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Ferguson – The Role of Community

There have been, and will be, many articles written about the tragedy that we have come to know as “Ferguson.” In this blog entry, I want to look at the role of changing community in the fateful events of August 9, 2014 and some thoughts for what communities might consider in the future.

Community Leaders – Conscious Governance

In Ferguson, there was a significant demographic shift over the course of about 20 years that resulted in blacks becoming the prevalent ethnic community. However, the persons in leadership and authority within Ferguson remained largely white. Over time, the inability for Ferguson to be able to change that leadership dynamic likely contributed to an environment of disenfranchisement, distrust, doubt and tension. Was all that could be done to achieve appropriate representation for the community actually done? I don’t know and, I suppose, it is a matter for debate. However I would propose that the leadership of communities across the United States need spend more time thinking about their future than they do the present. They need to be able to recognize very early on the changes that are occurring in the populations of their cities and towns. They need to address the gaps these changes create. They need to be willing to reach out and actively dialogue with all of their citizenry. They need the guts to acknowledge things that they don’t know, the things that they don’t understand and the things that they cannot seem to change. There is no shame in asking for help or admitting your limitations. There is great strength in working together to identify and solve problems. In an article by David Brooks in the December 2nd issue of the New York Times, he writes, “Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends.” I believe he’s right. What better common endeavor than to make the place you live a healthier environment for all?

Schools - An Effective Agent for Change

Schools can be powerful tools for a community to use in order to detect, measure, and influence change. Schools are a microcosm of the community in which they operate. Every element of our social norms is replicated in school; hierarchical management, social class, racial diversity (or lack thereof), interpersonal conflict, group think, criminal activity, drug use, and so on.

Smart community leadership looks to their school system to understand their community. When you see a shift in the demographic profile of your school population, an uptick in the frequency of a particular discipline matter, a swing in the educational metric results, or observations from educators that “this year is different;” you are seeing a reflection of your community and you had better pay attention.

Schools offer community leadership the unique opportunity to take a captive audience and deliver a clear and compelling message. It provides the chance to solicit new, brave, and bold ideas about the future. It opens up a typically untapped resource for information and insight.

Many schools have “Resource Officers.” Typically, these are police officers who are present to immediately address matters of the law or take intervention action in the event of trouble. The good ones develop key relationships and make themselves available to all students. But more can be done. Police departments and community leaders can proactively work with students to develop broad relationships of accessibility, trust, understanding and respect. It will take effort. It will take time. But in the end, it will help build a generation of thoughtful and mature citizens who have learned how to work together.

Police Departments - Sources of Conflict and Solution

The conflict between police and the public is as old as the concept of policing itself. Any expectation that interactions with law enforcement will always occur in a cooperative, understanding and shared manner is flawed.

So, communities that recognize this inherent conflict and develop thoughtful and robust strategies for mitigating it will be well served. “Good will” is something that needs to be banked by those in public service and it needs to be banked in great measure. The public will quickly forget the positive impact of law enforcement when presented with a situation in which the decisions made by the police were excessive, ill-informed or ill-managed. The public will tend to judge the entire police department by the actions of individual officer. There must be something strongly positive for the public to hold on to so that thrust in the police and the process does not fail.

Good will can be created in many ways. It can be developed through community presence (getting out of the patrol car and walking around, hosting or supporting events for community youth, offering to speak at clubs or organizations), demystifying operations (public police academies, officer ride-a-longs, headquarters tours), social media (helpful public websites, insightful tweets, creative Facebook accounts), psychological training (de-escalation techniques, mental health awareness), and public transparency (open, direct and honest communication, clear channels of communication into and out of the department, regular public Q&A forums).

Of course, the efforts put into creating good will aren’t just about having “money in the bank.” The will, in fact, provide information that will expose areas or situations that need attention, identify those who are underserved, provide a safety valve for the release of building frustration and provide opportunities for discussion about the strategic direction of both the police department and the community in the future.

What if Ferguson had been able to do all these things? Would Michael Brown be alive today? Would Darren Wilson still be a police officer? I don’t know. But I do know that if those in public service are not representative of the population they serve, if they do not take advantage of the opportunities they have to influence positive change, and if they do not actively engage their citizens in dialogue, they and their community are going to experience problems that might otherwise have been avoided.

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