‘Beyond the Conversation’: Our national Study on Community-Police Engagement

Police officials and community leaders across the country have long emphasized the importance of community engagement. But true engagement is more than just conversation: it means ensuring members of the public have a meaningful voice in how their communities are policed.

Together with the National Police Foundation, the National Urban League, and Latham and Watkins, the Policing Project is conducting a multi-phase, comprehensive study of best practices for police-community engagement. The study is generously supported by the Charles Koch Foundation.

Preliminary Report and Field Research

In May 2018, we released a preliminary report, Beyond the Conversation: Ensuring Meaningful Police-Community Engagement, which highlighted the findings from our nationwide survey of police departments and community groups. We found that although there is significant interest from both the public and the police for more collaborative engagement, a great deal of work remains to ensure that the public has a say in the policing policies and practices that affect them.

To learn more about on-the-ground engagement efforts, in the fall of 2018, representatives from the Policing Project and the National Police Foundation conducted site visits to five cities—Austin, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Salt Lake City, Utah; Stockton, California; and Washtenaw County, Michigan. While each city was unique in how the police and members of the public worked together—whether through task forces, effective community organizing, or structured approaches to policy revisions—they all were characterized by an uncommon degree of collaboration.

To further understand engagement efforts, we also launched a project with the help of the law firm Latham and Watkins, which generously is giving their time, to learn more about community advisory boards (CABs). CABs are typically comprised of volunteers tasked with representing various communities and directly advising the police chief, but many of these groups struggle to find their place within a formal power structure.

In early 2019, the Policing Project and Latham and Watkins began visiting cities through the country to learn about the best practices that enable CABs to improve communication and ensure that police prioritize community voice.

Our convening and next steps

As the culmination of this phase of our community engagement study, in May 2019, we convened community activists, police chiefs, elected officials, inspectors general, and more to talk frankly about the challenges of ensuring that community engagement leads to real change. Over the course of a two-day, intensive workshop, participants tackled issues ranging from transparency and accountability to power sharing and the role of commissions and inspectors general to provide the regulatory and oversight foundations that promote well-informed engagement between police and community.

Based on that convening, the Policing Project is now developing a set of practical materials that policing agencies, elected officials, and community members can use to promote more effective engagement in their own jurisdictions.