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Collaboration and coercion in community policing

Collaboration in its rawest and most effective form involves the equality of each participant and an open mindedness that defies conventional police interactions

Collaboration is an essential skill of community policing, but a skill that is seldom effectively taught. Coercion is taught very well, is highly valued, and therefore necessarily shows up where other skills are not balanced and acculturated.

Coercion is modeled by police academy trainers, police academy structure, and training officers — it is the essence and purpose of the law itself. Coercion is forced conformity with behavior predetermined by one who has the power to impose that conforming behavior. It is the substance of police manuals and policy. Many leadership styles are predicated on coercion in one form or another.

Instructors and field training officers work on the trainee’s skill in projecting authority and control. Officers learn about eye contact, posture, and voice inflection as means of establishing supremacy in their interactions. Domination and intimidation become such a part of the police persona that officers’ personal lives and relationships often suffer.

Coercion should not and will not be removed as a fundamental means of what must be done in policing, but problem solving requires a keen awareness of where coercion tends to show up when we think we're collaborating.

Collaboration, the means of problem solving that we find at the opposing end of the collaboration-coercion continuum, is often mischaracterized in concept and in practice.

Most simply, as the components of the word itself reveal, collaboration is co-laboring, working together. Collaboration doesn’t necessarily imply that those working together are of like mind or even desire to be on the same team. Collaboration in its rawest and most effective form involves the equality of each participant and an open mindedness that defies conventional police interactions.

A typical working example of what is thought to be collaboration in police work would be seeking a solution for problems at a public park that has been the subject of complaints regarding crime and disorder. The coercive response in traditional policing would be the imposition of intense law enforcement measures including increasing police presence and making more arrests. A typical community policing response would be take the complaints at face value then assemble interested parties together to work toward a solution under the leadership of the police department.

This model of collaboration fails to achieve its potential. First, by assuming to define and characterize the problem to which subsequent solutions are attached, the police carry the first big stick. The authentic collaborative process begins in collaboration over what the problem is in the first place. Any collaborative process that begins at the point of  designing the solution has missed an essential component.

A second failure in our crime-ridden park example results from the default position of coercion embedded in police culture. The police define who gets to be collaborative partners, and who gets to lead the collaborative effort. The assumption that leadership belongs to the police reflects police power.

It is against police culture for the police to be merely a seat at the discussion table.

Police authority, or police veto power over suggested responses, is often reflected by the fact that the police official is leading the discussion, or seated close to the political leader in community decision making. This is often quite appropriate and logical but to assume that it should always be the case is contrary to the essential equality of partnerships in true collaboration.

Honest, open-minded discussion and reflective listening skills are the pillars of creative thinking in collaboration. The metaphor of everyone singing off of the same sheet of music demonstrates true collaboration only if everyone had an equal role in deciding they should sing in the first place.

False ‘collaborators’ who force a solution and call it teamwork are applauded by those who give mere lip service to collaboration. Imposing leadership in groups where non-conforming opinions are quickly dismissed may be effective and result in an excellent solution but should not mistaken for collaboration.

If we are to continue in a path of community policing, police training must drastically improve development of collaborative skills and communication. Officers are less likely to resist such training when they see that the tools of coercion will not be taken away and will remain a viable and necessary component of law enforcement. .

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