Understanding bias and power in community policing

Police-community relationship often fail because the law enforcement officer is unaware of a fact the community constituency knows all too well


This article originally appeared in the February 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Faux collaboration | Black History Month | Bias in community policing, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

By Shaun Ward, D. Mgt., PoliceOne Contributor

Effective law enforcement leaders constantly find themselves searching for opportunities to improve police-community relationships. Although leaders develop and implement strategies to achieve this goal, it is a difficult task.

The primary reason strategies fail to improve the police-community relationship is that law enforcement officers may be unaware of a fact the community constituency knows all too well: both leaders and their officers always bring their tacit bias and power to every call for service.

In order for community members to feel their police department cares about them and their communities, leaders should build and sustain an effective internal community first. (Photo/PoliceOne)
In order for community members to feel their police department cares about them and their communities, leaders should build and sustain an effective internal community first. (Photo/PoliceOne)

An officer is often the only person on-scene to carry multiple lethal weapons. An officer has a certain bias based on his or her previous experiences. An officer has the legal authority to vastly change the lives of all persons on a service call. Thus, the on-scene position of power is definitely one-sided, of which the public can be angrily aware. However, there are strategies officers can deploy to vastly improve this dynamic and subsequently improve community policing.

Strategy 1: Build an internal community

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) defines community policing by three components: relationships, organizational transformation and problem solving. Each component expresses the importance of building a community both internally and externally.

In order for community members to feel their police department cares about them and their communities, leaders should build and sustain an effective internal community first. This is accomplished through leaders involving their officers in every part of the decision-making process. Even though final decisions are made by the executives of an organization, involving officers enables them to feel connected to the overall mission of the organization and empowers them to be a stakeholder rather than an employee.

Police leader tip: When police officers accept leadership positions, their priority is their subordinates. If police officers are expected to serve their community, leaders should also serve their subordinates by embracing the practice of servant leadership.

Strategy 2: Understand how people connect

The concept of positionality, which is supported by the reticular activating system of the brain, attempts to explain how humans, consciously or unconsciously, connect with people with whom they share commonalities and interests. Our reticular activating system plays the role of gatekeeper of the information that travels into our conscious mind and how we perceive sensory information every day.

Although police officers, like all humans, have biases based on their background, experiences and what interests them, they must not apply those biases during their decision-making process.

Police leader tip: In order for decisions to be made without bias, leaders must constantly remind officers to focus on the facts and circumstances before them and make decisions as a result of that information.

Strategy 3: Recognize power dynamics

Sworn law enforcement officials have a certain degree of power and influence. It is essential for a sworn officer to understand a power dynamic always exists when he or she responds to a call for service. Knowing that, officers should not focus on exercising that authority as a tool, but rather use facts and circumstances to guide their use of power.

Police leader tip: Leaders may want to consider training strategies that encourage influence to be used proactively and not reactively. For example, letting a person know why they are stopped or why you are at their home encourages transparency. Although the officer has the authority to conduct the vehicle stop or be in someone’s home, being transparent invites cooperation and can show the officer is not abusing their power, thus potentially improving both officer and civilian safety.

Effective community engagement strategies for law enforcement leaders:


About the Author

Shaun Ward, D. Mgt., is a law enforcement professional with over 15 years of strategic and leadership experience who received his Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership degree. Dr. Ward has contributed extensively as a program manager of community policing initiatives and professional development. He is dedicated to researching occupational health and safety, relational process, and employee well-being to produce evidence-based best practices that are meaningful to scholars, practitioners and communities at large. Connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/shaunlward.

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