Rebuilding Trust in Police Is Crucial—Here’s Why It’s So Hard

An erosion of trust between police and the communities they serve creates dangerous tension.
Police in Baltimore block an avenue near City Hall. (Photo: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)
May 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When Baltimore erupted in protests after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died mysteriously after being taken into police custody, the community response wasn’t entirely surprising.

“I think most folks would agree the conditions have been ripe for something like this to occur in Baltimore for some time,” Alvin Gillard, executive director of the Maryland Civil Rights Commission, told TakePart. “The matter of police and community relations is an issue we have simply not attended to.”

Gillard would know: For 18 years, he served as the executive director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. His goal was to ease the rift between community members and police, but it was a struggle, in part because the city has seen so many different police commissioners over the last decade. The changes in leadership, along with a lack of funding, made it difficult for Gillard’s office to build the necessary bridges between the police department and communities they serve. “We spent as much time trying to fight for funding as we did trying to fight unlawful discrimination,” he said.

Since its creation in December, the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has been trying to find ways to bridge the gap between community leaders and police in cities all over America, particularly with a slate of recommendations that was released in March. The task force came in response to the tumultuous aftermath of the deaths of other black men at the hands of police—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. The team identified building trust and legitimacy between police and communities as a key pillar to a police department’s ability to protect the public.

In April, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., responded to the growing crisis in police and community relations by introducing a bill to create a permanent national commission on criminal justice to address these and related problems. The commission’s creation was also a primary recommendation in the administration’s task force report. The bill calls for the president to appoint 14 criminal justice experts to issue more recommendations for reform—especially to address the strained relationship between police and communities.

Gillard ties the erosion of faith in police in Baltimore to the 1980s, when drug prosecutions proliferated with the epidemic rise of crack cocaine use.

“We have allowed the whole idea of policing to shift from community policing to this occupation type of law enforcement that has not served the community well,” he said.

The notion of police as an occupying force has pervaded scenes of protests, with military tanks, helicopters, and officers decked out in riot gear in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. All the experts in this story agree: When police inhabit neighborhoods in a militarized style, they are less trusted as guardians of the community.

That trust is crucial in times of conflict.

“We don’t see a reservoir of trust between police and communities in Baltimore,” former Boston police officer and criminal law professor Tom Nolan told TakePart. “We see a legacy of decades of police being bullies—and I don’t mean all of them. It only takes a few to create the feeling that the police are out of control.”

Nolan, who worked in the Boston Police Department for 27 years and served as a lieutenant, said the department has worked to reach out to community stakeholders to build goodwill with community leaders. The department relies on those relationships when things go awry to prevent uproar, he said.

Gillard would like to see the same happen in Baltimore—particularly during the crucial phase of training officers. Members of the community should be brought in to speak with police so they can gain a better understanding of the communities they will be serving. He would also like to see police strengthen their relationship with former offenders after their release back into communities from jail and prison.

“Those of us in government have to demonstrate the courage to reach out to those people at the community level who are providing leadership—and not just elected leadership,” Gillard told TakePart. “We’ve got to be as inclusive as we can.”