Extreme Rhetoric on Policing Has Led Donors Down an Unproductive Path
In the more than three years since George Floyd’s murder provoked massive protests and urgent calls for police reform, philanthropy, like much of the nation, continues to grapple with what to do next.
Efforts to improve police-community relations face ongoing challenges. In 2022, the number of people killed by police was the highest on record, and tragic stories of excessive police force continue to make headlines.
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In the more than three years since George Floyd’s murder provoked massive protests and urgent calls to overhaul policing, philanthropy, like much of the nation, continues to grapple with what to do next.
Efforts to improve police-community relations face ongoing challenges. In 2022, the number of people killed by police was the highest on record, and tragic stories of police using excessive force continue to make headlines. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation of the Memphis police department sparked by the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in January.
Unfortunately, the ideas for change that often get the most attention, such as the “defund the police” and “back the blue” at all costs narratives, are based on political rhetoric rather than evidence. That false binary, promoted by the loudest voices in the room, has distracted grant makers from embracing more-effective and proven approaches.
For example, the narrative spun by some advocates after Floyd’s murder was that vulnerable communities wanted less policing. In fact, the opposite was true. A poll conducted during that fraught time found that most Black Americans wanted the same amount or more policing in their neighborhoods. This could be because greater police presence is shown to reduce violent crime, as long as that policing is respectful and just.
In Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was murdered, flashy rhetoric led many astray and harmed reform efforts. By the end of 2021, the number of officers on the Minneapolis police force had dropped from about 900 to 588 and is still down more than 200 officers. During the same period, homicides doubled, reaching a record in 2021.
Despite these clear warning signs, some advocates and philanthropists supported a referendum to replace the city’s police department with a new “Department of Public Safety” that would focus on a “comprehensive public-health approach to safety.” The referendum would have used funding that previously went to the police department’s social-service programming and removed the requirement that the new department employ police officers. The proposal, while undoubtedly well intentioned, was soundly rejected at the ballot box, with opposition high among Black voters in particular.
By contrast, research consistently shows that one of the most effective tactics for improving policing is meaningful community engagement that builds trust and forges partnerships that help prevent and solve crime. These approaches derive from decades of research, including studies showing that interracial contact in the armed forces during World War II reduced racial tensions. More recent research has conclusively found that contact between different groups can significantly lessen prejudice.
When police and communities work collaboratively, they have enormous potential to not only stem violent crime but also address the most pressing underlying issues that drive inequality in our justice system — especially in communities where trust in law enforcement is understandably broken. One large analysis found that building trust between community residents and law enforcement reduces re-offenses and increases resident satisfaction, confidence, and collaboration with the police — all of which can ultimately help police in their quest to keep communities safer.
Americans overwhelmingly favor community outreach as an increased part of police budgets. Yet, investment in community engagement by local police departments and the federal government remains low. For instance, only 7 percent of the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2023 budget was allocated to community-oriented policing.
Government funding can and should catch up. But in the meantime, philanthropy has an opportunity to lead the way by helping to expand law enforcement community engagement nationwide — and by showing why these efforts are effective.
Grant makers can start by investing in programs that prioritize bridging divides between the police and community members. That means supporting groups that emphasize the humanity of each camp, rather than promoting, even if unintentionally, divisive messages and stereotypes. Oppositional “defund” and “defend” the police approaches not only are unpopular but also exacerbate adversarial relationships between law enforcement and the community that drive crime up and equality down.
Humanize All Sides
Instead, efforts that build partnerships and humanize all sides offer the best hope of simultaneously improving public safety and equal justice. Effective examples include the International Association of Chiefs of Police Trust Building Campaign and Serve & Connect’s Compassionate Acts Program, which provides police officers with items to hand out such as winter coats and diapers to directly help people in need.
Philanthropists should also support community-based organizations that work specifically to reduce bias and misunderstanding and bring officers and residents together. They can do this themselves by promoting community roundtables, safety sessions, and collaborative crime-prevention programs that afford residents and officers a chance to get to know each other on a personal level.
For example, Urban Specialists, a Dallas nonprofit, works with the Dallas Police Department to implement bottom-up violence-interruption programs, such as partnering with more than 800 former gang members to mentor at-risk youth and help them become leaders in their communities.
Such efforts should be accompanied by research that shows their impact, including taking a deep look at what innovations and technology best equip both police and residents to work together to keep their neighborhoods safe. One approach, used by social-impact start-up ForceMetrics, deploys data-aggregating technology to put critical information in the hands of police and co-responders, such as social workers and behavioral-health professionals, to ensure the most appropriate tactics are used when interacting with community members.
ForceMetrics can search across police databases to compile public information within seconds on whether a community member has, for example, previously made domestic-violence calls or has a history of mental illness. This can greatly improve how an officer interacts with the person and allows emergency dispatchers to determine if a police officer or other professional is best suited to respond.
Finally, more support is needed for organizations advocating for policies and practices that promote positive police-community interactions. This includes reducing unnecessary police encounters, such as the reliance on fines and fees to fund police departments, which turns police officers into revenue collectors rather than peace keepers. Efforts to increase transparency and accountability, including wearing body cameras and using nonlethal devices such as stun guns and BolaWraps, should also be part of these efforts, as should pushing for partnerships between police and community mental-health and substance-use programs.
Our organizations, MovementForward and Stand Together, seek to change the discourse and direction of the debate on policing. That’s why this year we launched a first-of-its-kind national network for law enforcement community engagement practitioners, the Law Enforcement Community Engagement Network. Our goal is to transform policing nationally by providing opportunities for officers to identify, develop, and share best practices and viable solutions.
While government has a responsibility to adequately fund essential public-safety functions, including community-engagement efforts, philanthropy can help ensure innovative and effective solutions get the attention and resources they deserve. Philanthropists must reject the impulse to echo the opinions of select groups and pundits and instead partner with those who are in the best position to help restore community trust, improve public safety, and ensure equal justice for all.