I have seen a lot of police departments handle tough situations over the years, some effectively and some miserably. Over the past few weeks, Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steve Anderson has served the community and police department well by ensuring transparency and thoroughness in response to the recent death of Anthony Ware after a police pursuit. However, the Chief still needs to reflect on what can be done to improve the level of trust city residents have in their Department.
To be sure, some amount of the community reaction in recent weeks reflects pent up, and understandable, anger about the relationship between law enforcement institutions and African Americans across the nation. The last year has been marked by several deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police officers. That the circumstances of Mr. Ware's death may be significantly different than some of the others does not diminish the accumulated pain that comes with this recent, but also long-standing, problem.
It would be a mistake, though, to cast this entirely in light of national issues. A significant part of the public frustration, both in the immediate wake of the pursuit on July 10th and last week at City Hall, where NAACP leaders called for a citizen advisory council to oversee the Police Department, raises concerns that are primarily local.
Even with the open door policy and proactive approach to community engagement we have seen from the Tuscaloosa Police Department in recent years, more is needed. But I would be hesitant to outsource the challenge to an advisory council as has been suggested. Not because I dislike the opportunity for more engagement, rather, I dislike the bureaucracy.
Where law enforcement agencies have repeatedly failed their communities and refused to listen to the complaints and concerns of citizens, formal bodies become necessary to bridge a gap that is too wide. As a former President of the National Sheriffs Association, I saw departments where establishing an official watchdog agency was critical to ensure that the Constitutional rights of the community were protected. That is, fortunately, not the case in Tuscaloosa, and instituting a new panel could actually create more distance by exchanging the natural learning that comes with authentic communication and interaction for the staged and stilted formalism of government hearings.
Rather than turn community concerns over to another government-appointed panel, the first step should be for the Chief to work with NAACP leadership to host a series of neighborhood meetings that will provide opportunities to ask questions and share concerns about policing in the city. In its aftermath, there has been some discussion of the tactics used by officers during the pursuit of Mr. Ware, and these meetings could be a forum for those issues. More than likely, though, when given the opportunity residents will want to talk about a lot more than the events of July 10th.
In fact, policing tactics are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strengthening the relationship between cops and community and deepening trust. To be sure, we must be vigilant and ensure that the techniques and training of police aims to de-escalate situations wherever possible. But to have a truly public serving department, we have to reimagine the relationship between the police and the community. The willingness of community members to engage in constructive dialogue with police and the willingness of police departments to listen is step one.
A second step requires that the police department makes a stronger commitment to deploying officers in the community, not just when a crime is reported but as a positive fixture in neighborhoods who walk a beat when nothing is wrong. When police spend more time in this capacity, as guardians, it guarantees that they'll have to spend less time as warriors.
This path cannot be blazed by the Chief alone; here the Mayor and City Council must be supportive. On the front-end of a transition to more cops walking more beats, those with their hands on the purse strings need to prioritize and fund the shift. It's a wise investment, because the trust that police officers earn by immersing themselves in the neighborhoods of the city will be repaid with much greater confidence in, and support of, the difficult decisions made by officers in response to future situations.
The most effective police forces operate in partnership with the residents they serve. In Tuscaloosa, we have a Chief and community leaders who are well-equipped to help build a partnership, and that should begin now.
Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is also the retired Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, a former National Sheriff's Association "Sheriff of the Year," and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.