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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Good police chiefs understand conflict. They also understand that how they respond to conflict will influence the level of trust and support shared between the community and their department. What many police leaders might not be aware of is that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has a component that has been helping communities and their police departments respond to identity-based conflict and tension for nearly sixty years. Known by the moniker America’s Peacemaker, the Community Relations Service (CRS) works with jurisdictions across the nation to mediate disputes, facilitate dialogue, and build local capacity through training and consultation.
For local, state, and tribal police agencies, partnering with CRS represents an opportunity to communicate in ways that have traditionally been difficult for law enforcement. One series of CRS trainings focuses on engaging and building relationships with historically marginalized groups, including the Muslim, Sikh, and transgender communities. Other trainings build skills for facilitating meetings around community conflict or contingency planning for mass demonstrations.1 In addition to training, CRS works with police agencies to convene community forums and dialogues. Forums seek to educate the public on difficult topics (e.g., hate crimes, bias incidents, and protecting places of worship); while dialogues allow for the exchange of ideas in a safe environment guided by skilled facilitators.2 All CRS services are cost-free and most are offered both in-person and virtually.
Many police leaders have come to appreciate the impartiality that CRS brings to a conflict, particularly when the police themselves are a party to the tension, such as in the aftermath of alleged police misconduct or use of force with allegations of bias motivation. As we have seen time and time again, it is essential for law enforcement agencies to communicate effectively with a community during times of public unrest, but this can be an extremely difficult task when the community’s grievances are directed at law enforcement itself. When CRS is deployed in the aftermath of a police-involved critical incident, they work with the police and other government entities, as well as civil rights organizations, faith leaders, and a wide array of community groups. CRS Director Paul Monteiro explains that impartiality is part of his organization’s DNA: “We are a component of the Department of Justice, but it is not in our toolbox to be part of an investigation or prosecution. We don’t take sides in a dispute; we don’t assign blame and we don’t find fault.”3 Monteiro’s statement has historical and statutory support, the legislation that established CRS guarantees impartiality and assigns criminal sanctions for employees that violate the confidentiality of stakeholders with whom they work.4 For communities facing identity-based conflict around policing, the role of CRS is to create avenues for communication and peaceful engagement, not to advocate for any particular position.
To understand the unique role that CRS plays in the justice system, it is helpful to understand the component’s history. CRS was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to help communities resolve conflict related to race, color, and national origin. Since that time, conciliators (the title given to CRS field staff) have worked behind the scenes, providing mediation and facilitation services at most major civil rights conflicts our nation has faced. In 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) led a march from Selma, Alabama in support of Black suffrage, CRS was on the scene to mediate between demonstrators and law enforcement along the route of march. In 1972, when the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan reached Washington, DC and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters building to call attention to mistreatment of Native American communities, CRS helped open lines of communication between movement leaders and government officials in support of a nonviolent resolution. That same year, CRS conciliators played an integral role in helping local authorities enforce a court order desegregating the Boston Public Schools, despite significant resistance from segments of the community. And in 1977 when a small group of self-declared Nazis threatened to hold a rally in the Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois, CRS was able to negotiate an agreement for the group to move their demonstration out of Skokie, where tens of thousands of counterprotesters were expected and violence was a near certainty.5
With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, the mission of CRS was expanded to help communities prevent and respond to real or perceived hate crimes based on race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. This new mandate allowed CRS to extend its services to broader communities and increase partnerships with law enforcement on hate crime prevention and education. CRS has been an important part of connecting local leaders with federal resources through anti-hate initiatives such as the National Church Arson Task Force (1996–2001), the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (2021–present), and the Attorney General’s United Against Hate program (2022–present). Although national in scope, the CRS organizational model is built on relationship-building at the local level. Today, there are conciliators working out of ten regional offices and four field offices across the country, as well as at the agency’s national headquarters in Washington, DC.
Despite such a rich history, Director Monteiro believes conciliation services are needed now more than ever. Referencing an increase in hate incidents and a national discussion on race and policing, he explains that “the relevance of CRS has only become more pronounced. . . . [T]he fault lines in this country have not healed themselves. . . . [W]e work to resolve conflicts based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, gender, sexual orientation and disability; on any one of those fields, I don’t think everything is well in America today. . . . [I]n fact, when you look at the trend lines, the dashboard is flashing red.”6
It is a tough point to argue—in recent years communities across the nation have battled against a constant tide of hate crimes and bias incidents that seem to be only increasing in number and intensity.7 Following hate-motivated incidents of mass violence targeting the Sikh community (Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, 2012), the LGBTQ+ community (Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, 2016), the Jewish community (Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2018), the African American community (TOPS grocery store in Buffalo, New York, 2022), and too many others, Monteiro has initiated new programing at CRS to help communities build both capacity for prevention and resiliency for recovery. He knows that this will not be possible without the partnership of law enforcement, and he knows that the best time to build relationships is not in the wake of a tragedy but rather well before there is a need for action.8
Good police chiefs understand conflict. Great police chiefs respond to conflict by engaging their communities, forging partnerships, and building the capacity to mitigate future conflicts. The DOJ Community Relations Service is a federal resource with the experience, mandate, and skills to help local agencies accomplish this task.
If you would like more information on how CRS can help your community prevent and respond to identity-based conflict and tension, visit the Community Relations Service website at or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael A. David
Social Science Analyst
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