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Community/Police Dialogues


Debra Oliver

Our communities have become increasingly and dangerously polarized, with sometimes lethal consequences for both citizens and police. Citizen distrust of government and police is rivaled by a dramatic uptick of militarization of police departments, creating a reinforcing feedback loop to the detriment of us all. Law enforcement is now expected to quickly resolve a host of crises once handled by mental health professionals and social workers, such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and severe mental illness. Zero tolerance policies in our schools shunt disciplinary issues to police that used to be managed by vice principals. As the American public becomes increasingly awash in guns and lawyers, it seems we may be headed toward a Brave New Wild West.

The media tend to sensationalize these tragic killings on both sides of the badge. The motto, “If it bleeds, it leads” tends to govern our headlines. Is it inevitable that the “Us vs. Them” rubric will escalate and ultimately spiral out of control?

There are no winners in the “Us vs. Them” scenario

How can we prevent our communities from approaching the cliff? Or how can we walk them back if they are already there in utter crisis mode? One method is Community/Police Dialogues.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is a highly structured and respectful facilitated circle process. Trained facilitators guide participants through a series of questions posed to the group that evoke deep reflection on the issues at hand. Each participant speaks to these carefully-crafted questions from the roots of their own experience, while the rest of the group listens deeply to that perspective. In Dialogue, there is no debate, no argument, no name-calling and no cross-talk. There is only respectful communication, spoken in the first person. Because of this structure, participants dig deeper into their humanity (which is a commonly-shared humanity). In Dialogue, participants speak their truth, but more importantly, they listen to one another. The deeper dimension of listening not only puts a human face on the meaning of events, but cuts through stereotypes, the shallowness of “talking points,” and the dismissive attitude that often accompanies rigid positions.

Examples of Community/Police Dialogues

In 2003, as the U.S. invaded Iraq, protests broke out all over the country—protests that often devolved into violence between protestors and police. At the outset of this wave of protest, I helped spearhead community dialogues between police and activists, under the auspices of the New Mexico Department of Peace Initiative and Community Dialogue Network, LLC. As a community, we carried on an intensive dialogue process for three consecutive years, with subsequent occasional dialogues on an as-needed basis. All dialogue circles were facilitated by highly trained mediators.

Protestors and police found common ground; they learned that their motives for playing their respective roles were grounded in a vision of what the community of Santa Fe could be. We moved together to a consensus about what each group needed to accommodate peaceful protest. Organizers and police worked together to map a plan for effective and lawful protest. During that time, there were no caged “Free Speech Zones” in Santa Fe. And both groups weeded out agents provocateur. There was no violence whatsoever. Police felt a new sense of respect and understanding for the issues that were motivating protestors and city residents respected police in their mission “to protect and to serve.” Both groups embraced the reality that, in the last analysis, we were neighbors. We moved on together to address other hot-button issues boiling over in this city. We organized dialogues at the request of law enforcement, around issues of immigration, hate crimes, voting rights and LGBT issues. We worked together seamlessly to dig deeper into the problems facing our community. And more recently, we successfully intervened on the eve of a violent clash between police and local gang members. At length, our Chief of Police, Beverly Lennen (now retired), wrote a proposal on our model to the National Conference of Mayors, stating,

“Unlike other area agencies, it has not been necessary to make ANY arrests since the dialogue process began. Event organizers now run interference with any participants who do not abide by the preset agreements. The frame in which activists view police has shifted from being seen as the enemy to being seen as the protectors. Most importantly, a fundamental goodwill has been permanently established between the police force and the activist community in Santa Fe. The walls of mutual suspicion and demonization were broken down during the dialogue process and a new structure of mutual respect and cooperation supervened…

”The ultimate measure of effectiveness is the reduction of violence in the City. Currently, we can measure the success of the dialogues by the absence of confrontation, the lack of violence, and the prevention of injuries or deaths involved in the events associated with the topics of discussion. “Reduced liability is an effectiveness measure and an indirect benefit to the City of Santa Fe. Reduced confrontations, violence, and arrests directly translate to fewer tort claims and lower civil liability.”—former Santa Fe Police Chief, Beverly Lennen

This model of Community/Police Dialogues can be equally successful in de-escalating tensions that currently plague cities such as Cleveland, Albuquerque, Ferguson and New York, or in any other municipality where there is discord between citizens and police, if:

  • Members of the given community are willing to sit down together in a safe space and to deeply listen to one another.
  • A carefully designed and systematically-structured program is created to conform to the exact needs of the present and to include all specific and central stakeholders in the community.
  • The team of facilitators includes well-trained members of the given community.
  • The City leadership is willing to participate in the process along with members of law enforcement, including leadership.
  • The City leadership is willing to invest the time and funding to support a gradual, measured, reasoned roll-out of this initiative.

Our model of Community-Police Dialogues has a proven track record that

  • rapidly de-escalates tensions between citizens and police
  • re-builds trust
  • generates mutual understanding and respect
  • fosters community resiliency
  • marshals community resourcefulness
  • forges a common commitment to community improvement
  • raises community awareness of problems and solutions
  • stimulates commitment to peaceful co-existence
  • builds community

For more information or for a free consultation, please contact...