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7 tips for facilitating discussions on community-police relations

A police officer in uniform talking to a couple people at a community event

Having conversations about community-police relations can sometimes be uncomfortable. To help dialogue participants feel at ease, facilitators should come prepared to explain certain points at the beginning of the discussion and examine their own biases as well.

Here are seven tips to help facilitators of conversations about community-police relations to help you have a successful, trust-building dialogue:

 

1. Address the issue of race/racism at the beginning

Facilitators should explain that the issue of race/racism may come up during the dialogue circle.  Ask the group what assumptions on race/racism underlie the issue of community-police relations.  What role does race/racism play?

 

2. Explain racial overtones in the discussion guide

Some views mentioned in our discussion guide on the topic of community-police relations make reference to “police officers as racists” or make statements regarding police officers’ inability to look beyond skin color.  Other views may refer to community members as inciting the police to act in certain ways. The facilitator must explain to the group that these are views that some people may believe.  The statements are in the guide to help the group discuss and examine the influence of race/racism in community-police relations.

 

3. Acknowledge the differences in authority/generation gap among dialogue participants

Particularly in dialogue circles that include officers, youth, and parents, the facilitator must address the way one’s authority and age may impact the discussion.  Set the stage and describe the dynamics of the group (everyone is equal, etc.).

 

4. Provide an informational sheet for dialogue participants

During dialogue circles on this issue, participants (both officers and non-officers) may be pre-occupied with “what the law” says.  A fact sheet listing data such as the number of shootings in a community or what traffic laws actually say may eliminate confusion or spark discussion.  The facilitator should explain clearly why this fact sheet was created (not to justify police activity, but to demonstrate the facts the community is facing, etc.).

 

5. Explain why officers are in uniform—or allow officers themselves to explain

The uniform, radio, and firearm officers may wear to the study circle can cause different reactions from other participants.  It may intimidate some or make officers wearing the gear themselves feel uncomfortable. It may be helpful to have police officers come to the first two groups out of uniform, then come in uniform for the last part. In some places the lack of a uniform resulted in an up-front orientation by police administration for officers participating in the dialogues resulting in a more open exchange from the start.  Once group participants are more familiar with each other, the uniform is not so visible.

 

6. Stress confidentiality

Confidentiality is even more a concern for both law enforcement and community members than for other dialogues (i.e., self-incrimination issues can arise if a person in the dialogue becomes a suspect of some crime). It is essential to clarify that there will be no discussion of cases pending in the police department or other legal entities.

 

7. Be aware of bias

More often, the case is a facilitator who is critical of the police.  The organizers should be checking for this behavior through their check-ins with co-facilitators and participants.  Ideally, having a police offer co-facilitate who understands the process is evidence of growth for the program.  Officers, however, need to guard against similar bias against the community.

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