Police, get friendly with community

Story highlights

  • Latest Ferguson shootings push strained race relations to breaking point
  • Donna Brazile: Relationship between police forces and minority communities must improve

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)With the ongoing protests over the shooting death by police of black teenager Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, the racist chanting of fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma, and now the inexcusable shootings of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, it's safe to say that the always-strained race relations in this country are being pushed to the breaking point.

And the point with the most stress is the delicate relationship between police forces and the minority communities that they serve.
To approach things from a more positive angle, the situation is dire enough that we absolutely have to try to uncover the good and not dwell on the negative. The best time to make things better is when it seems that everything is getting worse. This unacceptable status quo can motivate us to take the necessary steps to address the problems, which are not going to disappear unless we honestly deal with them.
    Donna Brazile
    When things are going wrong, responsible people can begin by saying the right things. President Obama said on Twitter, "Violence against police is unacceptable. Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together."
    The Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement saying, "The CBC understands the frustrations in Ferguson, but a response of violence is not the answer during this transformative moment in our country."
    And Attorney General Eric Holder noted, "This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. ... This was a damn punk, a punk who was trying to sow discord."
    For the most part, authorities in Missouri have been careful not to blame the peaceful protesters.
    Surely, not all responses have been as measured, but the gravity of the situation will hopefully bring out the best in people. While we pause for a moment to let passions cool, we can use the time to consider how best to move forward with common resolve instead of mutual recrimination.
    The way forward is to engage citizens in the community -- to bring them into the room when decisions are being made about policing policies and procedures to make sure that those policies and procedures address the community's real concerns. And it's about putting law enforcement officers in the community as welcome members of that community -- as guarantors of the safety and security of the people instead of intimidating outside forces.
    This approach would benefit both the community and the police. I'm certain that officers would rather be appreciated and valued by the people they serve than be pressured to fill city coffers by issuing unnecessary citations, as noted in the DOJ report on Ferguson. Nobody becomes a cop because they secretly long to be a collection agent.
    One of the easiest ways to integrate law enforcement officers into the community is to physically put them on the sidewalks by increasing the number of cops who work good old-fashioned foot beats.
    Officers who view the world through a patrol car window are separated from the people they serve by more than a sheet of glass. Being encased in a vehicle alienates a person from the world around them. The cop on the beat is not just a quaint notion from old movies, he can be a bridge between police forces and the people they serve. Another idea is to give cops bicycles, which has brought so many law enforcement officials in touch with other cyclists in the community.
    Lack of community policing is one of the shortcomings cited in the DOJ report on Ferguson. In areas where the gulf between law enforcement and the neighborhood is too wide, mediators can be used to initially bring the two sides together. After all, both sides ultimately have the same goal of safe and peaceful neighborhoods.
    Both police departments and members of the community can take proactive steps to come together on more than a purely professional level. A tech services company in the South Bronx recently hosted a video game competition with police officers and residents of the neighborhood. The event left local teenagers saying things about the cops like "basically they're like us."
    Ultimately, police should be considered members of the community -- a notion that needs to be encouraged by police departments and neighborhoods alike. Communities can make the local cops part of their neighborhood celebrations. New Orleans Police Det. Winston Harbin became a minor Internet celebrity for his impromptu dancing with local people during Mardi Gras. Besides just being fun, Harbin's interaction with the community helped foster the type of mutual appreciation and respect that are essential to effective community policing.
    Fear and mistrust among minority communities toward police are the legacy of many decades of racism, unequal treatment, bias, subjective stereotyping and lack of opportunity. It is times like now, when that anger and resentment are boiling, that we address it. With the right approach, we can begin to change the attitude between the black community and the police from "HandsUpDon'tShoot" to "HandsTogetherInTrust."