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