Trust: The Dilemma of Community Policing

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.

-Barack Obama

My Dear Readers,

Many Americans remember reading about or experiencing the racial turbulence of the 1960s.  One of the most important events of that period occurred when a riot broke out in Watts, a section of Los Angeles, California.  65 deaths and tens of millions of dollars later, then L.A. Police Chief William Parker, when asked about the community by the media, remarked:

“Like monkeys in a zoo… once one of them starts, they all jump in.”

The African-American community is a closed system. Generally, closed systems are isolated and not economically sustainable, relying on a small middle class and a labor force that is dependent on more open community systems.  As a result, closed systems can be particularly susceptible to psychological wounds arising from the experience of complex trauma.

In contrast, the white community is an open system. It is politically strong and economically sustainable. This system allows individuals to travel without hindrance, moving freely to interact with other units within the group (business, professional organizations etc.), and external environments (interstate, international etc.).  Community services such as public policy, social welfare, and the maintenance of law and order are effectively managed by community leadership.

From a psychological standpoint, one system may be focused on surviving while the other focuses on flourishing, but both communities share many realities; one of them being that they are both dependent upon the police—a governmental entity that is supposed to serve all communities in a given physical space (e.g., state, county, parish, city, town, etc.)—to maintain law and order.

In this case, the majority of police officers and personnel reside in the open system—which, for the purposes of this discussion, we have defined as the white community.  This fact may create feelings of isolation, disempowerment due to experiences of complex trauma, and suspicion towards police personnel from citizens who live in the closed system because of the belief that these officers and personnel are not and cannot be invested in people and communities that are not their own. 

Because of the suspicion of the citizens in the closed system, police who are assigned to those physical areas often maintain their distance from those citizens, not only because of the obvious distrust, but because the police begin to be concerned for their own safety and security.  At the same time, however, their superiors in the white community continue to evaluate their performance in the closed system, that pressure to perform in the face of fear causes police organizations to feel the same way that citizens in the closed system feel: squeezed, increasingly isolated, disempowered and suspicious.

Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship, and given this, policing organizations find themselves in a complex position.  They must seek to maintain the trust of one community—the open, white system—and, at the same time, work to establish trust with the closed, African-American system.

The relationship between African-Americans and the police is a lot like watching a juggler perform. We hope that they will be successful, but the expectation is that at some point, a ball will be dropped.  As a result, we shift our focus to when the ball will be dropped, and fail to appreciate the successful juggling that does happen.

In the case of African-American communities and the police, three factors contribute to this complicated situation:

  • system failure
  • complex trauma
  • racial profiling

1. System Failure

The actions and reactions of both police and citizens lie at the mercy of the characteristics and limitations of the closed system.  Residence within the African-American community is constantly in transition, with the professional, working-class and middle-class structure dwindling.  As individuals come and go, and with complex trauma being psychologically overwhelming the community, questions around the economic viability and sustainability of the community continue to be raised.

On the other hand, the police, although supported by an open system, is subject to investigation by the media, pressure from government officials, and criticism from the public for the mistakes of individuals within its ranks.  As a result, the police itself becomes more and more of a closed system as it looks to protect itself and its members, adopting the stance that “you are either for us or against us.”

2. Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is a form of psychological trauma. It is an illness that profoundly impacts the African-American community.  Complex PTSD and its symptoms are often hidden, and as a result, it is easy for both the patient and those who cause the trauma to deny. Because it is so misunderstood, the wounds it causes continue to mount and to debilitate those who are impacted.

Unlike a physical ailment or disease, complex trauma is unseen.  Its easy deniability adds to the harming of the individual and to the crippling of the community.  As a result, it slowly wears away at the individual’s emotional and mental functioning, and the community’s ability to address it.

Complex PTSD comes from events and experiences that are:

  • repetitive, prolonged or cumulative,
  • most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and
  • often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life and/or in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability, disempowerment, dependency, age and/or infirmity

The African-American community and police organizations share a long turbulent history that spans back to the era of slavery, when policing organizations included “patrollers” and “slave catchers.”  The main responsibility of these two groups included the following:

  • Apprehending runaways
  • Monitoring the rigid pass requirements for free blacks and slaves in urban and rural areas
  • Breaking up large gatherings and assemblies of blacks
  • Visiting and searching slave quarters randomly
  • Inflicting impromptu punishments when deemed necessary
  • Maintenance of law and order among slaves, quelling disobedience

The police during numerous times in the history of the US have been utilized to control blacks insuring that they stayed in their rightful place. During WWII, in towns across the country, control over black soldiers outside of military bases was harshly maintained by local law enforcement, as described in one instance:

In 1943, in Centerville, Mississippi, a white sheriff intervened in a fistfight between a white soldier and black one.  After the black got the upper hand, the sheriff shot him to death, then asked the white soldier, “Any more niggers you want killed?”

Prior to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the military was aware of the dangers of African-Americans being assaulted by local law enforcement.  A senior white officer, having completed a study of race relations in the early 1960s, observed:

“Fear is constantly a companion of the negro airman.  He suffers from fear anytime he departs the confines of the base he is assigned in the Deep South.”

In addition to sharing a turbulent history, police organizations share the same psychological disorder, complex trauma and its devastating outcome.  The specific subtype of complex trauma described by policing organizations is post-traumatic stress.  Police officers may be simultaneously responding to several or all of the following:

  • struggles with the demands of policing,
  • the pressures of being isolated,
  • feeling misunderstood by the public they seek to serve and
  • low morale due to nonsupport from leadership,
  • stress from split-second decision-making
  • deaths of fellow officers,
  • unresolved feelings regarding wounding or the taking of a life

Complex Trauma & Policing Organizations 

“Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day.  They got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”

-Barack Obama

The impact of post-traumatic stress upon police officers has resulted in the following factors: 

Domestic Violence (Dr. Sonia Salari, Professor Univ. of Utah)

  • 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, whereas families not involved in police work make up only 10% of domestic violence cases.
  • 24% domestic violence rate among older and experienced officers
  • It is two to four times more common for a police family to experience domestic violence

Divorce (Timothy Roufa, Criminology Expert)

  • Divorce rate among police officers are as high as 75%
  • The national rate is 50%.

Suicide (Statistics 2009 Badge of Life Suicide Study)

  • In 2009 there were 143 there were 143 police suicides, a slight increase from 2008 police suicides of 141.
  • This is in comparison of 127 in the line of duty deaths in 2009.
  • Officer suicide rates are at least double of the general population
  • Ages 40-44 are at the highest risk of suicide, representing 27% of all suicides.
  • Service time at highest risk was twenty years plus.
  • Officers with less than ten years on the job had a suicide rate of 17%.
  • 64% of the suicide were a surprise

Alcoholism (E. Rave, Understanding stress in law enforcement)

  • Although the statistics are somewhat unclear, clinically treated alcohol addiction rates are usually calculated to be about twice as high for police officers than for the general population in the United States
  • Statistics documenting alcohol abuse are less accurate; however rates of arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol are fairly higher for police officers than other drivers
  • Despite the controversies in the interpretation of the statistics, it is generally considered evident that police officers are more vulnerable to alcohol abuse than other occupations.
  • There is evidence to suggest that police officers become involved in excessive alcohol consumption because they are police officers.


III. Racial Profiling is the act of suspecting or targeting a person of a certain race based on a stereotype of about their race. 

“When a young non-white male is stopped and searched at the whim of a police officer, his idea of personal space, privacy and self-esteem is shattered to say nothing of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections. The damage goes deep quickly and stays.  Stop & frisk, as well as a tactic, is also an incitement.”

-Henry Rollins, Television & Radio Host

In a research study conducted by the ACLU and the RAND Corp. in various cities across the United States, African-Americans were between three and five times more likely to

  1. be asked if they were carrying drugs or weapons,
  2. be asked to leave the vehicle,
  3. be searched,
  4. have a passenger searched, and have the vehicle searched

Examples of racial profiling by police may include the following:

  • An African-American man standing on a corner waiting for a bus is stopped and questioned regarding why he is standing there and where he is going.
  • A Hispanic driver is stopped in a “white” neighborhood” because he “doesn’t belong there” or “looks out of place.”
  • Latino residents experienced racial affronts targeted at their race indicated by skin-color, bilingual speaking abilities (or inability to speak or understand English), or shopping in neighborhoods highly populated by Latinos.
  • A group of black teenagers are pulled over because of the kind of car they are driving.
  • A white man waiting in a car in a “ghetto” neighborhood is stopped and questioned about buying drugs.

 Concluding Words- Dr. Kane

In To Protect And Empower: A Parent’s To Interaction With The Police, originally posted on 2.13.15, I focused on the safety concerns of African-American parents due to the recent shootings by police and private security organizations, the safety of their children, particularly males of preadolescent/adolescent age (10-17) and those in early adulthood (18-25).  The unprecedented response by worried parents led to the development of the brochure African-American Males And The Police, a set of guidelines for parents to discuss with their children regarding positive and safe interactions when interacting with police.

There are police organizations today that are actively seeking strategies that, if successful, will be beneficial in improving relationships with minority communities.  One such strategy is community policing.  This concept comprises three components:

  1. Community Partnerships-collaborative relationships between law enforcement and individuals in the community focusing on developing solutions to problems and encouraging trust between individuals in the community and the police.
  2. Organizational Transformation-the alignment of organizational management, structure, personnel and information systems to support community partnerships and proactive problem solving.
  3. Problem Solving-the process of engaging in the proactive and systemic examination of identified problems to develop and evaluate effective responses.

Time to build trust

Four hundred years of racial tension between the white and black communities and the lack of trust towards policing organizations will not be resolved quickly.  A major impediment continues to be the avoidance and denial behaviors of both the African-American community and police organizations.  Both entities continue to avoid and deny the complex trauma that is strongly rooted and deeply entrenched within both closed systems.

Viewing the African-American community as “progressing” without taking into consideration of its history of complex trauma and viewing police organizations as “solid, without cracks” attempting to meet the demands of two communities in conflict with each other are both illusions.  The truth be told, both the African-American community and police organizations are psychologically wounded and as such, those wounds are impacting the ability of both to function in a healthy and appropriate manner.

“It is not time that requires that building of trust to build, but rather it is the willingness to do the work together, utilizing time in the building of trust.”

Dr. Micheal Kane

Until the next crossroad… the journey continues.






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