In March, several officers of the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department (MPD) brought together a diverse group of community members to hear their ideas on increasing trust between law enforcement and the community.
Captain John Patterson, currently assigned to Madison’s South Police District, adapted this event from the Orlando, Florida, “Orlando Speaks” initiative, which he learned about when both cities participated in NLC’s City Leadership to Reduce the Use of Jails Leadership Academy in 2016.
The “Madison Speaks” initiative brought community representatives and law enforcement together for an evening meal and conversation. During a time when police – community relations are strained in many communities, models such as this are beneficial for both the community and law enforcement.
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It is a forum for community members to voice often tough concerns about current and past policing in their neighborhoods. It also creates opportunities for officers to respond to concerns, explain past and present decisions and learn what might help heal some of the general fear and distrust in the community.
Captain Patterson is excited about the potential for Madison Speaks to expand across MPD’s six police districts and benefit the entire city.
“Having officers available and willing to listen to the community and their individual voices has had a more positive impact than I ever imagined,” Patterson said. “I am proud of our officers and community for coming to the table to have these conversations and strive for a better Madison.”
Community members gather in Madison, Wisconsin in March to discuss building trust between local law enforcement and their communities. (Credit: Madison’s South Police District Captain John Patterson)
The MPD South District Community Advisory Board — comprised of citizens from the district — led the efforts alongside the police department to hold the first event, and are planning a second this month. The board formed discussion questions for the event based on individual interviews which were conducted in the community.
A church and non-profit cohosted the event, and the Madison Community Policing Foundation provided the meal. The event drew seventy community members from all walks of life. Plainclothes officers from the South District sat at each table alongside translators to ensure all could participate and communicate. Table facilitators assisted in guiding the discussion over the course of the two-hour event with the following questions:
- On the topic of relationships in our neighborhoods/communities with a focus on fear of/trust in law enforcement:
- What do you see happening?
- What do you want to see happen?
- Considering the answers to question 1, how can we collectively make change now?
At the beginning of the event, officers and community members expressed wariness. Officers worried they would walk into an unwelcoming space, while community members expressed concerns that officers wouldn’t truly listen. As the meal began and conversations started the tension began to slowly dissipate. By the end of the evening, positivity floated throughout the room. Community members felt genuinely appreciative of the willingness of the officers to listen and hear their voices.
MPD documented three key lessons learned from the community:
- In this setting, the community felt more comfortable interacting with officers; the uniform in some scenarios can be a barrier.
- The community cares that their officers are trained on topics such as racial profiling and implicit bias.
- The community is more likely to engage with officers if they attend local events in addition to specific police-community relationship building events.
Documented conversations from the first Madison Speaks will help guide future discussions. MPD will share the conversations with all officers in the South District and will incorporate community input in decision making and practice. As Madison Speaks continues, the overarching themes that emerge from the community will help guide planning discussions within the department.
About the author: Tara Dhanraj is a Senior Associate for Justice Reform at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.