Police, Communities, and Relationships During COVID-19

Police, Communities, and Relationships During COVID-19

Stressing a stressed system: How good relationships are key to violence prevention in cities

Police with riot gear on

Peace in Our Cities is an initiative co-managed by Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, Impact:Peace, and +Peace, launched in September 2019. It gathers 18 cities and more than two dozen partner organizations. It acts as a platform to: 1) amplify knowledge of the scale of the urban violence problem and the promise of evidence-based solutions to save lives and heal communities, 2) support city leaders and partner organizations in efforts to reduce the most serious forms of violence in their cities, and 3) advance innovative and evidence-based policies for violence prevention and reduction in an urban context. 

Peace in Our Cities co-facilitator Impact:Peace is currently undertaking research examining the impact of COVID-19 on areas of violence in cities around the world. The six-part research agenda, conducted as part of the FCDO-funded project, ‘Peace in Our Cities in a Time of Pandemic,’ will be accompanied by this blog series in an effort to distribute experiences, best-practices, knowledge, and the most pressing questions faced by Peace in Our Cities members. 

Interested in joining Peace in Our Cities? Get in touch by emailing team@peaceinourcities.org and share your insights and questions on social media by following #PeaceInOurCities on Twitter.

When it comes to violence prevention in communities, one of the most important features of successful initiatives is robust and collaborative relationships. Where law enforcement agencies have positive relationships with the local community, they are better able to deliver on a myriad of violence prevention and safety efforts in cities. Research shows that positive relationships between police and their communities allow them to better understand and connect with community needs; conduct more effective investigation and intelligence work; expand the reach of preventative programming, and to develop the trust necessary for more peaceful and cooperative communities.

However, the key strategies and the right incentives needed to build these relationships are often missing, which can lead to systemic abuse in urban spaces around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed great pressure on law enforcement to confront long-standing issues such as police brutality and use of force in the United States, Nigeria, and Kenya; over-reliance on “number of arrests” to showcase department efficacy; and the mission creep that impacts how credible a force is to its community.

In many places, the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined the ability to deliver effective violence prevention strategies. Now more than ever, city governments are looking for solutions that can help them navigate this changing environment.

While the pandemic has created new crises for law enforcement, it has also created opportunities for innovation. These new efforts, when combined with tried and tested strategies for building positive relationships, provide a path forward for transformation in many municipalities. Researcher Adrian Bergmann stresses that the focus for agencies needs to remain on four specific areas:

  1. Ensuring that procedural justice and fairness are central.
  2. Narrowing the focus of law enforcement to those few individuals who perpetrate most serious crime and violence, and implementing mechanisms that result in fewer unnecessary arrests.
  3. Engaging with community partners.
  4. Take part in healing and reconciliation processes for past and present injustices.

One of the most important facets of productive police-community relationships is whether or not an agency has legitimacy in the eyes of the community. When communities have trust and confidence in their law enforcement agencies’ abilities to respond to their needs, citizens’ compliance with the law and cooperation is boosted, yielding reductions in crime and violence. All too often, however, in communities around the world, aggressive use of force by law enforcement degrades this trust or prohibits it forming in the first place. When civilians don’t trust their police forces, they are less likely to comply with the law or turn to the police in a time of crisis or violence. Technology makes it easy for such abuses to be seen by a wide swathe of people, even if they didn’t witness the incident itself, as seen in the public outcry around  two young girls in Rio de Janeiro who were shot and killed by police. 

While research shows that there is no “silver bullet” for fostering trust and legitimacy, many police leaders are striving to build departments grounded in accountability. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a coalition of cities in the United States engaged in two processes aimed at addressing implicit bias among officers, as well advancing their focus on procedural justice and reconciling past and present harms. 

Trust-building exercises must be combined with attempts to narrow the focus of law enforcement. In Oakland, CA the police focus their attention on the relatively few people who repeatedly engage in serious criminal and violent behavior. Rather than arrest people perpetrating non-violent crime, police divert these individuals to other services. Diversion responses allow law enforcement to take a person-focused approach to crime and violence, which in turn builds trust in police. In cities such as Kansas City (USA), Wolverhampton (England), and Canberra (Australia), evidence shows that when police divert low-risk youth who come into contact with law enforcement to other services such as mental health or mentoring facilities, there is a lower chance that the youth will engage in more serious crime.

Central to building trust between law enforcement and communities is the level of engagement with local partners. Police departments cannot solve all of the safety and justice needs of civilians by working alone. These community-oriented approaches must happen in tandem with other efforts to build trust. In Edinburgh, Scotland and Maiduguri, Nigeria, community safety partnerships (CSPs) have community members work alongside law enforcement to reduce crime by tailoring programs to their communities, which allows for a heightened focus on quality of life issues. In New South Wales (Australia) and Toronto (Canada), law enforcement has embraced crisis intervention teams that are trained to respond to mental health emergencies. 

A critical and necessary aspect of any good relationship is an investment in mandated reform processes. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was created from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) after the peace accord in 1998, as an attempt to transition away from the many negative associations Catholics had of the RUC due to actions taken during The Troubles. As in other post-war societies, a failure to deal with the past continues to make the work of the PSNI difficult, thus undermining the overall work of the police force. In Beirut, Lebanon, lack of trust in the police force is consistently undermined by continued abuses by the police themselves, including violence against sex workers, persons with addiction, the LGBTQ community, and other stigmatized groups. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced many of the pre-existing challenges facing police forces across the world, but it has also created new opportunities for engagement and trust-building exercises. In Nigeria, the call to #EndSARS has led to the disbandment of the police force and the introduction of judicial panels of inquiry into police brutality. Police have been forced to adapt their methods of communicating, as seen in Bangalore and Mumbai (India), where police have released songs, online videos, and skits to teach the public about the virus.

In particular, the pandemic has emphasized the need to address gender-based violence in the home, which has increased in the past year. In northern India, several cities have introduced all-women police stations to deal with this, and studies in Brazil done prior to the pandemic have shown that these stations contribute to reducing IVP and homicides among women.

The pandemic represents a big opportunity for law enforcement to focus on their relationships with their communities, allowing them to implement strategies and initiatives in the years to come that will help strengthen their ability to implement effective and just violence reduction strategies. While there is certainly a long road ahead, broader initiatives to address violence and crime in our cities can only benefit from law enforcement that takes a concerted look at building these networks of trust.


Julia Canney
(339) 499-8513