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 able to be set by communities. The police should meet people where they are, rather than expecting people to show up to any open door meeting.
These general tips are applicable to any community meeting—whether the meeting is hosted by the police department, elected officials, or a regulatory oversight body engaging with the public.
Identify a specific purpose for the meeting.
Develop an agenda driven by the purpose, allowing attendees to add their own agenda items.
Pick a venue that is convenient and inviting.
Ensure outreach efforts are inclusive of organizations and groups representing different viewpoints.
Steer the conversation to focus on solutions going forward, while acknowledging past harms
Make efforts to ensure everyone is heard, including considering the facilitation style and physical set-up of the meeting.
Record action items to ensure they are not forgotten.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY A SPECIFIC PURPOSE FOR THE MEETING
Define, and be clear with attendees about, the specific purpose of the meeting
Too often meetings are held simply to hold meetings. Identify a specific purpose and goal for the meeting, and be clear about the purpose in outreach materials. Is the meeting simply to discuss crime statistics? Identify public safety problems? Address a recent incident? Solicit their input on policies?
If you are struggling to think of a purpose to hold the meeting, don’t hold the meeting!
STEP 2: DEVELOP AN AGENDA DRIVEN BY THE PURPOSE, ALLOWING ATTENDEES TO ADD THEIR OWN AGENDA ITEMS
Have a clear agenda driven by the purpose – and community attendees should have ability to add to the agenda.
Ask the audience at the beginning if they would like to add additional items onto the agenda.
Consider having a dedicated liaison to coordinate meeting topics with community groups in advance.
Step 3: Pick a venue that is convenient and inviting
The location of the venue should be convenient and one where community members are comfortable
Meet people where they are. It may be appropriate to hold some meetings at police headquarters or a substation. But some residents feel more comfortable meeting at spaces such as a library, community organization, and city hall.
Consider factors like public transit, parking, and building accessibility that may make the venue inaccessible to some.
To maximize your reach, regular meetings should be rotated across the city to reach different communities.
Case Study: Austin
In 2017, the Austin Police Department changed their quarterly Commanders’ Forums, in which District Commanders held meetings at the District substation, to Community Forums, which rotated locations in an effort to increase accessibility and turnout
Step 4: Ensure outreach efforts are inclusive of organizations and groups representing different viewpoints.
Invite people and groups to the meetings who represent different voices and opinions
Not everyone will attend every meeting. There won’t always be packed rooms, and attendance will never be perfectly representative of communities.
Rather than try to maximize the number of people in the room, the goal is to get people who represent discrete viewpoints and interests. All else equal, it would be preferable to have small, but diverse, turnout.
Do not rely on social media in order to get people to show up. The department should actively build relationships with important and influential community groups who can help advertise the meetings to different audiences who otherwise might be difficult for the police to reach. Police staff can be assigned to liaise with community leaders in an effort to develop personal relationships. Patrol officers should go around and personally invite neighborhood residents.
To help identify the local groups and interests that would make up a “representative” audience, work with community groups and city agencies to build an “asset map” of community organizations. An asset map is a tool to inventory local community organizations, including details like mission, location, and point of contact. It might include groups representing the interests of:
Formerly incarcerated individuals,
Public housing residents,
Social and racial justice advocates, and
Community development corporations.
Use the asset map to ensure that meetings are generally attended by all interests. Meet personally with leaders of those groups who aren’t attending to invite them and hear why they won’t attend.
Do not be dismissive of groups who express criticisms of the police. Actively invite those groups to attend meetings and offer feedback.
Have a mix of command-level and line officers present at meetings, so that multiple levels of the police agency are attending and hearing what the public says.
Case Study: Washtenaw County, Michigan
In addition to ordinary community meetings open to the public, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office hosts special meetings specifically designed to build shared trust between police and community members. They invite 30 community members with different viewpoints—some are pro-police, while others advocate for less policing—to talk with 30 deputies. The goal is not to maximize the number of people in the room, but to make sure that the people in the room are those who can speak to the specific issue at hand.
Step 5: Steer the conversation to focus on solutions going forward, while acknowledging past harms
It is common for police-community meetings, especially in the aftermath of a critical incident, to turn into an open floor where people wish to express their raw emotions about policing.
This can sometimes feel unproductive, but often is a necessary step before people who feel that they have been harmed by policing can help to generate a solution. It also can feel disingenuous to jump to solutions in the aftermath of a serious incident or problem.
Dedicate a set amount of time at the beginning of the meeting when people have an open floor to express their frustrations and concerns about current and past policing practices. Police officials should be actively listening – engaged, respectful, and not defensive.
When time expires, thank people for their concerns and move to a discussion that invites people to think forward. That might include addressing specific public safety problems or quality-of-life concerns. It might also mean a broader discussion on agency policies, training, or strategy.
Case Study: Stockton
As part of their community engagement strategy, the Stockton Police Department (SPD) holds dedicated reconciliation meetings, acknowledging past harms done by law enforcement to communities of color and actively listening to people’s issues. After those meetings, SPD holds public forums and issue-oriented meetings that are more focused on driving solutions forward.
Step 6: Make efforts to ensure everyone is heard, including considering the facilitation style and physical set-up of the meeting.
Meetings should be structured so that people are comfortable speaking, and the conversation is not dominated either by the police or by the loudest person in the room.
The actual setup of the room can influence people’s comfort to participate. If the goal is to get everyone substantively involved in generating feedback, the room should be set up in a series of small tables, with a police or city representative at each table. Using small tables can help to generate discussion and ensure that those who dislike public speaking can participate in small groups.
Sometimes it is the simple fact that the police are running the meeting that can discourage people from speaking up. When feasible, departments should look to co-host meetings with other city agencies or with community groups. Also consider using a qualified facilitator who has experience running meetings in a way that acknowledges and hears everyone.
The facilitator may wish to use a strategy called “progressive stack,” which gives speakers from marginalized groups a greater chance to participate.
Case Study: Salt Lake City
The Salt Lake City Police Department hosts the Community Advocates Group (CAG), a collection of community members and activists, to hold bi-weekly meetings around reform initiatives on matters such as transparency and data accessibility. At police headquarters, CAG runs the meeting, with police and City officials participating as audience members.
Step 7: Record action items to ensure they are not forgotten.
There should a designated official taking notes during the meeting and recording a list of action items. If one is available, this should be done on a whiteboard.
At the end of each meeting, the facilitator or note-taker should give a read out of the action items coming out of the meeting, with specific individuals designated as responsible for the item.
At the next meeting, give an update on each action item identified during the last meeting. Or if the meeting location is moving, use an alternative way of giving updates, such as social media.
If a particular action item cannot be addressed, clearly express to the meeting participants why. Do not refuse to take next steps without offering an explanation.