Since 2013, the Department of Justice has examined ways that it can work with law enforcement to build trust in communities. As Edward Chung, senior advisor, Office of Justice Programs with the Department of Justice, noted, the department is not known for moving quickly, but since the program began, the notion of “trust” between law enforcement and communities around the country is at a crossroads.

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice was born with the notion of community policing at its core. The initiative is a collaboration between partners including the Department of Justice, Yale Law School, the Urban Institute and others, and offers training around three key areas: procedural justice, implicit bias and reconciliation.

So far, the initiative has launched pilot programs in six cities: Birmingham, Ala.; Gary, Ind.; Fort Worth, Texas; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and Stockton, Calif.

“We are in an extraordinarily important national moment,” David Kennedy, director, National Network of Safe Communities, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said. “This is one of those moments where if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity [to build trust] we won’t have it again.”

Explaining the notion of procedural justice, Kennedy described that it is not about what “the law is, but how people think and feel about it.”

“People care a lot less about legal and constitutional notions of law and more about how they are treated,” he said. The key, Kennedy explained, is “Don’t be an ass****.” In spite of the laughter in the audience, he made a powerful point.

Kennedy then asked the audience to recall what Officer Darren Wilson said to Michael Brown in their fateful encounter in Ferguson, Mo. – “Get the f*** on the sidewalk.” He then wanted the attendees to consider how the case may have gone differently had Officer Wilson asked Brown kindly, but assertively, to step onto the sidewalk.

“What we do know is that speaking to the public like this, without provocation, should not happen,” he said.

The sobering reality to Kennedy is that law enforcement’s profile in troubled communities has led to a situation where 88 percent of young people don’t trust police and only 40 percent would ask the police for help. To him, it all comes down to one simple question – what do people from troubled communities see us doing?

As an example, Kennedy imagined a scenario where officers are at a crime scene with a body on the street and with the victim’s friends and family on the other side of the police tape. He then asked the room to say aloud, “What do they see us doing?”

Their shared response: “Laughing.”

Kennedy noted that shock, trauma, or even gallows humor, can make people react to this scene in different ways, but people see that and it can “break trust with communities forever.”

He then challenged officers to consider the history of law enforcement’s encounters with the public, in particular, the violence against Freedom Riders and the Selma March – cases where law enforcement took a violent role in the peaceful protests.

While today’s police officers were not involved in these cases, they “wear the same shield and uniform” of those who were. He then shared the story of former Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief Kevin Murphy who offered Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis his badge and an apology for failing to protect the protesters.

This poignant, simple act, Kennedy noted, was monumental in bridging trust between law enforcement and the community.

“If we do this right, things will get better,” he concluded.

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