Where does distrust between police and the community begin, and how might we repair it?
This is a question my fellowship team and I, Team Vallejo, have been flipping around for the past five months. After spending time in Vallejo and riding alongside Vallejo police officers, we started to notice some patterns that might contribute to the fragmented trust between both parties. One big suspect: lack of information.
Police told us that they feel “misunderstood” and unable to fulfill unrealistic expectations during their daily policing.
“We want to better communicate the realities of police work, and what the police realistically can and cannot do,” said one police officer.
Police often go to neighborhood watch meetings and teach neighborhood watch members how to keep their communities safe. They talk about how 911 calls are prioritized, what constitutes an emergency, and what the police can and cannot do in certain circumstances.
After speaking with people living in Vallejo, we learned that many feel confused by the criminal justice system. They wonder where to go for what, what is and is not allowed, and what to expect during and after their interactions with police.
So we wondered, if the community had more information, what kinds of information would they find useful or interesting?
As a completely hypothetical exercise, we collected different types of information that might interest people and asked them to prioritize it. We took inventory of all of the traditional categories of information released to the public, such as number of crimes, arrests, and traffic stops in the last year, and put them on individual index cards. Then, we added categories based on our own research and current conversations happening around policing in America, such as use of force, neighborhood watch groups, and 911 call summaries. We wanted to keep the cards somewhat interpretable and not too specific.
We made it clear that cards selected were not necessarily a promise of what information we would make publicly available. The purpose of the sort was to learn why people want certain types of information, and if having that information would be useful in repairing their trust in the police. Altogether the deck consisted of about 50 different types of information categories.
For the first round, we asked each participant to sort the cards into a pile of “not interested/would not want” and “interested/would want.”
They were interested in a lot.
We asked them to choose their top 10 cards. They were also given the option to add up to three of their own cards. We highlighted participants’ preferences and noticed that none of their top 10 cards were a perfect match. The information a resident wants really depends on their own goals, experiences, and community. No one person fits into a perfect box.
What We Learned
It was an insightful exercise because we saw the types of information people were interested in and the “why” behind their interests or non-interests. We were able to see where their reasoning didn’t match reality, which spoke to the miseducation the police mentioned.
For example, one man said he was not interested in 911 wait time or knowing how many callers are ahead of him before the police arrives at his house, because he knows that if police pick up his 911 call that means they’re available to come right away. The reality is that people often have to wait up to 3 hours or more for a police to arrive at their house for a low priority call. If there are many calls that night there might not be enough officers to fulfill the request.
We were also able to pull out themes, like police accountability and transparency. All five participants mentioned body camera footage, but when we spoke to the participants about why they wanted that, they were more concerned about accountability than wanting to “catch” the police in wrong-doings.
“I want to know that just in case something happens, there’s a record of it somewhere in case it’s my word against theirs,” said one participant.
This highlighted the need to focus on the problem that certain types of data solve, rather than the data itself. Do people really want to know how many arrests there were in their area, or do they want to ensure that they’re living somewhere safe? Do people want to sit and watch hours of camera footage, or do they want to have the reassurance that someone has their back if something goes wrong? Insights like these help us find the root of the problem, and solve for that real human need underneath.
The results of the card sort didn’t paint any one picture. Every participant’s top 10 cards were different.
The head of the school district chose cards that would help her better support the safety of her school and education of her staff. A neighborhood watch captain chose cards to help target issues on their block. The director of a community organization who helps underrepresented communities was interested in cards that show potential “predatory behavior” towards citizens.
But we did learn that everyone was interested in cards particular to the problems they were trying to solve every day. Everyone mentioned accountability, community, and measures of proactive policing. They spoke of being able to have more informed conversations with the police and their communities about what’s going on in the city. Finally, they mentioned the gesture of giving information as a sign of trust and support.
With all of this rich insight from the Vallejo community, we can now focus our efforts around solutions that meet their needs, not our assumptions of what their needs might be.
Can we give citizens information to help them refine their expectations of police work? Can we give police resources to fulfill information requests from citizens?
At the end of the session, one participant took a deep sigh and said, “Thank you for doing this – it’s good to know that someone is getting people to think about these things, especially now.”
Trust is a big, abstract area, but by dissecting it, finding sources that might break it, and then filling those gaps, we think there is still hope – we just need to leave our assumptions behind, and listen.