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The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service: Assisting Communities in Resolving Conflicts and Restoring Peace

By Grande Lum, Director of the Community Relations Service; Francis Amoroso, CRS Regional Director of the Northeastern Region, Chief of Police (Retired) of Portland, Maine; and Rosa Melendez, CRS Regional Director of the Northwestern Region, U.S. Marshal (Retired) of the Western District of Washington

On Sunday, August 5, 2012, an individual with alleged white supremacist ties entered a Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire on the congregation. Six worshippers were killed and four others were wounded, including a responding law enforcement officer.1 Within hours of the shooting, Community Relations Services (CRS) was in contact with national and local Sikh organizational leaders, the U.S. attorney for the district, and numerous federal and local law enforcement officials. In addition, CRS helped facilitate communication between law enforcement and community members, providing contact information for key law enforcement officials. Later that same week, CRS and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin facilitated a key leadership meeting to discuss hate crimes, analyze community concerns over the shooting, and assess community needs for funerals. CRS and its federal and local partners then assisted in the planning and moderation of a larger community meeting at Oak Creek High School that was attended by more than 250 people from the greater Milwaukee area.

A Hate Crime in a Quiet Community Elicits a Unique Mandate

The Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara attack serves as an example of the services CRS can provide to communities in the wake of a hate crime. Founded under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the CRS supports state and municipal government officials, law enforcement executives, and community leaders with resolving disputes based on racial and ethnic tensions, to improve police-community relations. CRS also helps local leaders prevent and respond to alleged violent hate crimes committed on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national
origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. CRS is not an investigatory or prosecutorial agency, and it has no law enforcement authority. The agency does not impose solutions or assign blame or fault. All CRS services are provided free of charge to the communities and are confidential. CRS works in all 50 states and the U.S. territories in communities large and small, rural, urban, and suburban. Most of CRS’ work originates from requests by police chiefs, mayors, school administrators, local government authorities, community-based organizations, tribal communities, and civil and human rights groups.

In addition, CRS works with schools, colleges, and universities. Of the 728 cases the agency conciliated in 2012, 118 involved educational institutions. For example, in April 2012, the Broward County School District in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, requested CRS’ assistance in response to allegations of racial and ethnic tension between black Haitian and African American students and faculty in schools. CRS convened administrators, teachers, students, and concerned parents and facilitated a dialogue to address their concerns, as well as providing cultural professionalism training.

In May 2012, CRS was in Detroit, Michigan, in response to community concerns over the suicide of a young boy who had allegedly been bullied based on his gender.2 CRS convened a series of meetings with the federal and local partners, who later participated in a CRS-facilitated hate crimes, bullying, and harassment dialogue. CRS also helped the parties develop a Community Resolution Call to Action—a commitment to provide community-wide anti-bullying education and awareness to parents and students.

In 2012, community tensions in Seattle, Washington, over Native Americans’ high dropout rates, and perceptions of disciplinary bias against them led CRS to convene leaders of the city’s urban Indian community and education administrators. CRS conducted a series of workshops to identify opportunities to address the students’ achievement gap and to create awareness of issues and perceptions among teachers throughout the school system. The workshops led to the development of a plan to mitigate the issues, which has become a nationally recognized model for addressing similar urban Indian student issues in school systems throughout the United States.3

CRS services are provided by highly skilled conflict resolution specialists who are trained to provide assistance in the four areas of mediation, facilitation, consultation, and training. They apply these principles as they work with leaders to resolve conflicts stemming from issues of race and other factors that contribute to hate crimes. In fact, the majority of CRS’ cases involve working directly with law enforcement executives and community leaders following divisive occurrences, such as allegations of biased policing or community concerns about excessive use of force. When there is a need for communities and police departments to work through sensitive incidents or strengthen their partnership capacity, their leaders frequently turn to CRS.

CRS provides mediation services to help the parties achieve sustainable agreements to resolve conflicts. CRS conciliators do so by helping parties uncover underlying interests and develop options that resolve differences. Mediation is not used to determine who is right or who is wrong. The goal of mediation is to provide a framework that helps communities clarify misunderstandings, establish mutual trust, and independently prevent and resolve future conflicts.

Facilitation is another service provided by CRS conflict resolution specialists. They facilitate discussions to help communities open lines of communication by listening to the issues of each community group and learning from each group about the problem and potential solutions to the conflict. These dialogues often include various local agencies, institutions, and community residents. Topics of these discussions may include race, police-community relations, perceived hate crimes, tribal conflicts, protests, demonstrations, and other issues that may be important to a community. By reframing and clarifying the issues, CRS can move communities forward toward resolving their problems in mutually acceptable ways. These conciliatory communications may be in-person, by telephone, or via email and may occur over a substantial period of time. Communication is a fundamental building block for developing community trust; it reduces tension and establishes important relationships that build community stability and promote harmony.

CRS conciliators also provide consulting services. Through consulting, CRS furnishes technical assistance, information on best practices, referrals, coaching, advice, and insight. For example, CRS might provide technical insight on the structure and function needed in order to establish a Human Relations Commission. Consulting services can help communities address police, community, or school conflicts.

In addition, CRS conflict resolution specialists provide training programs. Training is a tool for understanding and alleviating current disputes and for preventing future disagreements. These programs bring together representatives from local government agencies, community faith-based organizations, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and businesses in order to develop collaborative approaches for reducing conflicts and addressing the factors that have contributed to the disagreement.

CRS and Law Enforcement: A Long History of Collaboration

In its almost 50-year history, the CRS has worked with law enforcement communities across the country. During the Elian Gonzalez custody and immigration controversy of 2000, CRS provided technical assistance in contingency planning to command staff and intelligence units of the Miami police department, facilitated meetings between Cuban leaders and Immigration and Naturalization Services officials, and was on-site at several demonstrations, fostering communication between police and protesters, and preventing incidents of violence. As reports of violence against Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs in the United States intensified following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, CRS deployed its forces to promote understanding. CRS prepared an Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Awareness and Protocol seminar, and created a law enforcement roll-call video titled The First Three to Five Seconds. The video helps police officers to reduce tension by differentiating between threats and cultural norms in non-crisis situations involving Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, CRS worked to open lines of communication between disaster relief entities and minority communities. CRS collaborated with local law enforcement and federal government officials to implement rumor control measures surrounding the alleged presence of hate groups in cities and towns affected by Hurricane Katrina, and the agency outlined the demographics of major racial and ethnic communities in the Gulf Coast states and then trained program participants on the history of these communities’ relations, specifically their encounters with authority; perceptions of discrimination; and allegations of unaddressed grievances by local, state, and national government.

In 2007 and 2008, CRS assisted local law enforcement after the shooting death of Sean Bell in Queens, New York. The agency provided contingency planning assistance, self-marshal training, and on-site conciliation during community protests following Bell’s death. Following the acquittal of the three police officers indicted over the shooting, CRS sent a National Deployment team to New York to help local law enforcement and government officials ensure peaceful demonstrations. CRS responded to more than 25 community events in New York City and monitored and provided assistance during six highly publicized “Civil Disobedience for Sean” demonstrations that consisted of blocking public access to the Triborough, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges.

Today, CRS continues to provide services for, and alongside, law enforcement communities. The agency is often asked to furnish technical assistance and aid law enforcement in logistical planning when there are demonstrations, marches, and rallies. CRS also provides its mediation, facilitation, training, and consulting services to law enforcement when there is community tension regarding a high-profile police investigation or controversial prosecution in the aftermath of actual or perceived hate crimes. In addition, CRS frequently works with law enforcement to improve police-community relations and communication, particularly when community members have made accusations of racial profiling, bias-based policing, and excessive use of force against community members of a different race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion or against a community member with a mental or physical disability.

CRS Training and Education Programs for Law Enforcement

CRS provides a wide array of services, including training programs specifically designed to assist law enforcement and improve police-community relations.

Law Enforcement Mediation Program: CRS’ Law Enforcement Mediation Program is a two-day course that strengthens the problem-solving and mediation skills of law enforcement officers and commanders who serve diverse communities. CRS works with officers to identify opportunities to enhance the level of mutual trust and respect between their department and the community and to eliminate barriers to providing more effective police services. Many of the issues addressed can lead to the residual benefit of a reduced number of calls for service and an increase in patrol efficiency.

Responding to Allegations of Racial Profiling: Responding to Allegations of Racial Profiling is an eight-hour course that brings together law enforcement and community members to address perceived racial profiling and biased policing practices. This course can be tailored to the specific needs of a given community. It is helpful in reducing tensions and creating a shared understanding of factors that contribute to mistrust. It is an effective way to begin a police-community relations initiative or problem-solving process, and it encourages collaborative police-community relations.

Arab, Muslim, and Sikh (AMS) Cultural Awareness Program: The AMS Cultural Awareness Program is a four-hour course intended to familiarize law enforcement and government officials with some of the predominant customs and cultural aspects of Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities. The program is effective as a tool for helping law enforcement avoid behavior and actions that might be deemed offensive—or as part of a broader initiative to strengthen the relationship between local officials and the Arab, Muslim, or Sikh communities that they serve. Hate Crimes Program: The
Hate Crimes Program: is a two-day training program that provides state and local law enforcement officers with the skills and knowledge that are critical when addressing hate crimes. The program has been designed to familiarize officers with best practices for identifying, reporting, and investigating hate crimes. The program also covers strategies for effectively educating the public about hate crimes and their significance to community relations.

Self-Marshalling Assistance and Training: CRS assists local law enforcement, city officials, and demonstration organizers with planning and managing safe marches and demonstrations. CRS facilitates meetings between all parties involved and serves as a neutral entity to ensure that logistics are coordinated, information is shared appropriately, and that marches and demonstrations are conducted safely.

Rumor Control: CRS’ Rumor Control Program assists in establishing measures that control inflammatory and inaccurate rumors. By employing a proactive and coordinated approach to publicity (and a formalized community-notification process), CRS ensures the dispersal of accurate and credible information.

Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT): The SPIRIT program is a two half-day interactive student-based problem-solving program that engages students in developing solutions to problems associated with allegations of discrimination, harassment, and hate activity in schools. SPIRIT also engages school administrators, teachers, school resource officers, local officials, community leaders, and parents in the process of identifying and responding to these conflicts in school, and both students and administrators work toward creating the safest possible environment for learning.

City Site Problem Identification and Resolutions of Issues Together (City SPIRIT): City SPIRIT is a two-day problem-solving and resolution program that brings together representatives from local government agencies, community and faith-based organizations, law enforcement, and businesses to develop collaborative approaches

for reducing racial conflicts and addressing the factors that contribute to these conflicts. The parties may also develop approaches for preventing and responding to alleged violent hate crimes on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. This program helps communities establish a lasting capacity to prevent and respond to conflicts.

Healing Communities

Several months ago, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, commemorated the one year anniversary of the attack on the Sikh gurdwara. In the year since the shooting, CRS has continued to assist the community in establishing stronger and lasting bridges of communication between federal and local law enforcement officials, national and local Sikh officials, and the larger Oak Creek community. CRS conciliators have moderated dialogues, organized a forum on safety concerns for houses of worship, and provided conciliation services at vigils for the victims. In addition, the agency has responded to requests from mosques and gurdwaras across the United States who have expressed anxiety that a similar incident could occur in their communities. CRS has aided these congregations in voicing their concerns with local law enforcement and assisted them in educating their broader
communities about their religious traditions and beliefs through facilitated dialogues and cultural professionalism trainings. By learning how to peacefully communicate, communities are fostering an environment of positive communication and reducing the risk of conflicts now and in the future.

For information regarding CRS services, trainings, and support, please contact the CRS Headquarters Office at (202) 305-2935. Additionally, information regarding CRS’ various regional and field offices is located on the agency’s website ( ♦ 


1John Edwards and Libby McInerny, “Oak Creek: Leading a Community in the Aftermath of a Tragedy,” The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 98–106.
2Gina Damron, Cecil Angel, and Matt Helms, “7-Year-Old Boy’s Suicide Shocks Detroit Community,” Detroit Free Press, USA Today, May 25, 2012, (accessed October 18, 2013).
3Community Relations Service, Community Relations Service: FY 2012 Annual Report (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service, 2013), 23, pubs/crs-fy2012-annual-report.pdf (accessed October 18, 2013).

Please cite as:

Grande Lum, Francis Amoroso, and Rosa Melendez,“The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service: Assisting Communities in Resolving Conflicts and Restoring Peace,” President’s Message, The Police Chief 80 (December 2013): 48–51.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 12, December 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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