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Back to Archives | Back to March 2011 Contents 

Fairness and Neutrality: Addressing the Issue of Race in Policing

By Tracie Keesee, PhD, Division Chief, Denver, Colorado, Police Department; and Michael J. Nila, Commander (Retired), Aurora, Illinois, Police Department

Click to view the digital edition.

Photographs by Convention Photo by Joe Orlando

ou don’t have to look like the people you police, you just have to care.” With that challenge, Officer Octavio “Chato” Villalobos of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department offered the formula to building trust between the police and the community. At the 117th Annual IACP Conference in Orlando, Florida, a breakthrough session titled Fairness and Neutrality: Trust Building Strategies for 21st Century Policing perpetuated a dialogue focused on understanding the complex relationship between race and law enforcement. The goals of the session were

  • to gain a clear understanding of the current state of trust in the police,
  • to understand the triggers that erode or build trust, and
  • to present and discuss promising practices in trust building.

At this session, Kansas City Police Department officers Villalobos and Matthew Tomasic described their passion: policing a primarily Hispanic community in which they have gained an unusually high level of trust leading to community engagement, crime prevention, and solving of Kansas City crime. The result of their work is unusual and worthy of study, but the astounding part of the story is the personal transformation the officers experienced that changed their attitude toward the community they police; their role as police officers in a diverse society; and, most fundamentally, how they view themselves personally and professionally.

In addition to the Kansas City officers, several high-profile police leaders spoke of their experiences to frame the challenge and offer potential solutions to the continuous challenge of trust-building. Panelists included Chief Michael Carroll, then–IACP President; Secretary Walter McNeil, then–IACP Second Vice President; Chief David Berjarano, Chula Vista, California, Police Department; Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bureau of Police; and Superintendent Ronal Serpas, New Orleans, Louisiana, Police Department. A detailed report on that session, which will include session comments, issue framing, and recommendations for the profession, is being written by the IACP. This article is one of many intended to stimulate and advance the law enforcement profession’s dialogue on the topic and issues of race and law enforcement.

Framing the Race and Policing Challenge

The challenge to both understanding and transforming the relationship between the police and the community served, particularly minority and disenfranchised communities, is as old as policing. Today’s police officers and the profession’s leaders did not create the problems of race and policing, community mistrust, and the wall that too often exists between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect, but it is their responsibility to improve the current state.

The rapidly changing face of America, fueled by immigration, birth rates, and mixed-race relationships, is changing the landscape of the communities that law enforcement agencies serve. At the same time, the profession is advancing a community policing philosophy that is predicated on a trusting relationship between police and community. These competing forces affect policing at a time when law enforcement responsibilities continue to increase in scope and complexity and resources continue to erode. These are all compelling reasons to understand, address, and take leadership on the challenge of race and the police.

The United States is a nation brought together under the promise of liberty, equity, and opportunity, founded on principles and the rule of law. The police are the guardians of the laws and principles and serve the noble cause of preserving our democracy 24/7, 365 days a year on the front lines of the United States: the streets and homes of America. Unlike the military that defends the United States from foreign threats, the police mission is to proactively defend and preserve a chosen way of life: democracy. As such, the police being the most visible representatives of government in society are the most crucial element of a just, fair, and free nation. How agencies police matters to what America is today and will be in the future.

The need for law enforcement executives to forge trusting relationships with ethnic, racial, religious, and other diverse communities to achieve public safety objectives is critical. Attendees at the race and policing session at IACP 2010 held a powerful discussion on the topic of fairness and neutrality in order to create trust-building objectives and identified several areas in need of collaborative strategies.

Community Trust

“Establishing better rapport is paramount . . . trust and faith are crucial to preventing crime, and trust must be earned daily—it can’t be purchased and is not simply granted.” With this comment, Secretary McNeil opened the session dialogue, making trust the essential ingredient in building relationships.

It was extending trust to the community and embracing the trust residents returned that created the viewpoint shift in Tomasic and Villalobos. Officer Tomasic is now “Officer Matt,” a title of respect and trust that acknowledges a feeling that he is one with the community. He is there to serve and not to do something “to” the community. Extending trust can expose the officers to disappointments, perhaps even moments of being taken advantage of. But, as the officers describe their work, they would say these exceptions are very quickly exposed and dealt with either by the officer, or, often, by the community itself.

The ability for police departments to provide effective and respectful policing in a multicultural society is law enforcement’s most critical challenge. As law enforcement executives champion a plethora of crime reduction strategies, they must also recognize that these same initiatives may have an adverse impact in minority communities, resulting in a direct challenge to community trust. The nature of police-community relationships is often tied to communities’ confidence and trust in the police. The lack of trust can impede a police organization’s ability to address quality-of-life concerns, but also casts a shadow of suspicion on its ability to manage police behavior that is unlawful, unethical, and contrary to community policing principles.1

It is important that police executives understand that the inability for police organizations to appropriately handle police misconduct has a direct impact on the organizations’ integrity and professionalism; these are the cornerstones of community trust building.2 In addition to organizational integrity and professionalism, communication is also an important tool in policing a diverse community. Unobstructed lines of communication between the police and the community are essential to not only identifying and addressing crime problems, but to reducing community tensions. Communities with limited English proficiency and with little or no access to interpretive services will experience a substantial barrier to critical police services, which often contributes to the lack of trust in police.

Promoting openness, accountability, and transparency between the police and the community are areas in which policies and operational initiatives must be created in order to develop trust. Many departments are moving toward early warning systems and independent oversight to solidify their commitment to building trust, but the effectiveness of these programs has yet to be evaluated.

Promising Practices in Multicultural Outreach

While the challenges and complexities of the race and police issue are vast, the police profession’s response is innovative and encouraging on many fronts. In searching for programs in law enforcement, one finds no shortage of programs, training initiatives, and policy changes, all directed at enhancing trust, collaboration, and service delivery to all those law enforcement has pledged to serve.

At the Fairness and Neutrality: Trust Building Strategies for 21st Century Policing session, the IACP handed out a list of close to 100 promising practices from across the country. These practices were broken down by agency, targeted community, program type, and program description. These programs represented agencies large and small from all areas of the United States and range from line level–driven initiatives to executive-driven philosophical shifts.

In addition to these many programs, credible organizations are emerging to assist law enforcement such as the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity (CPLE), founded in 2008, whose mission is to “improve issues of equity in policing both within law enforcement agencies and between agencies and communities they serve.” CPLE’s Contract for Policing Justice was recently endorsed by the Major City Chiefs Association and calls for establishing an agenda for research and action on equity issues in policing.

The Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead made national news recently by instituting a special order prohibiting bias-based policing in enforcement of the law or delivery of police services. While the policy has generated internal and community-wide dialogue, Chief Halstead would argue the policy is not new and embraces a philosophy that all police agencies and police officers should embrace.

Many police organizations have adopted into their policies strong messages against bias of any form. For example, the Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department’s values commit all of its members to have the “courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and bigotry in all its forms.”

On the training front, many approaches bare being taken to teach officers to understand themselves and those they police on a much deeper level. For example, the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department is putting all of its officers through a training called Choice, based on the Arbinger Institute’s book, Leadership and Self-Deception. The training provides creative and powerful insight into how participants see those they police and interact with and also into outcomes that are created based on those perspectives that shift constantly from person to person and from context to context.

While the number and creativity of promising programs and bold statements are encouraging, the law enforcement profession remains cautious about the long-term effectiveness and is aware of the need for bold leadership for sustainable success. The rapidly shifting demographics in the United States are creating a societal sea change and law enforcement often finds itself at the center of the storm. As such, bold leadership that is informed and committed to democratic policing principles is the essential ingredient to progress and continued, effective policing.

Organizational Culture

Secretary McNeil said, “One of our responsibilities is fostering and insisting that all officers see themselves as guardians of human rights.”

In Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training, Jack Colwell and Charles “Chip” Huth state that “the profession of law enforcement requires a relentless striving for personal anima (inner way of being), which sees others as people and is rooted in integrity, buttressed by courage, and expressed as unconditional respect for all.”3

Returning to the Kansas City officers, they are a classic example of the author’s point. They went into their assignment in a troubled Hispanic community with a traditional mind-set and approach rooted in a traditional police culture. It was not until Officer Tomasic realized his approach was not working that he began to question everything—even himself. Transforming results occurred when he had the courage to examine his own beliefs about himself, policing, strategies, and even how he saw the people he policed. Officer Tomasic said that he “stopped looking at the group as illegals, but as people with wants, needs, hopes, and dreams—a community of valuable human beings.” It took immense courage to break with the past and create something new, to explore uncharted territory, and even to risk ridicule from those he respected the most: his fellow police officers.

At the IACP 2010 session Fairness and Neutrality, Officer Tomasic described part of his personal change: “Success was due to my personal shift and what resulted from it. I realized that crime prevention is our goal. I try not to use the term law enforcement; I’m a police officer. Law enforcement is a tool I use in my toolbox.” Officers Tomasic and Villalobos have truly become the guardians of their community.

Success quickly followed the transformation, and Officer Tomasic became a mentor to Officer Villalobos, who had grown up in the neighborhood he was now assigned to serve. Officer Villalobos came in ready to “clean it up” until Officer Tomasic slowed him down, had him look at the community, and asked him what he saw. With that question, Officer Villalobos’s mind-set and his inner culture began to change.

The success of any organization can be linked to its people and the compatibility of their values and beliefs with that of the organization. Police executives require a truthful understanding of the organization’s culture in order to manage personnel, direct crime reduction initiatives, and develop community relationships. Organizational culture is defined as “the set of operating principles that determine how people behave within the context of the organization.”4 The way the group or individual officer behaves reaffirms what is defined as “normal” or as “unacceptable” behavior.

Of most importance to officers within the organization is the tone set by senior executives who should promote the core values, creating the overall dominant culture shared by the majority of the police organization’s members.5 While most elements of police culture are shared throughout the United States, each agency possesses its own distinct organizational culture. The evaluations of most organizational cultures are often centered upon negative traits, such as the “Blue Wall” often referred to as the “Code of Silence,” rather than those that are positive. Historically, bresearchers have studied this trait and the concepts that negate them, such as community policing. However for most communities, especially minority communities, it is the negative traits of police organizations that they believe contribute to the practice of bias policing.6

Each year, policing organizations spend millions of dollars on officer training with a portion of that cost focused on fostering positive organizational traits (for example, ethics, communication, and unbiased policing) which have a direct impact on the culture of the organization. However, the effect of these trainings have yet to be evaluated for their long-term impact, creating a need for further examination of the policing culture and its impact on minority relationships and the impact of effective, measurable training in this area.

Educating the Hearts and Minds of the Guardians

Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Aristotle’s belief reveals the challenge of transformative police education on the crucial topics of diversity, trust, and police professionalism. While many training programs exist to address these issues, very few are effective at creating lasting and transformative change in officers.

Nothing short of transformative change will ensure the kind of community trust that law enforcement needs to execute its duties effectively. This depth of change can come about only when there is a mind-set, heart-set, and skill-set shift that leads to behavior change. The goal of effective diversity training is not simply to check the box and meet mandatory requirements, but rather to create long-lasting transformative change.

Effective diversity training must have the following demonstrated elements:

  • Focus on seeing all others as people with value and worth and deserving of unconditional respect
  • Contribute to personal development and self-mastery
  • Be challenging, current, and relevant to policing
  • Expand the intellect while touching the hearts of officers—they must learn and “feel” in the educational experience
  • Be experiential in nature as adults learn best by doing and participating in an experience
  • Provide tools and skills that can be practiced and applied to daily work
  • Make educational sessions one part of a continuing process of learning that reinforces a philosophy ultimately leading to a culture shift
  • Encourage all levels of leadership in the organization to experience, understand, and embrace the training and continually reinforce the cultural shift

In conclusion, the issues of race, police, and trust are complex, ageless challenges without easy or quick fixes. That said, it is the duty of every police leader today to embrace the challenge; understand the complexities; and take bold, proactive, transformative actions that will close the gap between where we are and where we must be. The dialogue is taking place in many organizations, such as at the IACP and in countless communities across the United States. If agencies are willing to listen with grace and respect, engage in intellectual honesty and professional introspection, and seek the kind of mind shifts and heart shifts required of twenty-first century policing, then they have the opportunity to truly be guardians of the great democracy that policing is intended to be. ■

Tracie Keesee, PhD, is the division chief at the Denver, Colorado, Police Department and the cofounder of the Consortium for Police Leadership and Equity.

Michael J. Nila is a retired commander of the Aurora, Illinois, Police Department and the founder and a partner at Guardian Quest.

Walter McNeil was Secretary of the Department of Corrections in Tallahassee, Florida, when he was a panelist at the session Fairness and Neutrality: Trust Building Strategies for 21st Century Policing at the 117th Annual IACP Conference. He has since been named Chief of Police of the Quincy Police Department in Quincy, Florida.


1Delores D. Jones-Brown and Karen J. Terry, Policing and Minority Communities: Bridging the Gap (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Building Trust between the Police and the Citizens They Serve: An Internal Affairs Promising Practices Guide for Local Law Enforcement (2009), (accessed January 11, 2011).
3Jack Colwell and Charles “Chip” Huth, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training (New York, N.Y.: CRC Press, 2010).
4Asim Kahn, Matching People with Organizational Culture (Newport Beach, Calif.: Business Management Group, 2005), 2–7, (accessed January 11, 2011).
6Andrew Goldsmith, “Taking Police Culture Seriously: Police Discretion and the Limits of Law,” Policing and Society 1, no. 2 (1990): 91–114.

Please cite as:

Tracie Keesee and Michael J. Nila, "Fairness and Neutrality: Addressing the Issue of Race in Policing," The Police Chief 78 (March 2011): 34–39.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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