Trust, Momentum, and Readiness: Trust-Building in Police-Community Partnerships

Photograph of Brittany Cook
Brittany S. Cook

by Brittany S. Cook, Kassy Alia Ray, and Abraham Wandersman

Original posted in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Volume 53 (1). Winter 2020

Established in 2018, Serve & Connect is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in South Carolina, with the mission to ignite positive change and strengthen communities through building positive police and community partnerships. Serve & Connect often focuses on communities with large disinvestment and with histories of mistrust and is currently functioning as a facilitator for the development of a coalition in the North Columbia community. The North Columbia community is primarily African American and is often recognized for many negative outcomes including high rates of violent crime, poverty. Two-thirds of adults report adverse childhood events including emotional abuse, parental separation/divorce, and parental substance use. Moreover, the community has a history of distrust of police, in part due to the frequent police presence because of violent crimes. With Serve & Connect as a catalyst, members of police departments, local service organizations, educational institutions, state agencies, faith-based organizations, and community members have formed the North Columbia Youth Empowerment Initiative (NCYEI), a coalition centered on improving youth safety and empowerment in the community.

Description of the challenge faced
Serve & Connect has developed a comprehensive, evidence-informed, community-centered model for promoting safety, resilience, and well-being called COMPASS, to facilitate positive community level change through effective community collaboration. COMPASS is based on principles of empowerment evaluation (Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005), where community voice is paramount. The four phases of COMPASS are:

Phase I: Cultivating Trust and Establishing Shared Community Vision

Phase 2: Stakeholder Engagement, Readiness, and Relationships

Phase 3: Systematic Assessment, Implementation, Evaluation

Phase 4: Sustainability

Using COMPASS, Serve & Connect is supporting the development of NCYEI and the processes used to understand and build relationships within the community, as well as the readiness of stakeholders at different levels of readiness to begin working together towards shared goals (Hajjar et al., 2020). However, fostering engagement in collaboration and moving towards action is a challenging and non-linear process, particularly in a community that has a history of distrust.

Team’s response
Wandersman (2009) outlined “four keys to success” when addressing social change interventions: theory, implementation, support, evaluation. Through the COMPASS work in North Columbia, Serve & Connect has identified challenges within each of the four keys and employed strategies to address those challenges.

Theory challenge. NCYEI identified a need for a unified vision, along with goals and an understanding of existing resources and relationships available to the community.

Theory solution. A community visioning day event was held during which community partners, community members, and police came together to discuss the vision for the initiative and resources and relationships that could be leveraged. This was an essential step for the theory of change within the COMPASS model.

Theory evidence of success. Out of conversations and activities at the community visioning day, a community model for North Columbia was developed (click here to see Community Conceptual Model).

Beyond development of a community model, participants in the visioning day event engaged in a mapping exercise that provided additional themes about the relationships and connections within the community. Networking was reported as a particularly valuable part of the event, and some community members reported that it was the first opportunity they had to really sit down and get to talk with a police officer on a personal level.

Implementation challenge. Trust in the NCYEI (and involved police) by the North Columbia community needed to be built. Community members voiced attitudes of “here today, gone tomorrow.”

Implementation solution. A summer series of events was held to provide fun and casual opportunities for police and community residents to interact. The summer series was strategically held each week for four weeks, alternating between two high need housing complexes in the community. This allowed the NCYEI and engaged police to meet residents where they lived and demonstrate consistency. These events involved fun activities including a water fight, cookout, and sports.

Implementation evidence of success. Attendance in NCYEI weekly meetings spiked directly following the summer series (time point 22 in the figure below) as several neighborhood leaders became engaged in NCYEI through the summer series and began regularly participating in meetings. The community leaders actively recruited other residents to come to meetings. This shift, towards an even more community-led coalition, resulted in the ability to move more strategically towards actions to address community needs.

To see a graph of meeting attendance over time, click here.

Support challenge. Community conversations led to a recognition that NCYEI steering committee members needed to develop a shared understanding of the historical context regarding police and community partnerships and build internal trust.

Support solution. Serve & Connect facilitated the scheduling of the Welcome Table SC, hosted by the South Carolina Collaborative for Race & Reconciliation housed at the University of South Carolina. The Welcome Table is a process designed to help create relational trust, unity, teamwork, and cohesiveness through a group of community members who want to improve racial relations and other problems in their communities. Many of the formal steering committee members elected to participate.

Support evidence of success. Participants completed a survey about their experience in the Welcome Table. Positive changes in trust and perceived personal power of steering committee members through the Welcome Table process were reported. As one NCYEI steering committee members put it: “I have more power because of the connections I have made.”

Evaluation challenge. Serve & Connect intended to administer a survey to measure the readiness and existing relationships of community partners and residents in North Columbia to further understand the community’s needs and tailor supports. However, resident NCYEI members cautioned that a formal survey was culturally inappropriate and could inhibit trust building.

Evaluation solution. “Dot surveys” were conducted at community events. Questions were placed on large pieces of paper, and community members placed a sticker, or dot, next to the responses they most agreed with. Additionally, strategic listening sessions were held to provide residents and police opportunities to voice their concerns, needs, and hopes for the community and police-community relationships.

Evaluation evidence of success. Overall, the adapted method demonstrated good response rates and useful information about the community’s feelings of hope, trust, safety, and resource access. Qualitative feedback about a particular event garnered some of the most powerful support for the dot survey method. One community resident responded to the question what did you like best about today’s event? by stating that her favorite thing was that “Right away, you wanted to know what I thought [with the dot survey].”

Building collaboration for social change takes time and is a complex process. By identifying and addressing challenges in theory, implementation, support, and evaluation through the COMPASS initiative, Serve & Connect has been able to begin building trust within the North Columbia community. The intentional focus on trust and relationships within each of the four keys has allowed increasing momentum in NCYEI to build. Residents are engaging with police, sharing their voice, and being empowered to take ownership of NCYEI.

Fetterman, D. M., & Wandersman, A. (Eds.). (2005). Empowerment evaluation principles in practice. Guilford Press.

Hajjar, L. Cook, B. S., Domlyn, A., Ray, K. A., Laird, D., & Wandersman, A. (2020; in press). Readiness and Relationships are Crucial for Coalitions and Collaboratives: Concepts and Evaluation Tools. New Directions for Evaluation

Wandersman, A. (2009). Four keys to success (theory, implementation, evaluation, and resource/system support): High hopes and challenges in participation. American Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 3–21.

For more information about Serve & Connect and the COMPASS initiative in North Columbia and other communities, please contact Brittany Cook at: or Kassy Alia Ray at:


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