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New Guidebooks Tell US Cops How to 'Build Trust in a Diverse Nation'

The US Justice Department teamed with dozens of police officers and experts to explain how police can better interact with people of varying races, religions, and orientations.
February 17, 2016, 9:10pm
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

A new set of guidebooks offers up strategies aimed at improving the relationship between US police and the country's "diverse communities."

Written and compiled by 63 police officers and law enforcement experts affiliated with the Vera Institute of Justice, the three-volume Police Perspectives Guidebook Series: Building Trust in a Diverse Nation provides "promising and actionable community policing practices" designed to improve encounters between law enforcement and people of varying races, religions, and orientations.


"The country is diversifying rapidly, and despite their best efforts, police officers often struggle to find ways to build trust with the communities they serve," says Vera Institute senior program associate Caitlin Gokey, who co-edited the series. "The Department of Justice also recognized this need, and we partnered with them to try to fill the gap between policy and practice."

Related: Why Are There Up to 120,000 Innocent People in US Prisons?

The guidebooks were compiled with the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and build upon recommendations made last May by President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

In addition to providing suggestions to police, the guidebooks also offer outsiders a glimpse into the way cops see both themselves and the people they serve. For example, the guidebooks address the need to root out and correct the phenomenon of "implicit bias" among police officers. Racism among cops is only now beginning to be quantified, and officers acting upon implicit bias — the guidebooks point out that officers of color are not immune — may not be aware of what they're doing.

"Just because you're black doesn't mean you don't hold some negative prejudices against your own people," says guidebooks co-author Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, and former deputy commissioner of training for the NYPD. "All police officers need to go through this training, so everyone can come to grips with their inherent biases."


'If Obama is that concerned about how police departments are acting, he could have put through legislation to establish standardized policies and procedures.'

"Profiling by proxy," another common problem, describes what can happen when cops rely solely on a dispatcher's "recitation of what a biased caller claims has happened." Police and 911 dispatchers often receive complaints about things that aren't illegal — as examples, the guides use "two men kissing in a park," and "'too many' black teenagers in the subway station."

Police, the guides say, must take a step back and identify the real problem — is it the behavior or situation being reported, or is it the caller's perception?

To combat profiling by proxy, the guide recommends anti-bias training for both cops and dispatchers. The people who handle 911 calls are usually excluded from that kind of training, "but their need for it is critical to ensure that deployed officers are not misdirected by inaccurate and dangerous assumptions."

The guides even suggest using accidental 911 calls "as an opportunity" for building trust with minority communities.

"To make international calls to India from the US, one must dial 91, India's country code (011-91+ the local number)," the guides explain. "This similarity to 9-1-1 leads many Indian Americans who are trying to call home to inadvertently call 9-1-1, which requires a mandatory call for service and leads to a number of nonemergency interactions between police and Indian-American community members. This unintended encounter could be converted into a police-community trust-building opportunity."


The guides point out that the need for improved relations extends beyond racial lines.

"Variations in gender expression should not be viewed as deviant or criminal," the guides say. Officers must realize that transgender people have not chosen to "put themselves in harm's way by choosing to go against society," but rather, "are simply being true to themselves." Further, "Searches solely to determine the physical anatomy of the person are never appropriate."

In all, the guide's three volumes devote five of 196 pages to transgender issues, which isn't enough, according to Mandi Camille Hauwert, the first and only openly transgender correctional officer at California's maximum-security San Quentin State Prison.

"That lets me know that the trans community is not on the popular radar as far as educational material for police and law enforcement," Hauwert says. "The trans section almost feels like an afterthought, like somebody realized they should probably include it."

Increasing diversity within police departments is a key component of the plan put forth by the President's Task Force to improve the quality of American policing — but the best ways of doing so aren't necessarily understood by individual police departments. Last year, Florida's Sarasota Police Department lowered its educational standards for new recruits, it said, in a bid to attract more minority applicants; a high school diploma is now all that is required to join the force instead of two years of college.


However, the guides point out that the Arlington Police Department in Texas has the highest entry-level standards in the state — and that its policy of requiring a bachelor's degree increased the diversity of the force.

Efforts to bring more Asian-American police into the ranks "need to highlight the job security, pension, and other benefits that may be unknown to this population." On the other hand, "No amount of pay, promises, or professionalism will overcome the impact of history unacknowledged, unaddressed, and unresolved," the guides say of potential African-American recruits.

"In their contact with African-American communities, modern-day police sometimes replicate the brutal tactics employed by earlier police forces, slave patrollers, and White citizens to control the slave population," they say. "Police chiefs must recognize how injurious current policing tactics are to African-American and other communities, understand the impact of slave patrols on today's policing methodologies, and allow history to serve as a guide to end racially punitive police practices."

Scott says that cops resist change, so there will be plenty of resistance to any new type of training. She points out that when departments began using community policing strategies in the 1990s, officers derisively called it the "Hug-a-Thug" program.

"It's going to take enlightened leadership and real commitment from police executives to incorporate this into their academies," Scott says.

Former NYPD Detective Sergeant Joseph Giacalone, now an adjunct professor in the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College, says he isn't impressed with the ideas behind the guidebooks. He argues that today's cops don't know "if they should be fighting crime or having tea and cookies with the community."

"If the president is that concerned about how police departments are acting, he could have put through legislation to establish standardized policies and procedures that every police department in the country would have to follow," Giacalone says. "Not, 'Here's an information packet with some anecdotes, study it.'"

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich