Volume 49 Number 4
Fall 2016

Public Policy

Edited by Dan Cooper

Can Community Psychologists Play a Role in Helping to Ease Tensions Between Law Enforcement Agencies and Communities?

Robert (Robin) Jenkins

Methodist University

The increasing tensions between communities and law enforcement agencies startles the consciousness of America. Across the country policing agencies are challenged by their assumptions, practices, perceived legitimacy, questions about transparency and accountability. Communities are fractured by the need for socially just policing juxtaposed with the hosting of many of the problems that create calls for service from the police. Underlying these problems are the deep, complex and seemingly intractable “systems” issues embedded in politics, economic and immigration policies, cultural and racial divides, impacts from social media, and other factors.  So can Community Psychology offer a set of policy “slip knots” and interventions out of these increasingly dangerous and complicated problems?

Born from a hunger for more viable, empowering, effective and socially just conditions for individuals and communities, Community Psychology launched in the 1960’s with energy and vision ((Rappaport, 1987). Its leaders envisioned a new and more integrated set of solutions to not only reduce the personal burden of mental illness, but prevent stressful or debilitating conditions and empower persons as well as communities (Kelly, 1966). The field demonstrated amazing potential based on its interdisciplinary roots and vibrant multi-disciplinary theoretical backgrounds. (Jason et al., 2016) note that “Community Psychology was founded as a discipline that is intended to combine a scientific orientation with collaborative social action in order to empower members of some community of interest and to help them improve their lives” (p. 7). By framing individual functioning within the ecological paradigm, Bronfenbrenner (1979) and others defined a conceptually potent and multi-directional set of explanations as well as potential solution pathways to ease human suffering.

The ecological framework, along with other key principles and practices embraced by Community Psychology in some ways challenge us to better explain how to resolve escalating tensions between law enforcement agencies and communities – especially communities of color. Policing is a complicated thing. Issues between the police and those who are policed are not unique to the United States (see; suggesting that political, economic, socio-structural and constructivist contexts are important no matter the geography. Embedded in these issues lay extremely and emotionally charged issues of race/racism, social construction of class and social inequities, economic and immigration policies, political dynamics, power relationships, as well as a host of implementation issues around the methods and strategies that various law enforcement entities use to provide public safety.

Given its potential as well as impressive history, Community Psychology should be integral in the active dialog involving effective policing with its value system centered on social equity, fairness, procedural justice, legitimacy and other positive individual and community impacts. These topics are very much “foreground” (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997). Classic and newer ideas such as community coalition action theory (Butterfoss & Kegler, 2009), liberation in its multiple contexts (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010), empowerment theory (Rappaport, 1987), intergroup relations (O’Neill, 2000), critical community psychology (Thompson, 2007), cognitive community psychology (O’Neill, 1981; Florin & Wandersman, 1984) and many others may be foundational but insufficient. Communities impacted by intergroup violence, chronic poverty, structural racism (perceived or actual), acculturative stress (Anderson, 1991), chronic trauma, oppression, norms that tolerate anti-social behaviors, collateral consequences of mass incarceration, etc. require an urgent exploration of effective theory and interventions that then can be incorporated into policies have broader impacts at population levels..

One of the more perplexing dilemmas in this matter has to do with the perceived estimation of fairness and unbiased actions on the part of law enforcement agencies juxtaposed with each unique community’s norms or values. With an eye toward respecting diversity, culture, and recognizing everyone’s intrinsic values, the real question of collective efficacy around the establishment and maintenance of norms and values associated with public safety (for all) as an interactional process with police is critically important. Yet there is not much practical and research-supported evidence as to how to create and sustain such efforts in this specific focus area. Where are the boundaries between law enforcers and communities? Whose role is it to set expectations about non-violence, absence or presence of weapons, tolerance of drugs or other substances, informal “market” behaviors when economies are insufficient to support everyone? Who defines public safety? Who legitimizes and empowers police agencies? And how do these activities get measured, improved, institutionalized in ways that help one community to the next? Regarding law enforcement entities, the question of holding them accountable through balanced and engaged, empowered community stakeholders while recognizing responsibilities inherent in individual, family, community and macro systems is also quite critical.

From a public policy perspective, there are many important questions for community psychologists to ponder. How can the ecological framework with its concepts of action research, community engagement, public health integration, complex / adaptive systems change, critical community and social cognition, sense of community, social support, contextualism, liberation, prevention and well-being be practically applied, rapidly and to scale, in order to reduce future potential for violence, community unrest, officer shootings, other mass killings, generational impacts of acculturative stress, and the possibility of a weakened law enforcement legitimacy? Recognizing the bi-directionality of responsibility in these matters (communities as well as law enforcement), can Community Psychology muster research, intervention, efficacy and effectiveness tools in the near future to measurably impact these issues?

Ed Trickett notes that human diversity highlights the importance of context relative to cultures and subcultures (Trickett, Watts, & Birman, 1994). So how do communities and their policing agencies create a new narrative and set of standards that allow for both legal compliance as well as individual and community levels acceptance of economic diversity, cultural diversity, relativism and responsibility without the historical burdens of racism, class oppression and similar problems? Can communities and law enforcement agree on a values-based praxis model (Prilleltensky, 2001) that leverages effective public policies (supported through Community Psychology efforts?). How does one accept and validate historical context (e.g., culture, race, personal narratives), yet learn from it and escape many of its harsh consequences (racism, oppression, class inequality, politics)? Effective, solution-driven public policy research is desperately needed to help communities as well as law enforcement entities negotiate this new framework. The narrative would include a partnership that legitimizes policing, balances accountability and responsibilities at multiple levels, while eliminating some historically problematic beliefs and strategies employed by policing agencies often perceived as “mandated” from various governance structures. It might also engage citizens in political, social and economic processes that reduce the likelihood that public safety interventions would be needed.



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Butterfoss, F. D., & Kegler, M. c. (2009). The Community Coalition Action Theory. In R. DiClemente, R. A. Crosbie, & M. Kegler (Eds.), Emerging Theories in Health Promotion and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 237–277). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Toward a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15(2), 121–148.

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Trickett, E. J. (Ed), Watts, R. J. (Ed), & Birman, D. (Ed). (1994). Human diversity:  Perspectives on people in context. This book grew out of the conference entitled “Human Diversity: Perspectives on People in Context,” held at U Maryland, College Park, MD, Oct 1988. Jossey-Bass.


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