Community Relationships and Law Enforcement’s Use of Force: Learning from Stakeholders to Refine Policy and Training

An unarmed civilian is fatally shot. A family grieves or anxiously awaits their loved one’s recovery. Long-simmering tensions boil over. Video of the shooting is released or
withheld. Debates rage about whether the shooting was justified. Community members fear for their safety and demand justice.

This is an all too familiar story. While much of the discussion about use-of-force focuses on how to decrease the number of times force is used, there is also a pressing need to focus on how and why to engage with communities around use-of-force issues.

Any discussion of community perspectives on the use of force must remain historically grounded. For many communities, examples of law enforcement using force to abuse, intimidate, and deny rights are prominent in memory and continue to be reinforced today. Law enforcement played integral roles in traumatic historic events such as the Trail of Tears, lynchings, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Images of abuses of force remain ingrained in the U.S. collective memory. Photos and video of the attacks on protesters during the Civil Rights Movement have shaped perceptions of the interactions between police and protesters for the last half century, and it was the videotaped beating of Rodney King that led to a movement to reform use of force.1 This complex history is often an unacknowledged barrier that law enforcement officers must bridge to forge positive relationships with the community.