June: Community Engagement

June 27, 2024


The big picture: Laying a strong foundation of trust and legitimacy is crucial for effective policing.

Community engagement has been an ongoing conversation in policing for decades. The connection between strengthening community relationships and effective policing is typically understood and often incorporated by a lot of agencies into their everyday operations.

In his 2004 article, Enhancing Police Legitimacy, Professor Tom Tyler explains that the foundation of police effectiveness is related to overall trust and legitimacy. He discusses the importance of procedural justice (acting fairly and transparently when making decisions) and emphasizes police do their jobs best when they regularly practice this. In other words, officers should be fair, just, and unbiased and allow the community to participate in decision making.

Professor Tyler further suggests that community members care more about how they are treated during an interaction with an officer than they do the outcome of that interaction. When procedural justice concepts are weaved into everyday operations, community members are more likely to cooperate with the law—even when no police are present.

In his 2024 essay, as part of NPI’s well-known Ideas in American Policing series, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reinforces the importance of community engagement and goes further, mentioning the increasingly popular concept of “co-produced public safety.”

What we know: Strong community engagement can improve the implementation of proven crime reduction strategies.

One of the many recommendations that came from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing report is that law enforcement agencies should create and implement procedures that reinforce the importance of community engagement.

Research* explains how positive interactions with police, outside of patrol or investigative work, impact the community’s opinion of their law enforcement agency. In other words, positive interactions with community members aside from official calls for service contribute to positive feelings about police. This can be accomplished in a few ways, two suggestions being:

  • Think about creating a framework that embeds proactive community engagement and procedural justice ideals in every rank. Encourage those in command to set clear expectations and goals with all staff, including who and where to engage. Leading by example and talking about it may inspire those deeper in the organization to follow suit.
  • Consider establishing working partnerships with community representatives and include them in identifying problems, agency goal-setting, policy development, and strategic planning. In some cases, community members may have different public safety priorities than an agency. Bringing formal and informal community leaders to the table offers diverse perspectives that can boost operational effectiveness and lead to productive conversations. NPI’s Compstat360 suggests this team be formalized and reconvened often for updates.

The more effective community engagement is, the easier it is to implement crime reduction strategies that work (see our April issue of InFocus for strategy examples). Instilling trust that fosters legitimacy establishes a strong foundation, but one that needs to be grown and nurtured.

From the field: Real strategies implemented by agencies just like yours.

The Greenville Police Department (GPD) in North Carolina includes community members when assessing and building GPD’s 3-year plan. In 2012, a new police chief arrived, and the agency held meet-and-greets to help with onboarding. From those meetings and their annual community feedback survey, GPD recognized the need for further community engagement. In 2013, the agency’s first community-involved strategic planning meeting took place. Representatives from schools, nonprofits, advocacy groups, city boards, neighborhood associations, and more were invited to the table—offering diverse perspectives to help identify needs and develop goals.

GPD selects a neutral location and facilitator. The group then assesses the relationship between the agency and community and heads into a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. The goals are set for the next three years and then reviewed annually. This community buy-in creates greater trust and a sense of ownership among members of the Greenville community.

Photos courtesy of the Greenville Police Department
In 2022, the San Antonio Police Department in Texas began requiring cadets to hold internships with community stakeholders, including local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and youth groups, during the academy. The Community Immersion Program invites these stakeholders to provide 20 hours of internship opportunities and conversations with local community members—allowing cadets to fully understand what matters to that specific community before putting on the uniform. Upon graduation, cadets are assigned to the region where their internship took place, bringing the experience full circle. Researchers are actively examining the impact of this program. Learn more.
Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) in Florida requires command staff members to serve in some capacity with a local nonprofit board of directors. Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman believes that to serve a community, you must be part of it. The initiative began by identifying existing relationships with local nonprofits and nonprofits where relationships could be strengthened. Command staff members identified organizations whose missions align with their interests and/or the interests of those they supervise. Soon, every member of Sheriff Hoffman’s command staff will be affiliated with a nonprofit, either through volunteering, advisory board roles, or election to formal Board of Director positions. From the local Boys & Girls Club to the National Alliance on Mental Health, SCSO is fully embedded with its finger on the pulse of what matters to Sarasota County citizens.

The bottom line: Community engagement should be embedded in an agency’s culture.

When communities trust their police, they are likely to follow the law even when no one is watching and be actively engaged in creating a safe and thriving community for all. At NPI, we envision every agency and every community benefiting from positive engagement for the successful co-production of public safety. To help your agency and others achieve this goal, here are a few resources we hope will inspire action.

  • Ideas in American Policing. NPI’s historically significant series returns with a new essay: Can We Fix the “Crisis of Legitimacy” in American Policing? Introducing Performance Metrics That Matter to the Community. Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum introduces promising reform ideas, performance measurements, and more that can deliver positive outcomes for all.
  • Remain thoughtful about specialized units. This guide from NPI and the COPS Office offers tools for law enforcement and community leaders to determine if and when specialized units should be used.
  • Small agencies and community engagement. The Rural Violent Crime Reduction Initiative (RVCRI) offers resources that include technical training and assistance to rural and tribal agencies nationwide. A recent webinar from March 2024 offers authentic community engagement strategies and examples. Listen in.
  • Hear from those you serve. The Alliance Police Department in Nebraska, an RVCRI micrograntee, uses community surveys after each interaction. This allows the agency to better understand how officers interact with the public and how the public feels about their service. Read how.
  • Strengthening connections. The 54th Mile Policing Project is an ongoing project that focuses on fostering connections and building relationships between police and communities of color. In the coming months, resources will be available to help hold tough conversations and drive change.
  • Explore more resources. The Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab offers a resource index for agencies seeking tools to help cultivate community trust and partnership initiatives. Dive in.
  • One-of-a-kind training. The Professionalizing Law Enforcement-Community Engagement Training (PLECET) National Conference hosted by MovementForward offers a rare opportunity for those in public safety to network and learn about best practices. The organization focuses on six initiatives, one of which offers a specific networking opportunity for community engagement officers.
  • Boost your hot spots policing strategy. In NPI’s 2022 study, we found that integrating procedural justice into officers’ training allowed for more effective implementation of hot spots policing, a proven crime reduction strategy. Start here.
  • Trust and legitimacy by the numbers. Professor Tom Tyler was this year’s recipient of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, awarded for his work on police legitimacy and procedural justice. His lecture at the 2024 symposium discusses the relationship between legitimacy and public engagement in a democratic society. Listen in.



*Review research citations used in this issue here.