How to build a more sensitive cop

Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander is director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia and national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Cedric Alexander: Move past arguing over grand juries' calls; focus on policing problems

Police must do whatever it takes to improve diversity, reflect community in the force, he says

He says police must train in cultural sensitivity, including recognizing own biases

Writer: Regular contact with community--in groups and on street--crucial to policing

CNN  — 

The grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island have been made. Unsurprisingly, some people agree with them and others do not.

But dwelling on disagreement distracts us from dealing with the larger question at hand. What happens next? The answer seems rather simple. It is putting a plan into action that will be the difficult part. How can we move forward to allow the police departments of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York and those in many other cities to begin better meeting the needs of the communities they serve?

For starters, we must enhance recruitment methods, provide initial – and continual – training in specific areas of cultural sensitivity, encourage police organization transparency, and build police department-community relationships that will foster the development of trust and true collaboration.

Police departments need to work much harder to build a workforce that is diverse, in that word’s broadest definition. And a police department demographic should closely represent that of the community it serves. I often hear from criminal justice leaders who say, “We are doing our best to recruit diverse officers, but we have not been successful.”

This is no excuse and can’t be tolerated. If a department’s recruiting methods aren’t resulting in a diverse force, they should form relationships with local and national private-sector organizations that are doing it well. This nut has been cracked in other areas; it’s neither necessary nor efficient to figure out how to do it again.

Of course, a desirable recruit is one who feels called to serve. Police forces should take in those who are interested in making policing a career, and increasing salaries across ranks may encourage more people to do this.

Training in cultural sensitivity and critical thinking are crucial to an officer’s performance. You cannot be an effective or ethical officer if you cannot think critically—that is, being able to gather and process information to guide decision-making that directly affects behavior. This skill can mean the difference between life and death for an officer or the person with whom he or she is interacting.

Cultural sensitivity training requires an understanding of the history of the community and its members, but it also requires officers’ personal reflections, so they are aware of their biases and allegiances and how these may influence their decision-making abilities and behavior.

Superiors should continually evaluate their officers’ command of these skills, much as they would the use of firearms, defensive tactics and knowledge of relevant laws and regulations, and continued refresher training should be provided when needed.

If an officer consistently shows to be lacking in these areas, commanders should seriously consider firing that officer.

Lastly, a trusting, collaborative relationship with the community requires police department transparency. Communities want to know that their concerns are being heard and addressed, and many communities are creating neighborhood advisory committees that provide direct feedback to police officials on the effect of police policies, programming and messaging.

Developing trust also means increasing the amount of time the police department and community — both in the form of groups and individuals on the street – spend together. The more time together, the better each understands the other.

Some options: regular community-based forums, department community advisory committees, activities for families in the local police department during the year, and a requirement that officers reside in the communities they serve. These activities need to be supported by the top brass, as the only way for this to work is through a top-down commitment.

We are at the beginning of a much needed conversation surrounding change. This is not going to be easy for law enforcement or communities. There have been generations of stereotyping and mistrust on both sides of the debate and healing those issues will not happen overnight.

We can change policies with the stroke of a pen; if it were only so easy to change the feelings and hearts of people.

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