Addressing divide between communities and police

Over the past few weeks, the United States has witnessed a severe escalation of violence and mistrust between police and the communities that the police are charged with protecting. The five police officers killed in Dallas made July 7th the deadliest day since 9/11 for US law enforcement.

The police were killed as they were patrolling a #BlackLivesMatter protest – following a week in which two African-American men were senselessly killed by police. Polls taken this week affirm that perceptions of racial segregation in the United States are at their highest point since 1992.

{mosads}These killings were not isolated or random acts of violence — they are the symptoms of a deeper imbalance in the relationship between citizens and the security systems meant to protect them. Communities have serious grievances, rooted in the lack of trust in a state security sector that they perceive as predatory rather than protective.

We may think this dynamic is unique to the United States at this moment in history — but, in fact, this type of grievance is a driver of violent conflict in countries all over the world. The Alliance for Peacebuilding, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) have studied this dynamic extensively in a three-year research project.

The results of our research — which have deep application to the United States — are captured in a Handbook on Human Security: A Civil Society-Military-Police Curriculum and Local Ownership in Security: Case Studies of Peacebuilding Approaches.

A key lesson arose from our research, true in the US and elsewhere: no one group — either police or civilians — can achieve security on its own without working with others. Civil society, community leaders and the police all have a role to play in achieving human and community security, and must work together. We found that:

 1.   Legitimate state-society relations are fundamental to human security. Citizen-oriented states that focus on human security enjoy public legitimacy and support. Security threats and violence correlate with corrupt and abusive security and police forces.

In the United States, police must demilitarize, must work more closely with the communities they seek to protect, and must not demonstrate arbitrary force based on racial profiling.

2.   Security is a public good. Security forces, including police, can best provide this public good and security can be locally owned when security forces coordinate with and are fully accountable to legitimate civilian political authority and civil society, including religious groups, educational institutes, traditional leaders, NGOs, women’s groups, youth groups and other representatives of community interests.

This requires dialogue between police and their communities, and mechanisms for holding police and citizens accountable for their actions.

3.   Security forces should be viewed as protectors, not predators. One of the most critical indicators of legitimate state-society relations – and successful security sector reform – is that local men and women in civil society view security forces as protecting all civilians equally and not targeting particular groups based on race, class or ethnicity.

4.   Peacebuilding skills and processes are essential for multi-stakeholder coordination to improve human and community security. Facilitated dialogue, negotiation, and mediation between community groups, police and government can significantly improve coordination and local ownership.

5.   Three conditions enable more robust local ownership and community-police coordination:

  • when local ownership is wide; including diverse local civil society groups;
  • when local ownership is systematic, including diverse local civil society in five areas necessary for human security (joint civil police capacity building, assessment, planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation); and
  • when local ownership is deep, involving institutionalized mechanisms in which an empowered, independent, distinct, accepted and free civil society contributes to security in direct and on-going relationship with the security sector.

These processes all have a role to play in achieving the fundamental right of individual and community security. President Obama recently brought together police, political leaders and civil rights activists to discuss solutions to the violence.

This meeting was part of a week-long event to discuss police reform and President Obama stressed the need for structural reform. The Alliance for Peacebuilding agrees that we need to ensure that our community-police coordination deepens local ownership of security by institutionalizing mechanisms that exist for joint capacity building, information sharing, dialogue and consultation, and oversight.

We must address the divide between American communities and the police charged to protect them, or we must expect these horrific acts of violence to continue.  

Hume, Greenberg and Schirch are leaders in the peace building and conflict resolution field, with over 50 years of combined senior leadership experience.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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