Community psychologists hold tremendous potential for igniting transformation during divisive times. The skills and values which serve as the foundation for community psychology place us in a unique position to bring diverse stakeholders together to create second-order change. To do so requires a willingness to embrace the dialectic and openly consider divergent solutions (Rappaport, 2002), which can be very difficult when fighting for justice and equity. I call this, the courage for collaboration during divisive times. To illustrate what I mean, I will dive into an issue that is close to my heart – police and community relationships.
I am a police widow. My husband, Officer Gregory Alia, was shot and killed in the line of duty on September 30, 2015 (Wilks, 2015). When he died, I was deeply impacted by the tensions between police and community. At the time, the message I perceived was that people could be either for police or against police; you couldn’t be both. And, if you were against police, you were against all police, including Greg. This polarizing message left me wondering if his service and sacrifice were valued. Within hours of his death, I began speaking out in the media about my husband and calling for a message of empathy; I wanted to humanize his tragedy while fighting against a divisive rhetoric. This initial response grew into an organization, Heroes In Blue, which sought to rally community support for law enforcement and raise awareness of positive interactions occurring between police and community. However, I knew early on that if I wanted to combat the narrative that impacted me so deeply, I needed to do more than share positive stories. I spent time listening to perspectives most different from my own to identify opportunities for change. Through this work, I began to better understand the lived experience of communities of color in our country, and the historical and present context surrounding distrust in law enforcement. And, through my own process of finding peace with the man who killed my husband (Alia, 2017), I saw that the fight against inequity and racism was directly linked with my own tragic loss.
Transformative change requires a multi-faceted understanding of the problem we are seeking to address. As the family member of a police officer, I was directly impacted by the distrust, fear and anger against police. In preparing for this piece, I searched the literature to see if my experience – and the experiences of other law enforcement families I know – was supported by empirical evidence. However, the effects of the current climate on the mental health and well-being of police officers and their families is understudied. There is some evidence of its impact on officer recruitment and retention (Ali, 2017; Smith, 2016), which have displayed downward trends in recent years. The negative portrayal of police and perception of greater danger on the job (“Police departments struggle,” 2017) are among the factors that have been cited as contributing to these statistics.
These were factors that I understood through my lived experience. Yet, to identify opportunities for change, I had to embrace other perspectives. Prior to my husband’s death, my work was largely focused on addressing community health disparities. I thought I had a grasp on discrimination in our country as a result, but it wasn’t until I sought to truly understand tensions between police and community from another vantage point that I began to see the humanity in the numbers. I listened to personal stories of police interactions in communities of color and heard what it is like for parents of black boys to fear for their children’s futures. I learned about the sources of distrust in law enforcement among minority populations (Peck, 2015), including the painful history of racism and police brutality in our country and present-day adverse experiences that leave black and brown populations feeling targeted. These stories peaked my desire to learn more about disparities in police interactions, including racial bias in traffic stops (Baumgartner, Epp, & Shoub, 2018). I began to see how movements like Black Lives Matter represent empowerment over generations of oppression. And I’ve learned about the heightened trauma that is experienced by black communities following cases of officer-involved shootings (Bor, Venkataramani, Williams, & Tsai, 2018).
The interaction between my own personal grief journey coinciding with this process of learning led me to see an opportunity for bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We expanded the mission of Heroes In Blue and re-named the organization to reflect this shift in focus. The re-branded organization Serve & Connect, (https://serveandconnect.net/) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) focused on building community resilience and well-being through transformative police and community partnerships. Our work seeks to promote proactive, collaborative, and prevention-oriented policing. Through our comprehensive support system, we seek to build the capability and readiness (Scaccia, Cook, Lamont, Wandersman, Castellow, Katz, et al., 2015) of police officers to help identify root causes of crime related to inequity and implement effective solutions for helping people in need. A key component of the work is fostering social capital between police officers and community organizations to spread resources that enhance resilience to adverse community environments. We also seek to create settings that encourage relationship development and constructive dialogue. Serve & Connect takes a strengths-focused approach to improving police and community relationships that builds on police officers’ desire to serve by placing them as conduits for improving the conditions that give rise to issues in community safety. We are guided by values of empathy, trust and an appreciation for our shared humanity. Our approach relies heavily on community psychology skills and principles to inform an inclusive and effective model of collaboration.
Though this organization is in its infancy, I am proud of our preliminary impact. Notably, our Compassionate Acts Program provides police with resources to help address immediate needs related to poverty and to build relationships with marginalized communities. Greg’s Groceries, a flagship initiative within the Compassionate Acts Program, provides police with boxes of nonperishable food so that they may assist people experiencing hunger. Each box contains a week’s supply of food. Police distribute boxes while responding to calls; through referrals; and at community events. The program was developed in collaboration with Harvest Hope Food Bank, a South Carolina food bank serving 20 counties. Since the launch of the program in August 2017, a total of 640 boxes equaling approximately 13,440 meals have been distributed in food insecure communities. Overall, the Compassionate Acts Program has been implemented in eleven police departments across six counties in South Carolina. We are also in the process of implementing a number of other initiatives that promote partnerships and courageous conversations between police and marginalized communities, including Latino communities, individuals experiencing physical and mental disabilities, at-risk youth and more.
This work focuses on creating a new way of interacting between police and community. We are taking an innovative approach to improving law enforcement and community interactions that is heavily informed by community psychology constructs, skills and principles. I believe this is a model that can be implemented across issues to facilitate change during our current polarizing climate. We know through research that community cohesion, social capital, and diverse partnerships foster transformative change. As community psychologists, we have the knowledge and skills to facilitate collaboration among diverse stakeholders and drive effective solutions from the bottom-up. We can build more inclusive, welcoming, resilient communities for all if we are willing to embrace the dialectic and confront our own biases. I believe it is time to re-engage what it means to be an agent for social change in today’s world by finding the courage for collaboration during divisive times.
Ali, S.S. (2017, March 18). Police Shortage Hits Cities and Small Towns Across the Country. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/police-shortage-hits-cities-small-towns-across-country-n734721.
Alia, K.A. (2017, May 10). Read Kassy Alia’s Court Statement: ‘It is not too late for our world.’ Retrieved from https://www.thestate.com/news/local/crime/article149708034.html.
Baumgartner, F. R., Epp, D. A., & Shoub, K. (2018). Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us about Policing and Race. Cambridge University Press.
Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. C. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet.
Peck, J. H. (2015). Minority perceptions of the police: A state-of-the-art review. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 38(1), 173-203. Police departments struggle to recruit enough officers. (2017, January 5). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2017/01/05/police-departments-struggle-to-recruit-enough-officers.
Rappaport, J. (2002). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. In A Quarter Century of Community Psychology (pp. 121-145).
Scaccia, J. P., Cook, B. S., Lamont, A., Wandersman, A., Castellow, J., Katz, J., & Beidas, R. S. (2015). A practical implementation science heuristic for organizational readiness: R= MC2. Journal of Community Psychology, 43(4), 484-501.
Smith, S. (2016, June.) A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/a-crisis-facing-law-enforcement-recruiting-in-the-21st-century/.
Wilks, A. (2015, September 30). Forest Acres police officer Greg Alia remembered as upstanding man, father. Retrieved from https://www.thestate.com/news/local/crime/article37135992.html.
Written by Kassy Alia, Serve & Connect; Edited by Jessica Shaw
For comments and questions you can contact Kassy Alia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Re-printed from The Community Psychologist Vol 54 (4) Fall 2018