Opinion: Stronger community ties are necessary for police reform

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Nicholas Hunter

It is no secret in the U.S. that, in many parts of the country, the relationship between communities and their police forces are quite tenuous.

It would be an exercise in futility to list off the countless injustices at the hands of bad policing, especially incidents involving the unnecessary and tragic deaths of people of color.

On the other hand, there are many people who believe that police are under greater pressure than ever in their day-to-day work, making their jobs increasingly more difficult.

Personally, I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The disproportionate deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement are inexcusable, and I think the public pressure on police to avoid more violence — while valid and necessary — is making police more susceptible to making deadly mistakes.

The answer to that issue, I believe, lies in police training reform that encourages non-violent action and use of non-lethal actions in extreme cases.

Implementing better training, however, is only half the battle when it comes to the issues surrounding the tense relationship between law enforcement and the public.

A vital aspect of an effective police force lies in the relationship those officers have with the public.

I grew up in a small, suburban town — I sometimes call it real-life “Friday Night Lights,” with less drama. It is truly a town where everyone knows everybody, which includes the police officers in town. There was a cop at the school in the morning and us students were as friendly to him as we were with our favorite teachers.

This comes from the intimacy of a small town. With only 4,000 people in my hometown (a village, officially), running into a cop — on-duty or off — at the gas station or on your way to school was a constant reminder that the men in blue were just as much human as anyone else.

But in many places across the country, especially dense urban areas, there is little connection the police and the people that it quickly turns into an “us versus them” scenario.

There are ways to break these mental barriers down: Programs like “Shop with a Cop” are a way for local law enforcement to spend time with some of the most vulnerable people in their communities — children from low income families.

Aside from organized programs, there are other ways for police officers to connect with the community.

For example, Officer Tommy Norman of the North Little Rock Police Department gained viral fame for his public engagement with the people of Little Rock on his social media accounts.

The problem, however, is the way his department responded; Claiming to be “cracking down” on already-existing policy, Norman was barred from using social media while on duty.

Aside from cutting off a channel of communication between an upstanding officer and the community he serves, I’m not sure what was accomplished by that move.

With tensions so high, those rare instances of an extremely positive relationship between law enforcement and community are enormously valuable, and it only reinforces people’s view of the police system as oppressive and negative.

There are certainly other issues to focus on. Police reform is sorely needed nationwide, and when things go wrong, police forces must be ready and willing to admit the mistakes of officers and larger systemic problems instead of putting up defensive barriers.

But it is perhaps just as important for police officers to, as Norman puts it, “not be identified by (their) badge, but by (their) heart.”

Nicholas Hunter is the opinion editor. Contact him at [email protected].