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January 11, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

How Police and Communities Can Move Forward Together

by Terrence M. Cunningham

The year 2020 was clearly an extremely challenging time for communities and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. High-profile use-of-force incidents led to days of protests; civil unrest; and, tragically, further violence, destruction, and death. Unfortunately, these protests have, in far too many communities, further widened the gap between police agencies and their communities.

Of course, the events of 2020 are not the only factors that have led to this estrangement between police officers and their communities. Historically, there have been times when police officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression to far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans. Unsurprisingly, this history has created a generational, almost inherited gulf of mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies. Many officers who do not share this common heritage struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust. As a result, many officers often find it difficult to bridge this gap and connect with their communities.

So, the challenge confronting our communities and our agencies is how to effectively move forward together to build a shared understanding and identify common solutions to better protect our communities. 

Community members and elected officials must realize they play a crucial role in moving constructive efforts forward.

Community members and elected officials must realize they play a crucial role in moving constructive efforts forward.


Although it may be difficult to recognize right now, policing has made significant advancements in recent years. Police leaders have acknowledged—and some have even apologized for—the misdeeds of the past and have sought out community partners to build a better future. Agencies have worked hard to increase transparency, revise policies to enhance procedural justice, recruit and hire officers who reflect the communities they serve, reduce use-of-force incidents, and focus on eliminating police cultures that prevent officers from holding each other accountable.

Despite these advances, there is more work ahead. Police leaders are embracing the concerns and criticism and reexamining their policies and approaches. They are committed to working tirelessly to earn and keep the trust of communities. Change will require both dedicated resources and an enduring commitment from police leaders, community members, and elected officials.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that the issues in our criminal justice system extend well beyond the behavior of police. Over the years, reductions in federal, state, and local budgets have slashed funding for mental health support, homelessness, untreated substance abuse and recovery services, offender reentry programs, educational and vocational training, and programs that promote economic improvement.

By default, police agencies have been required to fill the voids created by these funding cuts. The lack of access to mental health services means that the police are often the only ones left to call. Although agencies are working to train officers in crisis intervention or mental health first aid, this does not take the place of proper medical treatment.

At the same time, while policing is the focus, community members and elected officials must realize they play a crucial role in moving constructive efforts forward. Collectively, we must be willing to listen and discuss the realities of policing, identify meaningful solutions, and understand that police officers have literally dedicated their lives to protecting their communities.

To that end, there are several steps that law enforcement agencies, community leaders, and elected officials should be engaged in. These changes would impact both the culture of policing and the laws and regulations that govern police operations. They include:

1. Adoption of National Consensus Use of Force Policy

All police agencies should adopt the National Consensus Use of Force Policy (Consensus Policy) developed by a broad coalition of law enforcement leadership and labor organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), and others.

The Consensus Policy makes it clear that it is the policy of law enforcement agencies to value and preserve human life and that they should develop policies and training practices that focus on de-escalation and the application of force only when necessary.

In addition, the Consensus Policy states:

  • Officers shall use force only when no reasonably effective alternative appears to exist and shall use only the level of force that a reasonably prudent officer would use under the same or similar circumstances.
  • Officers shall use only the force that is objectively reasonable to effectively bring an incident under control while protecting the safety of the officer and others.
  • Use of physical force should be discontinued when resistance ceases or when the incident is under control.
  • Physical force shall not be used against individuals in restraints, except as objectively reasonable to prevent their escape or prevent imminent bodily injury to the individual, the officer, or another person or property damage. In these situations, only the minimal amount of force necessary to control the situation shall be used.
  • Once the scene is safe, and as soon as practical, an officer shall provide appropriate medical care consistent with his or her training to any individual who has visible injuries, complains of being injured, or requests medical attention. This may include providing first aid, requesting emergency medical services, and/or arranging for transportation to an emergency medical facility.
  • An officer has a duty to intervene to prevent or stop the use of excessive force by another officer when it is safe and reasonable to do so.
  • All uses of force shall be documented and investigated.

2. Mandatory Participation in the National Use of Force Database

Participation in the National Use of Force Data Collection effort will help law enforcement, elected officials, and community members better identify and understand the totality of incidents, trends associated with use-of-force incidents, and other outlying factors.

3. Development of National Standards for Discipline and Termination of Officers

There is a need to develop national standards and policies for the discipline and termination of officers in order to establish uniformity and a gold standard of excellence and to prevent malevolent, incompetent, or dishonorable individuals from remaining in the police profession.

4. Participation in the Police Officer Decertification Database

The database aids law enforcement agencies in making informed hiring decisions and prevents officers who have been terminated by an agency from being able to go to another state to be hired. An agency or official in each state should be responsible for submitting data concerning officers separated from employment and whose certifications have been revoked in the state.

5. Enhancement of Police Leadership and Culture

Police leaders must prioritize diversity and create a culture of equity and inclusion by working to eliminate racial, ethnic, and gender bias in the workplace. This should be accomplished by

  • embracing procedural justice as a guiding principle that informs policies, practices, and training;
  • adopting comprehensive bias-free policies;
  • ensuring officers are trained in bias-free policing;
  • ensuring that field training incorporates core values and communicates them to new officers; and
  • providing communities with a direct, ongoing voice in their police agencies by involving community members in the review and development of departmental policies and procedures.

6. Implementation of Improved Recruitment, Hiring, and Promotion Practices

This includes increased educational standards, background investigations, targeted recruitment efforts, review of hiring standards and practices, diversity, in-service training, and recruit training programs.

7. Enhanced Ability of Police Agencies to Implement Effective Discipline

Contracts, labor agreements, and civil service rules often make it difficult for departments to swiftly remove problematic officers. While ensuring that the due process rights of officers are respected, the authority of management in disciplinary proceedings needs to be enhanced to allow agencies to expediently discipline and terminate officers. Further, when negotiating such agreements, police leaders have a responsibility to ensure the agreement aligns with the envisioned organizational culture and community expectations.

Beyond these specific proposals, there is also a critical need to establish shared expectations between the police, the community, and elected officials about police polices and operational practices. If communities want changes to police operations, then police should inform the public of potential costs, advantages, and disadvantages of those changes so communities can make informed and appropriate decisions. Elected officials are responsible for facilitating this process, ensuring thoughtful changes are implemented, and owning the outcome.

At the same time, there needs to be a recognition by all that policing involves dynamic, unpredictable, and very dangerous situations. Police and community leaders should, where appropriate, educate the public on policies, practices, and incidents to further understanding of policing dynamics, advance transparency, and enhance community/police engagement. This also requires that police leaders and officers hold each other accountable for wrongful actions and always remember that officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or stop the use of excessive force by another officer when it is safe and reasonable to do so. Complaints against police officers must receive thorough, timely, transparent, and objective investigation to determine the validity of the complaints, identify root causes of failure, and work toward improvement.

Finally, communities and police leaders must demand of their elected leadership improvements to social shortcomings, such as poverty, subpar education, untreated substance abuse, and mental health issues that significantly reduce the quality of life for affected community members and perpetuate cyclical involvement with the criminal justice system. To that end, there is a broader need to implement a system-wide approach to criminal justice policies and legislation that embrace proven, evidence-based programs that incorporate broader public health and social wellness into cohesive approaches to community wellness and public safety.

Finally, as our society moves forward in meeting this challenge, it is critical that we not lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the men and women in the policing profession chose to become police officers in order to do good, to protect our communities, and to serve their fellow citizens. At its core, policing is a noble profession that is made up of individuals who have dedicated their lives—and often lost their lives—in service to the public. While we all certainly recognize and agree that the policing profession must continue to evolve, it is imperative that we not paint the profession with a broad brush highlighting only the bad and overlooking the immense amount of good that is done by officers in communities across this nation every day. 

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Terrence M. Cunningham

Chief Operating Officer, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Chief Terrence M. Cunningham currently serves as the chief operating officer for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) with over 31,000 members in 168 countries. He has 38 years of policing experience, 17 as chief of police. He is a past president of the IACP, Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council (Metro-LEC).