Soul-searching by police, community: Some lessons

Police in Baltimore during protests of Freddie Gray's death. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images. For link to Getty Images, see image in article.

Incidents around the country involving alleged and/or proven use of excessive police force against minority citizens and subsequent protests in our urban communities has sparked soul-searching by public officials and calls for action. Charlotte is just the latest scene for this unsettling challenge. 

I'd like to share three basic lessons that emerged from my participation in two relevant recent responses: a series of police-community conversations over the past year in Wilmington and a recent panel discussion between Charlotte public administrators (representing city and county governments as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department) for students in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte.


 Attention to the training of law enforcement officers and governmental response to managing protests is certainly important. One police official noted that we need to learn from training in other countries where there is a greater emphasis on first creating distance and assessing a threatening situation instead of immediate engagement, which is more prevalent in the U.S.  Managing protests requires on-the-ground coordination and understanding of the delicate balance between respecting the public’s right to protest and protecting public safety and property rights.

However, on a deeper level, it’s equally critical to address the very real culture of fear among police operating in African American neighborhoods that have a history of distrusting law enforcement and “guns everywhere,” as one police official put it. In turn, residents fear police who seem to face little accountability for their actions. In terms of the protests, one government official noted how they underestimated the level of pain and frustration in the community over conditions related to access to affordable housing, decent jobs, and an overall sense of inequality and powerlessness.


The “new normal” is a society where many residents have the ability to record events and make them instantly available to scores of people. In the Charlotte case of the shooting of Keith Scott, the cell phone recording released by the family was seen by 500,000 people within hours. In such situations, viewers quickly make their own assessments of what they see without context, and statements flow without any filtering by professional journalists who work to verify information before publication or broadcasting, as happened in the past.

The potential benefit of such technology is a more transparent, open society where those with formal authority and power such as the police have checks on their behavior that in the past were not visible to the general public.  The potential disadvantage is a much more limited ability by public officials and professional journalists to interpret events, provide context, and add to public understanding.


A police official stressed that for relations with the community to improve, police have to learn to be better listeners.  Listening is not always easy for people accustomed to giving orders and telling the public procedures to follow.  At the same time, members of the public don’t always encounter police with an open mind; instead they make assumptions about police motives because of history and in fact can be openly hostile to police who are just doing their jobs on patrol.

Community policing efforts are an attempt to make police more visible in neighborhoods outside of an arrest situation, in order to increase familiarity and build relationships. But it is going to take a change of heart on both sides for the situation to improve. An old saying applies here:  To get respect you have to give respect.  For governmental officials other than the police, it is also clear that more effective and continuous approaches such as ongoing engagement and dialogue are needed for local officials to have a better handle on the pulse of the community. Inviting citizens to open venting sessions at the government center is not enough; local officials need to go into communities and engage all types of grass roots groups, not just the “usual suspects” reached through traditional paths such as pastors and ministers.

These themes are just a sample of what is being learned by the efforts occurring throughout the country to address police-community relations and the tension in urban neighborhoods where anger and frustration is roiling beneath the surface. In Charlotte as elsewhere, we need the collaboration of government, nonprofits, universities, and community gatekeepers from every corner to focus energy and resources on the deeper issues in play.

Perhaps most important, we need everyone to see the shootings and protests as “our issue” instead of “their issue,” and to hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for real dialogue and concrete action.

Tom Barth is professor of public administration and director of UNC Charlotte’s Gerald G. Fox Master of Public Administration Program. Opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.