HOw We Fall Short

Across the country, police departments hold countless meetings with members of the public. Usually these are regular beat meetings to inform the public about crime statistics and to learn about quality-of-life complaints. Sometimes they are special meetings held in response to specific crises or incidents. And on rare occasions, some are held to invite the public to comment on agency policies and practices.

But based on our observations, as well as from conversations with both police officials and community members, these meetings tend to suffer from a number of problems:

There’s no clear objective in mind: Meetings are held just to have them. Residents don’t know what to expect, so they often can leave confused or disappointed.

Turnout is poor: Community meetings often are poorly-attended, with a handful of the same five or so people in attendance. If community meetings are meant to be a mechanism of democratic input, with representative attendance, they aren’t accomplishing that goal.

It’s hard to engage on policy and procedures: Community meetings are helpful to discuss high-level concerns around priorities of public safety. Residents can offer up their lived experience, which is as important a consideration as technical expertise. But discussions on policies frequently require deep dives into specific language, and it can be difficult to translate broad feedback into specific policy changes.

Moments come and go: Public outcry over high-profile incidents can lead to well-attended meetings, an engaged citizenry, and real change. It’s what led to the widespread adoption of body cameras and pushing against police militarization. Yet it’s unrealistic—not to mention unfair—to maintain that type of commitment over time.

Nothing changes: Engagement between police and community often amounts to departments that wish to share information with community members on new initiatives or strategies. Sometimes departments work with some community members to solve quality-of-life issues in a neighborhood. But to achieve a fundamental realignment of public safety with public wishes, to ensure that policing has the appropriate front-end checks, something better is needed.

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Community meetings need to be better run, with better balance between community and police. Turnout should be representative. Agendas should be purpose-driven—and should be set, at least in part, by the community. The police should meet people where they are, rather than expecting people to show up to any open door meeting.

Based on our research, we crafted our “Improving the Community Meeting: A Guide for Police Departments and City Officials.” The guide present tips to help police departments and city officials host better meetings, with a well-defined purpose and actionable steps to collaborate effectively with community members.

Of course, community-police engagement isn’t just about better-run meetings. What also missing are the democratic structures to complement direct engagement.