The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice: Improving Police-Community Relations in Six U.S. Cities

In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a three-year, $4.75 million grant to establish the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Led by the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the National Initiative comprises a partnership of the Center for Policing Equity, the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, and the Urban Institute. The National Initiative is designed to improve relationships between law enforcement and minority communities, as well as advance public and scholarly understandings of the issues contributing to those relationships, with special attention to youth, immigrants, LGBTQIA communities, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and other marginalized communities.

Over the past two years, the National Initiative has worked with police departments, community organizations, academic researchers, experts in transitional justice, and others around the country to develop an actionable plan for six pilot sites chosen based on their demonstrated ability and willingness to participate, the strongest possibility for positive treatment, and leadership and institutional readiness. These include Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Stockton, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. As it approaches its third year, the National Initiative continues to build upon its work in each site, researching, designing, and implementing a combination of existing and newly developed law enforcement interventions oriented around three pillars:

  • Enhancing procedural justice: the way police interact with the public, and how those interactions shape the public’s views of the police and their engagement in co-producing public safety.
  • Reducing the impact of implicit bias: the automatic associations individuals make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups, and the influence such associations have on policing.
  • Fostering reconciliation: frank engagements between minority communities and law enforcement to address historical tensions, misconceptions, and mutual mistrust.

The National Initiative has worked with each city’s police department to create a first-of-its-kind procedural justice curriculum, developed with the Justice Collaboratory, to equip officers with principles and practices that emphasize giving community members a voice, employing neutral decision making grounded in transparency, demonstrating respect for citizens’ rights and dignity, and increasing the police department’s trustworthiness. All sworn officers in each city have now completed the first module of this curriculum. Also in development with the Center for Police Equity is a curriculum on implicit bias, to be administered over the coming year. Reconciliation activities, designed with the National Network for Safe Communities, are now underway in several cities and in planning phases for others. Surveys of community attitudes toward police have also been conducted as a baseline for evaluation of the National Initiative’s interventions.

Reconciliation work in Minneapolis, Minnesota, began in June 2016 with meetings between Police Chief Janee Harteau and influential leaders from African American, Latino, Native American, Somali, and LGBTQIA communities, each with their own history of tensions with the police. During this time, Chief Harteau announced several changes to the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) use of force policy, describing them as a “first step” to repairing the broken relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Under the revised policy, which centers around “sanctity of life,” officers are required to both intervene and report if they witness improper use of force by their colleagues. De-escalation, a practice previously encouraged but not enforced, will also be formalized through training delivered to MPD’s current class of 32 police recruits. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, praising MPD’s “promising changes,” called upon other law enforcement agencies, including the St. Paul Police Department, to implement similar model policies for police-citizen encounters.

Birmingham, Alabama was the second site to begin reconciliation work, in August 2016, through facilitated reconciliation meetings between Police Chief A.C. Roper and members of African-American, youth, and LGBTQIA communities. Building upon these initial reconciliation meetings, Birmingham Police Department was the first to premiere the National Initiative’s “Safety and Equity Circles” over three weeks in October. Involving officers from all levels of the department and residents of the East and West Side communities, they created authentic opportunities to connect with each other, expose misconceptions, and build trust for future collaboration. This process, co-facilitated with reconciliation experts Susan Glisson and Charles Tucker of the organization Sustainable Equity, asked participants to meet for a one-day retreat during the first weekend and three days a week for two-hour meetings thereafter.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the police department is presently focused on developing “internal procedural justice”—structures and practices that lead officers to perceive the department as treating them fairly and respectfully—which is key to their willingness to incorporate principles of procedural justice in their interactions with the public. As a result, Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD) has developed new communication mechanisms between the command staff and all other levels of the department. These include an internal email address for officers to contact assistant chiefs directly with concerns and questions, and new ways to responsibly share the outcomes of Internal Affairs investigations, which can be a common source of speculation and miscommunication. FWPD is continuing to explore other mechanisms for internal buy-in, sustainability, and transparency, such as building a larger training corps to sustain the work of the National Initiative through the second and third installments of procedural justice and implicit bias training.

The police department in Gary, Indiana, having successfully delivered procedural justice training to all of its 200-plus sworn officers, is now exploring ways to establish procedural justice as a foundational concept in neighboring law enforcement agencies. For example, Gary Police Department will facilitate a local “train-the-trainer” event for members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Agency, and the National Initiative is working closely with departmental leadership to institutionalize and sustain the curriculum as a core part of its future policies.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP)—partnering with the Summer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems—collaborated to teach a “Community Procedural Justice” class to approximately 70 people with guidance from Center for Policing Equity. The class represents the PBP’s expansion of its procedural justice training, creating opportunities not only to educate the community on the department’s work under the National Initiative, but also to receive feedback on ways to improve their procedural justice curriculum. Building upon its efforts to collaborate with communities, the PBP also developed a Youth Police Advisory Committee that convenes Pittsburgh students and law enforcement to improve the relationships between them in four critical areas: dialogue, cultural literacy, positive interaction, and youth with disabilities. The committee, helmed by former Chief McLay, meets monthly to discuss citywide issues and develop “Closing the Gap Resolutions.”

Stockton, California has worked closely with the National Initiative to institutionalize Stockton Police Department’s (SPD) procedural justice curriculum as a core part of its existing and future policies. Significant progress has been made on this front, including inserting language into officer, sergeant, and field training officer evaluations requiring documentation of procedural justice practices; requiring supervisors to evaluate their officers’ understanding and application of procedural justice in transfer request and promotional examinations; and adding the tenets of procedural justice to the department’s “Conduct Toward the Public” and “Conduct Toward Fellow Members” policies. Additionally, SPD has become a local and statewide educator on procedural justice, organizing classes with representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, San Joaquin County Probation Department, the Stockton Unified School District Police, Stockton Peacekeepers, and others. As of August 2016, SPD is helping to lead an initiative headed by the California Attorney General to train all California police departments in procedural justice.

Sonia Tsuruoka
Research and Communications Associate
National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice


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