do Citizens Want from Police?

People want many things from police, including responding to crimes, preventing crimes, catching criminals, preserving the peace, responding to natural and manmade disasters, assisting homeless people, dealing with the mentally ill and remaining visible in neighborhoods. And that’s just a short list of expectations.

As the Dallas police chief said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” Police are being asked to take care of many of society’s problems, but many citizens don’t understand the complexity of being a police officer. Laws, court rulings, community expectations, police training and tactics are constantly changing, which places great stress on individual officers as well as the department.

What Do Police Want from the People?

Many officers consider their job to be a thankless one and do not feel supported by political leaders or community members. But like all those Dallas officers running into the line of fire to protect protesters, police just want to do their job!

[Related: For Police, Working with the Community Is What It’s All About]

When there is a police-involved shooting, cops want what the people want: to be treated fairly and respected. Police want to do their job without being slandered by the media and government leaders. To hear the press state “another person was gunned down by police” makes it sound as if every cop is out gunning for people and it makes most cops sick. To hear politicians comment that the cause of an officer-involved shooting is racism within hours after an incident even when they admit they don’t have all the facts is not only promoting racism and hatred, it also fuels the fire for more attacks against police.

Police need citizens’ support. An officer loves to hear the words, “Thank you for your service.” My reply was always, “Thank you for your support.” Stemming back to policing in old England is the premise that “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.” Without support, police cannot do what they are sworn to do: protect and serve.

How Do We Talk and Act Together?

A good starting point for community engagement includes participating in organized forums, ride-alongs, enacting community policing strategies and citizen’s police academies.

Community Forums

Almost every community has a civic league or some type of forum that meets regularly. These days, there is usually a cop at each meeting. If not, there should be. This is where police can get to know leaders of the community in a non-confrontational way, before there is a problem. If the latter happens, it may be too late to be non-confrontational and the officer is often expected to already know about the problem(s) and be expected to explain what the department is doing about it.

Community Policing Strategies

A Community Oriented Policing (COP) program is not just talking to citizens; it is working hand-in-hand with citizens to identify and solve the problems in their neighborhoods. A main goal of COP is to reduce fear. It may also help calm the anger and starting healing divisions that are often generated by the lack of faith in the criminal justice system.

[Related: Problem-Oriented Policing and Today’s Struggle for Effective Community-Police Relationships]

According to Dr. Leon Seltzer, the move from fear to anger happens at “breathtaking speed.” When officers and citizens work together, they can help reduce or remove anxiety and fear before it turns into anger and rage. Police need to work to get citizens more involved so citizens can take responsibility for their own neighborhood — most citizens gladly accept the responsibility. As people get more involved and work closer with police, they often realize and understand some of the dilemmas officers face and how they have to make difficult decisions.

Citizens Police Academy

A citizen’s police academy is another good way to introduce citizens to the policing profession. Citizens learn how and why officers are trained to act in the ways they do. Citizens can ask questions, receive immediate answers and learn about particular issues affecting the city and their individual community.

The biggest issue for enacting these community engagement efforts almost always comes down to resources. Most police departments across the U.S. are small and only have a few officers and operate on a limited budget. That is why agencies need to partner with others in nearby jurisdictions, as well as state and federal agencies to share resources. There is also potential to receive grant money. Agencies must realize there are millions of dollars in grant money available to them, but they also can’t dismiss the fact that grant writing requires resources as well.

Using Policy to Fix the Problem

Researchers indicate that patrol officers are the “gatekeepers” of the criminal justice system, using their discretion to determine what laws to enforce and what suspects to arrest (Fritsch, Liederbach & Taylor, 2009). It is the role of administrators to limit the amount of discretion an officer can use through established departmental policies. Doing so is no easy task. Department leaders and first-line supervisors must closely monitor officers to ensure they understand and follow policies. When things go wrong, supervisors must assess the situation and take action.

Whenever it is determined the officer was unable to comply with policy, the officer must be trained. If the officer was unwilling to comply, the officer must be disciplined. However, the incident could be the example of a systematic problem. In this case, supervisors need to review and/or revise policies, procedures and training for all officers. When this happens, some officers will resist and test the new policy.

[Related: An Officer’s Experience: Police Training to Reduce Use of Force Cases]

For example, our department enacted a policy prohibiting officers from asking citizens stopped for minor traffic violations if they had guns, drugs and/or large sums of money. The policy was put in place after numerous citizen complaints of being interrogated like criminals. The city and police administrators agreed and implemented a policy that officers should not ask such questions during routine traffic stops, absent reasonable suspicion.

However, one officer decided he was not going to follow the new policy. His supervisor, who often stopped by to assist a lone officer on traffic stops, heard him ask the question to a driver. After the traffic stop, the supervisor asked the officer why he asked the question and the officer said because the Supreme Court said it was okay. The supervisor advised him that the next time he thought about disobeying a policy, to look at his paycheck and see if the payer was the Supreme Court or his police department.

Departments cannot increase police authority beyond the law, but they can certainly restrict it. Some officers may still resist, as every organization has some bad apples, but those bad apples must be retrained or fired. Close supervision of officers is the key to holding the few bad officers accountable.

The Importance of Progressive Hiring in Healing Divisions

There is no doubt that agencies need to hire more minorities. It is widely believed that a police force should be representative of the community it serves. There is evidence that hiring minority officers may have no impact on policing, indicating that neither “race nor gender has an influence on routine police-citizen encounters.” However, a diverse force can decrease citizens’ fears of being stopped “solely because of race.”

[Related: Demystifying the Background Investigation Process: What You Can Expect When Applying for a Law Enforcement Job]

Unfortunately, many apply and few are chosen. The hiring process is so rigorous that 80 percent of departments in the U.S. have unfilled positions. The problem with many minorities is they cannot get past the tough application process, which includes a thorough background check, physical, written and physical fitness tests, a polygraph, and, in some departments, a psychological examination like the Behavioral Personnel Assessment Device (BPAD). BPAD is when videos are shown from an officer’s point of view featuring various situations with no ending. A police candidate watches the film and pretends to take the place of the officer. For example, a video may show a motorist rolling up his windows and locking his car doors, thereby failing to cooperate on a traffic stop. Those candidates spending the longest time talking to the violator are looked at favorably over those who broke the window and forcefully removed the violator.

The Need to Show Greater Support

Government leaders must show respect and support for the police. Police are, and will continue to serve, as the thin blue line between law and order and anarchy. There has been way too much rhetoric from some of our national and state leaders recently that leaves wrong and even false impressions about police. This rhetoric does nothing to unite our communities, but rather it promotes lawlessness and division. In addition, government leaders must work with police to ensure agencies have the needed resources and training to safely and professionally serve and fulfill their mission.

Citizens also need to show some empathy for the police. Officers don’t know what someone else is going to do. They are trained to not only protect others, but to maintain their own safety. Being a police officer is dangerous and unpredictable work.

Officers Also Need to Show Respect for Citizens

Most of the deadly force incidents in the news lately started as minor infractions (e.g. Brown, Garner, and Castile). An officer’s approach sets the tone in communicating with the public and healing divisions. At the beginning of my police career, my sergeant gave me the following words of wisdom, “Address everyone as sir or ma’am, and strive to treat everyone you arrest the way you would want your mother to be treated.”

First-line supervisors have the most influence on their officers. They must set a good example for the expected behavior of officers. Officers must be culturally aware and guard against “implicit (unintentional) bias.” To help with this, progressive departments seek to bring in local officials of minority groups to provide training to officers in the academy as well as during their annual in-service training classes. This dialogue between police and minority leaders can result in both sides reaching a better understanding of the issues and their root causes and healing divisions.

To Be Successful in the Future, We Must Consider the Good Principles of the Past

Overall, there needs to be more respect and understanding from police, citizens, and government officials. One of the Principles of Policing from Sir Robert Peel remains appropriate even today: “The police are citizens and citizens are the police.” If everyone makes a greater effort to show support and respect for one another, we can make major strikes to remove the divisiveness and start healing the divisions.

If you like our articles, stay tuned for the release of our book, “Cops of Acadia.” This fiction book is based on true police stories by veteran officers.

About the Authors

healing divisionsAndrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004.

healing divisionsBruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for an internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.



  1. In comments to Steven Perger’s comments: Hey Steve, thanks for commenting.

    True we did not discuss incentives. However I can think of a few off the top of my head that would make departments implement or want to implement these types of recommendations.

    First we believe that police departments want to have a “GOOD” relationship with the public. As we indicated in our blog, history tells us that the model for police departments is based on the fact that police cannot operate (properly) without public approval.

    We further believe there are no “Silver Bullet” incentives. Police and citizens have to want it. Police departments cannot magically change based on incentives to increase the numbers of minorities or weeding out all the bad officers. Citizens have to step forward and volunteer to be police officers and departments need to be vigilant in weeding out the bad.

    Last, it is better to voluntarily implement these practices than being investigated by the Justice Department or sued by private citizens and organizations (which some departments have been and are) for doing nothing to prevent or mitigate the divide that Chief Brown discussed.

    The best choice for departments is the same for people – voluntary compliance based on our recommendations to bring citizens and police together and work with one another to prevent crime.

    What do you think?
    Andy & Bruce


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