Public Engagement for Police Departments


How to Build and Regain Trust

By Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

Police departments face this growing crisis in communities: A lack of public trust and legitimacy. Besides recommitting to the tenets of community policing, the police must undertake continuous and well-thought-out public engagement efforts to bolster confidence and two-way communication.

This requires specialized civic engagement, and what works for local organizations in general may not be effective for police departments, where circumstances can often be extremely different.

Why Now?

Despite steep decreases in crime in communities throughout the country over the past 15 to 20 years, public confidence in police is dropping. It is particularly low among the poor, people of color, and youth. Use-of-force incidents caught on video have inflamed communities that perceive overly aggressive or racist police tactics. Police departments routinely provide crime statistics, but information about complaints regarding misuse of force, bias, and misconduct remain sparse.

The public, too, often forms its impressions of its police based on news stories, videos, social media, and anecdotal experience with officers. Civic engagement requires incorporating a diverse cross section of residents into recruitment, selection, promotion, discipline, developing policies, guiding implementation, and evaluating results.

It means getting on agendas of groups already meeting in the community and going “into the lion’s den” on occasion. It requires creating an environment that welcomes dissent and difficult conversations. Public engagement goals for both police departments and residents can include:

  • Better understanding of the intricacies of communities—not just those people one interacts with on a daily basis.
  • Clarifying perceptions vs. reality.
  • Understanding the expectations and concerns of the entire community when it comes to law enforcement.
  • Identifying critical community resources and those in need.
  • Building legitimacy and trust with vulnerable populations.
  • Developing rapport with and support from the community.
  • Opening lines of communication and hearing criticism directly.
  • Developing a referral network of stakeholders.

Prior to engaging with the community, a police department would be wise to get its own house in order. Some of the relevant questions that managers need to ask about a department include:

  • Is there a culture of trust within the department?
  • Have officers and their unions been engaged?
  • Are procedures in place for timely, transparent, honest, and accurate internal and external communication?
  • Is data made easily accessible to everyone, even when it doesn’t paint a flattering picture on public complaints and what came of them?
  • Is the complaint process open and accessible?
  • Does the department reach out to local business owners who know their customers?
  • Are officers encouraged to mentor youth and to volunteer in the community?
  • Do officers partner with the faith community and train for cultural competency?
  • Are regular meetings held in different neighborhoods and locations that are chosen because they are centrally located, near transportation, neutral, and comfortable in nonstressful times?

In Difficult Times

Sometimes difficult conversations will be encountered, particularly where trust is low or where a police action has harmed community relations. After a contentious incident takes place, hold town hall meetings to allow community members to vent and ask questions.

Also allow the police to provide information on adjustments to policy, practices, and training in light of the incident. In these cases, take extra care to plan community meetings wisely:

  • Be clear about the issues and objectives.
  • Adopt a mindset of inquiry, manage emotions, and be comfortable with silence.
  • Be tough on the issues and easy on the people.
  • Use a neutral facilitator trusted by both sides.
  • Leave the meetings with a list of action items for everyone, including police, community leaders, and political leaders.
  • Work for mutual respect and develop “anchor” relationships that provide lasting and influential relationships with community leaders.
  • Foster shared responsibility, avoid blame, and admit mistakes.
  • If the meeting is to solve a specific problem, develop an agenda with the community leaders and share it with the attendees for feedback.
  • Debrief after the meeting to discuss what has been learned.

The Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) and the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, Pepperdine University, are partnering to research this critical facet of public engagement. If you are interested in improving police and community relations, contact Leonard Matarese ( or Ashley Trim (

Endnotes and Resources:

1 The Final Report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, May 2015, pg. 9. Time, August 24, 2015, “What It’s Like to be a Cop in America,” Karl Vick.

2 RAND, “Performance Metrics to Improve Police-Community Relations,” Jessica Saunders, February 2015.

3 International Association of Chiefs of Police, “National Summit on Community Police Relations: Creating a Culture of Cohesion/Collaboration,” January 2015.

4 COPS Office, DOJ, and VERA Institute, Police Perspectives: Building Trust in a Diverse Nation — No. 1, “How to Increase Cultural Understanding,” Caitlin Gokey and Susan Shah, 2016.

5 International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Policy Summit on Community-Police Relations, January 2015.

6 Police Executive Research Forum, “Advice from Police Chiefs and Community Leaders on Building Trust —Ask for Help, Work Together, and Show Respect,” March 2106 and National Coalition Building Institute’s Cops and Community Training Program,

7 COPS Office, DOJ and VERA Institute, Police Perspectives: Building Trust in a Diverse Nation — No. 1, “How to Increase Cultural Understanding,” Caitlin Gokey and Susan Shah, 2016.

8 National Crime Prevention Council, “Improving Police-Community Relations through Community Policing,” 2007-2008.

9 COPS Office, Department of Justice, Community-Police Relations, Rank and File, “Leaders in Building Trust and Community Policing,” James E. Copple, 2016.

10 International Association of Chiefs of Police, “National Summit on Community Police Relations: Creating a Culture of Cohesion/Collaboration,” January 2015

Rod Gould, ICMA-CM, a retired city manager, is director of training, Center for Public Safety Management, Greenbrae, California ( and

Engaging Your Public

By Rod Gould and Ashley Trim

As a local government practitioner, you’ve heard a lot about public engagement during the past few years. You probably have your own public engagement success stories and your own stories about failing to properly engage residents.

These lessons learned have no doubt given you a sense of what is appreciated and works with stakeholders and what simply wastes everyone’s time. We live in an exciting era of innovation and experimentation, but there is no secret formula for public engagement.

Some new policies and approaches work in some situations (and some communities) but backfire in others. It is trial by error and by fire in some cases, but there are certain characteristics that engaged organizations share. As you take proactive steps to strengthen resident and business involvement, do you know how you measure up?

Click here to read the full article. 

Shots Fired! Is Your Community Ready for an Active Shooter?

by Rod Gould, ICMA-CM, and Jack Brown

Active shooter incidents are increasing in America and around the globe. Local government managers and assistants have an affirmative duty to guide preparation, prevention, and response actions to limit the loss of life in the face of this alarming trend.

Not only must these efforts knit together first responders, including police, fire, and EMS personnel, into an integrated response, but research and experience indicates that local governments must increasingly involve and educate residents and business people in what to do when confronted with such a threat or an actual shooting itself.

Big or small, no community is immune from this deadly behavior. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 277 mass shootings in 2014, 332 in 2015, and 191 mass shootings in 2016 up through July 16, 2016.

Time and learning from experience teaches that there are a number of actions a local government can take to preempt a lethal shooting or effectively cope when one occurs.

Click here to read the full article.

Tune Up Your Emergency Prepardness

by: Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

Steps to Take Now

Responding to an emergency in the community is the one local government service a manager hopes never to provide. Yet, chances are the service will be needed, perhaps multiple times, during a manager’s career. Earthquakes, floods, mass shootings, toxic spills, tornados, wildfires, and even terrorist incidents are not out of the question. The time spent preparing and practicing will pay off many times over when an emergency does occur. It is local government’s greatest opportunity to shine or fail.

To learn more about what steps to follow to become ready for such an event, click here.


A Building Block to Better Performance: Using Council-Manager Goal-Setting to Support Performance Evaluation

by: Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

As managers, we’re used to setting goals. We help our city councils set annual and long-range goals. We ask our department managers to set goals for the budget. We measure the success of our local governments by whether we meet organization-wide goals.

But, like cobblers’ children who go shoeless, many of us do our jobs in the absence of specific goals for our own work. The lack of annual goals for the manager does a disservice to not only to the manager, but to the local government as a whole.

Goal-setting at the manager’s level will reinforce organization-wide goals, while neglecting the exercise for an individual manager hinders the government’s ability to perform at maximum effectiveness.

To read the full article, click here.

A Scorecard for Public Engagement

by: Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

If you’re a local-government manager or elected official, by now you’ve probably heard a fair amount about the need for better citizen engagement in government decision-making. You may even have your own success stories about times your city or agency made a special effort to involve community members in policies that affect them. And you may also have been scalded when your agency failed to properly engage residents. It probably wasn’t pretty.

You likely have a few ideas of your own about what is appreciated and works with stakeholders and what simply wastes everyone’s time. As your agency takes steps to strengthen its involvement with residents and businesses, do you know how you measure up compared to other agencies?

There are many reasons to give your public engagement strategies and techniques some serious scrutiny: bolstering local representative democracy, improving governmental decision-making, repairing damaged public relations, increasing civility and trust in government, enhancing public support of important civic decisions — or just making your work more pleasant and satisfying.

To read the full article click here. 

The Manager-Police Chief Relationship

by: Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

Local government managers and assistants must ensure their relations with police chiefs are strong, respectful, and mutually supportive. It is a classic symbiotic relationship. All departments are important, but there is more at stake with the police department than any other.

Ensuring community safety by preventing and addressing crime and incivility is the first priority of all local governments. The strength of a local representative democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its residents is often a function of the way police officers carry out their duties.

There are 680,000 sworn officers in the U.S.1 serving in 18,000 separate agencies.2 Not surprisingly, police departments take up a large share of most communities’ general fund budgets.

But what is most unique about police departments is the amount of discretion provided to line staff. We expect officers to be benevolent community problem solvers and compassionate role models, while at the same time being ready to attack and kill in the case of a mass shooting or terrorist incident.

An entry-level police officer is authorized to take a person’s liberty during an arrest, or even a life if the circumstances dictate it. That’s a lot of judgment for someone, perhaps in his or her early twenties, to exercise.

Generally, there’s no time to request supervisory oversight of such a decision.3 Consequently, the cost of mistakes can be very high in civil liability and in lasting harm to community relations.

To read the full article click here. 

Developing leaders should be ‘Job One’ for ICMA!

In 2014 Rod Gould authored a report for ICMA as Chair of the Task Force on Leadership.  It was unanimously approved by the Executive Board in November of 2014 and is being implemented today.

The ICMA Task Force on Leadership was created in 2013 to:

  •  elevate leadership to the essential core of who we are and what we do as professional local government managers
  •  align the human and financial resources of ICMA to accomplish this charge
  • recommend to the ICMA Executive Board at the September 2014 meeting in Charlotte,
    North Carolina, specific actions to implement the strategy.

To read this report, click here.

“The Politics of Abundance”: an Interview with Santa Monica’s Retiring City Manager, Part One

In January 2015, Rod Gould sat down for an interview with “Santa Monica Next” — a community organization and news website focused on the future of Santa Monica — to talk about the last five years, his plans for the future, and the challenges facing Santa Monica.

Excerpt: “I think the biggest issue facing my successor is the politics of abundance. There is an abundance of resources in this city. There is an abundance of financial as well as human assets in town. There is an abundance of opportunities, so choosing amongst them and making the best choices for the long-term health of the city is probably the biggest challenge.

Most cities would kill for the opportunities that Santa Monica fights over daily. Many of the opportunities in development or finance that have been quite controversial here would have approved overnight in most cities because they brought jobs, they brought opportunity, they brought revenue, they brought stability.

Santa Monica has the opportunity to be the choosiest of cities, to pick only the best of the best. I’m just hoping that it will.” – Rod Gould, Santa Monica City Manager

To read Part One of this interview with Rod Gould, click here. To read Part Two, click here.

Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould: Retiring Observations

In September 2014, The Planning Report — a Los Angeles-area trade publication — interviewed Santa Monica city manager Rod Gould about Santa Monica’s fiscal health, its development challenges, and its opportunities as Metro light rail connects this city with the greater LA region.

Excerpt: “Five or six years since the recession lifted, the sun looks like it’s coming out in California and across America. But those cities still need to hold their purse strings tight, remain very prudent, and say no much more than they can say yes—in order to not imperil their fiscal stability into the future. That’s bitter medicine.

I’m hopeful that your readers recognize how important cities are to civilization in general, and to us in the great state of California. We have 482 cities, and over 80 percent of Californians live in cities. As go the cities, so goes California, America, and much of the world. The care, feeding, nurturing, and stewardship of cities is pretty darn important, and that’s why I’ve given my career to it.” – Rod Gould, City Manager of Santa Monica

To read the full Rod Gould interview, click here.