Evaluation as a Tool to Improve Police-Community Relationships

The relationship between police departments and the communities they serve is contentious in some places in the United States, despite similar goals and intentions on both sides. Both community members and police officers want trust, protection and respect. Yet these can be challenging goals to meet. Throughout U.S. history, tensions between police and communities of color, in particular, have led to resistance, unrest and even violence. Some of these cases have inspired new approaches like community policing, which encourages officers to build relationships by conducting foot-patrols, participating in community meetings, and forming police-community coalitions. In other cases, tensions between police and communities of color have not led to solutions, only then to be followed by deep-rooted resentment and mistrust. In recent months, we have seen violent clashes that have resulted in the tragic loss of lives from both parties.

Over the past year, Harder+Company has worked on two projects with local police departments to unpack some very similar issues, using the tools of evaluation and learning to provide a bridge between police and community perspectives. In San Diego, we are partnering with researchers at San Diego State University, to examine racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops made by San Diego Police Department in 2014-2015. Using community focus groups across several San Diego neighborhoods, we are helping to better understand how the community views law enforcement and policing in their neighborhoods. Some of the questions we are addressing through these conversations include:

  • From the community’s perspective, what are citizens’ experiences with police officers in their neighborhoods?
  • What do positive police-community relations look like?
  • What needs to happen to achieve that vision?

This community feedback will be combined with the results of the traffic-stop data analysis and interviews and surveys of San Diego officers to present a comprehensive report to the City of San Diego and its police department that will inform policies and practices.

In Los Angeles, we are evaluating a gang suppression initiative in the City of Los Angeles, called Community Law Enforcement and Recovery (CLEAR). CLEAR, currently in nine Los Angeles communities identified as having significant gang crime problems, operates as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the County Probation Department, the City Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office. CLEAR aims to suppress gang activity by arresting and severely punishing gang members using tactics such as gang injunctions and sentencing enhancements. Gang suppression is a harsh strategy that has fallen out of favor in many jurisdictions across the country, as people are increasingly aware of the correlation of punitive policing strategies and sentencing guidelines to mass incarceration and the disproportionate incarceration of men of color.

Our work on the CLEAR evaluation seeks to understand how communities perceive this program so that the LAPD and their partners can adapt this strategy to meet current needs and concerns. Given the prevalence of gang activity in Los Angeles, and the historical and ongoing tensions between LAPD and the communities they serve, we want to learn:

  • Is gang suppression the right strategy?
  • Does gang suppression make neighborhoods safer?
  • What does it feel like to live in the communities where these efforts are targeted?

These are complex questions without simple answers. We are using focus groups with community residents and ethnographic observations conducted during police ride-alongs in CLEAR communities to help the LAPD understand the impact of CLEAR from the perspective of these nine communities. We recognize that impact is not only about whether or not gang crime goes down, but how community members are affected by the strategies that are imposed upon them.

In both of these examples from Los Angeles and San Diego, we are guided by the following principles in our approach to this important and sensitive work:

  • We ground our approach the historical and contemporary contexts that community and police operate in. Context and history are instrumental in understanding the current state of a relationship between a police department and the community. In the cases of LA and San Diego, we are able to tap into the knowledge and relationships we’ve built over many years. This provides us with insight into why things are the way they are, what challenges we might face in attempting to conduct this research and what kinds of solutions have already been tried and found to be effective or ineffective. When working in communities where we may be less familiar, understanding this context is an important first step.
  • We value the perspective of the community. As community researchers and evaluators, it is our role to include the community as a vested stakeholder, giving them a voice and helping communicate their perspective to people in power. This includes engaging communities in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways.
  • We communicate findings in ways that can translate to actionable improvements. We are mindful of the political challenges justice agencies face in implementing changes, even needed ones. Therefore, we work hard to thoughtfully present evaluation results and recommendations in a way that can realistically inform decision-making.

We are proud to have the opportunity to gather community perspectives and bring them to leaders and policymakers who can improve conditions for residents.