Building Bonds of Trust Between Police and the Communities They Serve

By Agustin V. Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights 


The events of the past weeks have refocused the nation’s attention on the role that race, color and ethnicity play in our society. We were painfully reminded that we continue to face racial and ethnic divisions in this country, and that these divisions are a real threat to life and to civil society.

The shootings in St. Paul and Baton Rouge raise uncomfortable but important questions about equal justice and the appropriate use of force. And the deliberate targeting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge has horrified the nation and sent a chill down the spine of every police officer whose life is on the line every time they put on the uniform.

While it is vitally important that we allow the investigations into these incidents to continue and that we review every new piece of evidence with an open mind, it is equally important that we reject all instances of racial profiling, bias and stereotyping, while striving for better understanding and dialogue. And we must reject, in no uncertain terms, all forms of violence against police.

At the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, we long ago recognized the importance of regularly convening meetings of community leaders and residents with law enforcement – local, state and federal – to engage in uncensored dialogue on tough topics, and in the process, enhance cultural competence and build lasting relationships of trust.

Since 2011, MDCR has worked to expand local chapters of ALPACT - Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust – in a number of Michigan communities. ALPACT provides a platform for what at times can be uncomfortable but honest discussions – discussions that otherwise might never happen. At ALPACT, concerns on all sides are aired and are heard, in a safe and confidential environment. 

An important part of the ALPACT model is its regularity. In general, members meet monthly to examine the issues of the day, to voice their fears, ask the hard questions, and to hear other perspectives. No topic is off limits.

Currently, MDCR supports ALPACT chapters in Jackson, Benton Harbor, Holland, Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, and Grand Rapids, with more chapters to be established over the next 6 to 12 months.

We are determined to continue forging stronger relationships between communities and the law enforcement officers that serve them, and to provide training in cultural competency and racial sensitivity for individuals and agencies wherever needed. It is our strong belief that by providing communities this safe structure and regular space for frank dialogue and accountability, we are helping Michigan avoid tragedies like we have seen in other states.

In light of these recent tragic incidents, I have asked MDCR staff who work with our ALPACT chapters to reconnect with our partners in law enforcement and in communities and to make sure we’re seeking out and engaging people who are hurting, scared, and angry. Their voices must be heard and taken seriously.

At the same time, police chiefs and cops on the beat alike – the vast majority of whom are proud public servants dedicated to protecting all citizens – are demoralized by both the actions of some among their own ranks and the tendency of others to brand them all as racists and worse. They too deserve to be heard.

And in beginning that dialogue, it is important that we remain cognizant that words matter, and how we frame the discussion can either further the conversation or shut it down.

That’s where I see MDCR’s role at this juncture. By focusing very intentional attention on the concerns of our neighbors, both residents and law enforcement alike, we will help preserve the hard-won relationships between police and many of the Michigan communities they serve – relationships that will only survive with the ongoing commitment of all.

We recognize that even with the growth and support of ALPACT in many Michigan communities, inequality continues. But we will continue to do what we can to chip away at the structures that help preserve it, while we decry criminal acts that are disguised as a fight against racism.  

We encourage all communities to become involved and active participants in your local ALPACT and help foster and build intergroup dialogue to meet one of the major challenges facing our democracy today: the lack of communication among diverse groups and law enforcement.

In the end, we all must strive to create and nourish communities where different voices are encouraged to express themselves while respecting the right to disagree. Forging lines of communication among different stakeholders is one step in establishing a more just, harmonious, and strong society.