How Mayors Can Mend Police's Public Relations

The nation’s mayors released a report highlighting ways cities can rebuild the broken trust between police officers and citizens.
by | January 22, 2015

In the wake of another deadly police shooting controversy involving a black victim, the nation’s mayors have released a report highlighting key areas where cities can rebuild the broken trust between police departments and residents.

The report on community policing was released Thursday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting in Washington, D.C. The analysis concluded that, despite reduced crime rates, mistrust between officers and citizens persists. Among its recommendations were that officers should spend more time getting to know the community they patrol, that independent investigations occur when an officer kills someone and that police departments needed to reduce the fear and prejudice many have toward cooperating with cops.

The theme that connects the recommendations is the idea that racism and classism will always be a dividing line between authority figures and minority groups.

“There is a palpable sense of frustration and distrust in some communities, not just as it relates to police, but to government and the criminal justice system,” said Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. “We have a responsibility to address that.”

The report was made public one day after Bridgeton, N.J., police released a new video that shows a white and a black officer shooting an unarmed black man. The victim was a passenger in a car stopped for running a stop sign and he had previously served a prison sentence for shooting at state troopers. The release was in response to a public records request. The incident occurred in December and was recorded by the police car’s dashboard camera. The Bridgeton shooting follows a tumultuous summer with the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and the strangling death of Eric Garner by a New York City cop who had put Garner in a choke hold. This winter, two other New York City police officers were killed while sitting in their car.

In a speech to the mayors, Vice President Joseph Biden talked about delivering the eulogy for one of those officers and meeting the families of both. The visit gave him a chance to see a side of  the officers too few people in the community consider, he said.

Tensions between minority communities and police have escalated because they do not "see each other," he said.

The vice president blamed that partly on a decline in community policing as governments at all levels have made budget cuts. He said Congress has cut funding for a community policing initiative that he wrote as U.S. senator in the 1990s by 87 percent.

“The vast majority of the really hard-hit African-American communities are riddled with crime. The one thing they want is protection,” he said. “But that mom has to know when she lets her kid out the door, he’s not going to be seen as a stereotype. And a cop has to know when he steps out of the car, he’s not going to be seen as the enemy.”

Vice President Joe Biden said tensions between minority communities and police have escalated because they do not "see each other." (AP/Kevin Wolf)

Thursday’s report is the precursor to a larger report that the group is compiling for President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The mayors group is conducting six hearings in January and February to collect information on building trust, policy and oversight, use of force and police culture, technology, training and education. The hearings will be broadcast on the U.S. Department of Justice’s website and the final report is expected to be submitted by March 2.

Some of the questions from mayors attending the conference Thursday focused on police staffing, particularly the struggle to find qualified minority officers. Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey said that a big part of the problem is the negative image that cops have among young minorities. But it’s not insurmountable, he added, noting that he entered the police force in 1968 when distrust in law enforcement was peaking, thanks to clashes with Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement protesters.

“I grew up in the South Side of Chicago in Englewood," he said. “Believe me … telling people I was going to be a cop was not the most popular thing I could have done.”

Still, for all the focus on police behavior, the group warned mayors against appearing unsupportive of police. Part of the community outreach recommended in the report was to help residents understand how complicated a police officer’s job is as a way of getting them to regard cops with more respect. Officers should also be supported with social training and education to understand their role in communities, how to spot possible mental illness and how to diffuse incidents -- and people in the community (like clergy) should provide some of that training.

Racial tensions between local police and minorities aren’t new. Neither is controversy around the level of force used by officers on the street -- more than two decades have passed since two white officers were caught on tape beating Rodney King, a black man they had pulled over on suspicion of being under the influence. But technology has introduced a new friction by creating more opportunities for any event to be caught on tape, leading to outrage among some groups while breeding resentment among police because many feel misunderstood.

Mayors, said Freeman-Wilson, can play a crucial role in bridging the two sides.

“We have to embrace this opportunity to create a dialogue that will serve our cities for generations to come,” she said. “This isn’t just a dialogue about pub safety, it’s a dialogue about race relations, about poverty. And it’s a dialogue about how we as the general community engage with government in a way that serves the community.”

Staff Writer Daniel C. Vock contributed to this article.