THE POLICE AND US: Restoring Mutual Trust and Connection

May 28, 2015 by


By Barry E. Stern,
Education and Workforce Development Consultant

At a symposium I attended as a college junior over 50 years ago, “The Role of the Whole Person in a Divided World,” famous anthropologist Margaret Mead opined that the defining markers of civilized society is how society treats the most vulnerable – the sick, elderly and very young – and how the police treat everybody.

Recent events in Ferguson, New York City, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore and Waco suggest we have a police problem in America. Not only are minorities aggrieved, but majority groups also see evidence that police focus has changed and some departments are out of touch – the emphasis on looking to catch residents doing things wrong as opposed to promoting public safety through fostering mutual trust and respect is a distinct change in policy.

In my own community in northern Virginia a white officer fatally shot a popular high school student, also white, who was having a particularly bad day. The crazed and depressed youngster was shot because he rushed at the officer with a knife. The officer was not indicted, nor should he have been (in the opinion of the District Attorney), but one wonders whether he might have tried something other deadly force, like not confronting the kid or giving him space until he cooled off and wait for health services support.

Not only do our police often fail or have the skills to de-escalate, but some go out their way to intimidate. Despite the fact that Main Street still hasn’t overcome the Great Recession of 2008-9, cops throughout the country are still handing out tickets for speeding a few miles over the limit even when no other cars are around. Few get warnings. This is but one small example of unnecessary intrusion in people’s lives. By overzealously implementing the letter rather than the spirit of the law, police are now feared and avoided by many rather than respected for the important job they do in keeping us safe.

Too often police seem to think of warnings as missed opportunities to meet required quotas, add to government revenues or in some cases their own pay. Indeed, cops are evaluated on the number of arrests and penalties they can inflict on people. In contrast, the kind of police residents want are those who look for opportunities to meet and help people while always being vigilant to counter delinquent behavior, the heart of community policing.

Communities throughout American are having conversations with police to not only repair their images but to assure they are promoting public safety and not making life difficult more than it is. Each community will do this in its own way. In mine, because the teenager who lost his life was mentally ill, meetings were held to suggest ways the police and everybody else could recognize mental illness signs and make appropriate referrals.

Yet mental health systems are mostly broken in America with poorly trained and underpaid personnel operating in overly rigid bureaucracies. Some that are supposed to provide just-in-time emergency care are merely information brokers providing phone numbers and websites in lieu of trained people to immediately address urgent problems. How many tragedies and preventable deaths must the public endure before this system is fixed? Mental health needs the equivalent of firefighter teams to stop mental eruptions before they get out of hand and to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

No doubt the job of policing today has become more difficult as citizens struggle to deal with a multitude of pressures that make life more difficult and often result in decisions that harm themselves and their communities. What is causing our growing anxiety and dissatisfaction with the country’s direction? Here’s my partial list:

Stagnant wages of the middle class that haven’t grown in over 30 years nor kept pace with rising prices.

Less economic security as part-time jobs replace full-time, employer-provided benefits diminish, and contract work replaces secure jobs with employers.

High youth unemployment, particularly among minorities in cities.

Great increase in the numbers of long-term unemployed and families that must rely on food stamps, many of them veterans.

Sharp increases in health insurance premiums for the majority of Americans with insurance in order to provide, along with government, subsidies for those without it.

Lack of confidence in finding employment as indicated by declining labor force participation rates for the adult population and the lowest since 1978 (62.8%). Among 20-24 years old the rate has dropped to about where it was in 1972 (70.8%); for 25-34 years old to where the rate was in 1982 (81.3%).

Half of recent college graduates either can’t find jobs or are underemployed. Meantime, college leavers have racked up over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. It’s hard to pay back loans without a decent-paying job.

Increasing skills gap where employers and educators have vastly different perceptions of whether high school and college grads are prepared for available jobs.

Continuing high rates of divorce and children born out of wedlock causing considerable family disruption and economic insecurity and which are great impediments to eliminating poverty.

A tax code that is unintelligible to most and which is frustrating America’s economic growth and need for fairness. Corporate tax rates are higher than in other developed countries driving many employers to locate their plants and jobs outside of the U.S.

Out of control drug culture perpetuated by pushers and users resulting in gang wars, people getting shot, overcrowding of prisons, delayed justice for those awaiting sentencing and high rates of recidivism. The consequences for many children, families and the entire economy are severe.

A judicial system that clearly favors the rich and discriminates against those not able to afford the best lawyers.

A housing sector with too many homes still in foreclosure or underwater, and a scarcity of homes driving up rental prices.

Grossly inadequate governmental response to fast growing neurological disabilities such as autism that have left the vast majority of affected children with divorced parents who are financially unable to properly care for them. School districts lack the talent, accountability systems and budget to properly educate these children and nobody is being held accountable. The result is an emerging tidal wave of adults with autism who cannot support themselves and will need care for the rest of their lives.

Similarly, the inability of those of modest means to care for adult family members with chronic illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, whose rates has been increasing.

Food and water overloaded with toxins such as pesticides, hormones, prescription drugs, and hundreds of chemicals yet whose collective long-term impact on public health has rarely been studied. The research that is available suggests that these put many at risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and neurological disabilities such as autism among children (up 120% from 2000 to 2010) and attention deficit disorder (up 42% between 2003 and 2011).

Processed foods with ingredients that have little nutritional value, addict millions, contribute to rising obesity and chronic disease and thus raise family health care costs in the form of higher premiums and co-payments.

Genetically engineered/modified foods (GMOs) such as corn, soy and sugar beets that have not been fully tested sufficiently to confirm their safety. Most European and Asian countries have banned GMOs. In the U.S., processed food companies, corporate farmers and the GMO industry have lobbied successfully to stop food labeling that would enable shoppers to make informed choices of what to feed their families.

Outrageous incompetence, neglect or corruption in many of the federal agencies that were designed to preserve our health and welfare:

Veterans Administration hospital waiting lists, dishonesty to cover it up and malfeasance in use of funds.

Conflicts of interest in Center for Disease Control studies of vaccine safety

Bungled roll out of the website in its first year

Guns going to Mexican drug cartels courtesy of our Department of Justice

Illegal admission of thousands of undocumented children who recently crossed our southern border and put pressure on states to provide them with services.

And finally, radical Islamic terrorism and tyrannical regimes that have spawned little understood and extended wars in faraway places, making air travel a nightmare let alone a tsunami of suicides and mental illness among our returning veterans (e.g. 11-20% of veterans from the recent Iraq war have Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome).


Effective governmental leadership would relieve much of our anxiety. Job #1 has to be policies and training that support more well-paying jobs and a larger middle class. # 2 in my view would be fostering greater governmental competence, policy clarity, integrity and transparency. What can we citizens do our in our neighborhoods and communities to share in the heavy lifting??

First, we must acknowledge that ALL people do racial/ethnic profiling because it has been built into our limbic brains as a protective device over millions of years of evolution. Profiling protects our species from danger and creates a form of certainty and familiarity. We form tribes with those with whom we have things in common and naturally suspect those who look, talk or behave differently. Successful cultures figure out how to overcome our tribal nature by accepting and nourishing diversity. Yet most societies do not. Indeed, most wars and human rights violations occur in parts of the world characterized by religious intolerance – which savior is the true savior? Which bible is the true bible-the oldest, which translation? Which way of life the most pure in following the Creator’s intentions for us? And so on.

To be sure, not adequately addressing our economic doldrums and social stressors are major reasons for our growing discontent and disconnection with folks who are not like us, which makes the job of policing all the more difficult. Our society hasn’t worked smart or hard enough to bring people together from diverse walks of life to solve problems and repair the broken bonds that used to unite us.

Unfortunately, many of the groups to which we all belong are becoming less inclusive and more isolated from one another – religious, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, occupational, age, neighborhood, or educational. The result is a culture that isn’t adjusting quickly enough to rapidly changing demography, conversion to a global economy, and technologies that tend to replace face-to-face with virtual communication. As Harvard Professor Robert Putnam observed his latest book on America’s opportunity gap, we no longer go to school, attend church, live near or marry people whose socio-economic class is much different than our own.

So it has become easier to remain comfortable in our silos – geographical, ethnic, religious, occupational, socio-economic or political. Many feel it’s too inconvenient to try to understand other ways of being. So we remain isolated in our homes rather than continually reaching out. Three examples:

Playgrounds in most suburbs are empty even on bright, sunny days. Kids are at home texting, playing video games, or cramming for high stakes tests at school. They’ll show up at playgrounds and recreation centers for adult supervised sports practices and competitions, but parents fearing for their safety have become reluctant to let them loose to meet other kids, invent their own games or walk home by themselves.

Compared to years past politicians are less likely to interact socially and make friends with those from the other political party causing lack of progress and the inability to create meaningful change.

The degradation of trust, connection and emotional safety has caused people to be less likely to know their neighbors than several years ago, even in stable communities.

How are we as a nation going to reenergize trust and connection in our communities and renew the American spirit of tolerance and intergroup understanding? It is perhaps the greatest challenge before us. By and large, governmental efforts over 60 years to socially engineer this by desegregating neighborhoods and schools have not yet achieved Martin Luther King’s vision. Just look at the recent demonstrations and divisiveness that continue to rock many of our nation’s cities.

Governmental leadership must steer and direct a productive narrative. But we the people must row, taking supportive action with even more vigor to ensure our national morale and prosperity—indeed, our way of life. Below are some modest suggestions.

Police organizations

Reach out to various community groups beyond elected leaders and the clergy. For example:

Bring back community policing where residents and police get to know one another. Increase common interactions daily with the people in their communities.

Upgrade police language training to know how to effectively reduce conflict. Deepen police perspectives on the causes of maladaptive behaviors in various communities and increase language sensitivity.

Conduct discussions about law enforcement in high school and college classrooms while listening carefully to students who may have reservations about how police treat residents.

Bring/serve healthy meals to poor families and homeless individuals and engage in discussions about how they feel about police treatment while acquainting them with available health and social services.

Meet with parents and children with autism and other neurological disabilities to gain a better understanding of their unusual behaviors and mannerisms, and to learn how to de-escalate occasional outbursts that can be destructive. The general public also needs to have a better understanding.

Expand number of Police Athletic Leagues. Members of the police force coach both boys and girls in sports, and they help with homework and other school-related activities. The purpose is to build character, strengthen police-community relations, and keep children away from illegal drugs.

Require police officers to take a sabbatical every 5-7 years, acknowledging the high stress that often accumulates over time and which can negatively affect judgment and demeanor vis-à-vis the public. Establish educational savings accounts to facilitate their further education or exchange programs with employers from other industries whereby police and those from other occupations can work in each other’s shoes for 6-12 months.

Opportunities for families to enjoy recreational and fitness activities with public safety personnel such as police, firefighters and rescue squads.

In your community:

Have a 5-minute conversation with at least one person per week whom you’ve never met — a neighbor, someone at work or at school, someone on the bus, train or subway or at the grocery store.

Encourage alternatives to the traditional high school such as career academies that keep students together with their peers and a team of teachers from different disciplines for several hours a day and that provide team-taught courses with project-based learning. Such formats enable students to get to know one another and their teachers far better than in the traditional comprehensive high school.

Get rid of fees to participate in after school sports, performing arts groups and clubs, making them “co-curricular” rather than extra-curricular. These activities enable kids to interact with those from different backgrounds, academic and career preferences.

Hire recreational staff and obtain volunteers to facilitate after school activities at public playgrounds and other spaces. Kids would count on caring energetic adults being there to teach sports and other useful skills.

Establish engaging neighborhood teen centers with sports, library, music and meeting facilities. Too many teens have no places to go after school and on weekends, particularly during the winter and inclement weather.

Encourage community block parties and social events that travel from home to home where neighbors supply food, refreshments and fun gifts as ways to meet and laugh with one another.

Volunteer opportunities for young people to engage and interact with the elderly in senior centers, assisted living centers and nursing homes.

At your workplace

Promote more interaction among employees through recreational and team building activities.

Financial incentives such as educational “grubstake” savings accounts where employers and government match entry-level worker savings to encourage further training. Training helps workers qualify for promotions, which in turn fosters interaction with higher income and more socially connected colleagues. Governmental contributions to these accounts would be limited to low-paid employees working in small businesses which rarely provide training to employees.

Voluntary work sharing to allow experienced employees to voluntarily trade off income earning work time for more free time. For example, an employee close to retirement might choose to gradually cut down on his/her number of work hours rather than retire all at once. If a sufficient number elected to make such time-income tradeoffs, employers would obtain the financial wherewithal to hire more people and promote others. This would be a lifeline for today’s underemployed college graduates whose advanced skills obtained at considerable expense might otherwise atrophy.

Expand sabbaticals (3-12 months away from job every 5-7 years for reflection and study) to more industries to help employees avoid burnout while expanding employment opportunities for others. Some on sabbatical will seek further education and training, while others may simply want to rest, spend more time with their family or work on that new business or invention they’ve been dreaming about.

To be sure, at a time of great challenge and change we need better performance from government – local, state and federal—through more effective use of resources to address priorities such as more good jobs and the elimination of poverty. But the public also has to pull its weight through efforts to foster greater intergroup understanding. Over a century ago we had barn-raisings and quilting bees; then high schools that were cost free became the melting pot; more recently we’ve had community home building for poor people, food banks and job fairs. These have all become part of our national fabric. A little extra effort by all could revitalize our national traits of altruism, optimism, risk-taking and connectedness to a common American culture. Imagine how much more safe and livable our communities could become if police were to play a lead role in facilitating connection and inclusion.

Barry Stern is an educational and workforce development consultant and senior adviser to the Haberman Educational Foundation. He is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of education, and director of policy and planning for the Michigan Department of Career Development. His email address is

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