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What comes to mind when you hear about Flint, Michigan? Probably not anything positive. Maybe the headlines about lead in the water, or profiles about their broken police department. If you go way back (like I do), Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me was all about Flint. For a city of fewer than 100,000 people, Flint gets an unfortunate amount of negative publicity.

For a city that appears to have many complex problems to address with race and poverty, the Black Lives Matter protests in Flint could easily have turned confrontational or violent.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Part of the reason comes down to one man.

Sheriff Chris Swanson leads the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department. He made headlines for Flint by walking with protestors. Not by walking with protestors in the full riot gear he was wearing just a few minutes before, but by removing his tactical equipment and asking the crowd, “What else do I need to do?”

The crowd’s response: “Walk with us.”

Sheriff Swanson spoke of the results in this article from the Detroit Free Press:

The best moment of my police career is when I said, ‘Let’s walk.’ And we walked over a mile back to where it started and I could feel an instantaneous peace on both sides,” Swanson said. “That would not have happened if they had not wanted to listen to what I had to say as well, so it is mutually agreed upon that I need to hear what they are saying.”

Mutual agreement and mutual respect. As we’ve written about often these last few weeks, the need to find common ground is vital for any disagreement, but particularly for policing. Breaking down the barriers between police and citizens is a huge challenge, but there are steps that can de-escalate the adversarial relationship that has developed over the last 50 years.

Community-oriented policing is one technique showing promise. In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences released the first-ever report using a randomized, controlled field experiment. The study noted why this was significant:

Community-oriented policing (COP), which encourages positive, nonenforcement contact between police officers and the public, has been widely promoted as a policy intervention for building public trust and enhancing police legitimacy. To date, however, there is little evidence that COP actually leads to changes in attitudes toward the police.

Researchers arranged for unannounced, non-enforcement-related door-to-door visits to 926 randomly assigned homes across New Haven, Connecticut’s 10 police districts, along with a control group that received no visits. What the study found was significant. Just a single, positive, non-enforcement interactions with police improved residents’ attitudes for weeks after the encounter.

However, the study’s authors note that Community-Oriented Policing isn’t a panacea:

Positive, respectful police-community interaction should be the norm in all police departments; but community policing isn’t going to solve police brutality or a lack of police accountability. Those problems demand their own attention and their own solutions.

Whatever model police reform eventually takes; it will take years to see results. Culture and custom changes slowly, but there is momentum for reform. Change is in the air.

In the meantime, Flint residents gathered peacefully three nights in a row.

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