Breaking Barriers: Effective Community Engagement for Public Security

FBI, CT State Troopers, and Police Officers at the Community, Cops and Culture Event. Photo Credit: JoAnn Benson, Training & Civic Liaison Specialist, FBI New Haven.

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“The better we know the communities, the better we can protect them.” With these words, Charles Grady, FBI’s Community Outreach Specialist, unveiled the first annual Community, Cops and Culture event on October 28th, 2017 in Albertus Magnus College in New Haven. Run by the Connecticut FBI Outreach Team – in collaboration with the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Connecticut State Police, and New Haven Police Department – the event aimed to build and strengthen relationships between communities of color and law enforcement.

Far from the usual ‘hook em and book em’ image of law enforcement, the event featured state troopers and local police officers sharing their own immigration stories and reasons for choosing law enforcement careers. Trooper Sebastian Cummings shared his story of getting caught in crossfire as a young child in Medellín, Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar and being hidden by his mother until it was safe for her to retrieve him. Trooper First Class Joungsuk “Jessica” Moon of South Korea, Trooper Anlly Diaz of the Dominican Republic, and Trooper Emily Shaham of Palestine also discussed life in their respective countries, recounting their personal narratives in a space imbued with a sense of assurance and safety.

We need these narratives more than ever, as the days are increasingly ruled by bias and bigotry rather than by confidence and trust. Despite evidence that immigrants are responsible for less antisocial behavior than non-immigrants, narratives blaming newcomers for violence and crime persist. Such accounts are not only inaccurate, they are also harmful to public safety. Police credibility is often their first casualty – where minority communities feel unfairly targeted, they are less likely to cooperate with authorities and more likely to support those who mean society harm. That is why promoting positive narratives to counter those that treat entire communities as criminal is vital to basic police work – in both law enforcement organizations and the communities they serve. Crime must be approached holistically, addressing the environment in which it thrives, not just isolated illegal acts.

During my stint as the District Police Chief of Mahbubnagar District (State of Telangana, India), I pioneered structural changes in police-community relations through “Collaborative policing.”  For many years, this district was affected by Left-Wing Extremism led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which aims to overthrow the government through people’s war. Society in such rural districts is highly stratified with a strict hierarchy often leading to divisiveness and atrocities against the weaker sections. I strengthened the “Village Police Officer (VPO) System” to encourage a strong relationship between the police and the community, with a focus on crime prevention. This citizen-centric preventive model has helped bring down the crime rate in 2016 while addressing long-standing social challenges.

As a World Fellow who has worked on police-community relations in India, it was gratifying to see the alacrity with which the FBI tried to address the trust deficit for mutual benefit by striking a balance between enforcement and respect for diversity in the U.S. context. Efforts like these will likely contribute to strengthening the police force by making it more representative of the people it serves. Partnerships and mutual trust built for community crime prevention can also support enforcement in the form of tips and intelligence from residents. Crisis begets opportunity – an opportunity to connect the individual to the collective by building trust. Lest we forget.

About the Author

Rema Rajeshwari is an Indian Police Service officer currently serving as the District Police Chief in the State of Telangana in India. A Yale World Fellow from the cohort of 2017, her areas of interest are global security, counter-terrorist financing, and social innovation for effective law enforcement. She blogs on security and law enforcement issues.

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