Community advisory boards have the potential to improve communication and engagement between government departments and the public, which is good.
This month, Atlantic City Council introduced an ordinance to create a police advisory board that could become a bridge between law enforcement and the community it serves. That would be welcome by everyone.
This good idea has multiple authors. Police Chief Henry White and council members urged it, after the state’s report on the status of Atlantic City and its transition back to local control suggested regular meetings between the police department and residents to “track key issues” of public safety and crime.
Council’s tentative proposal is for a 15-member board that would hold monthly executive sessions with White or a deputy chief, and quarterly public meetings. Three members each would be selected by council and the mayor, with individual representatives chosen by the city’s five civic associations, the Boardwalk Committee and the board of education. Board members would then choose two young adults age 18 to 25 to represent city youth.
Besides facilitating communication between the community and the police, the board would be tasked with reviewing law enforcement best practices, particularly in regard to community policing and alternatives to incarceration.
These are worthy goals typical of community advisory boards, yet they often aren’t enough. Many boards underperform or become inactive.
The makeup of the Atlantic City police advisory board avoids one problem that the Policing Project of New York University says is too common for such boards — choosing members based on identities such as religious or minority status. The public is more than the sum of its groups, and having members from throughout the city should result in more public input.
A challenge that all boards face, however, is falling attendance rates and participation by the department and public alike. The Policing Project recommends selecting board members based on their ability to obtain community input.
A 2015 analysis published in Police Chief magazine said it is important for police executives and elected officials to decide the scope and limits of the advisory board. Since law enforcement officials must remain accountable and legally responsible, too much authority invested in the advisory board can undermine the effectiveness of police leadership.
The analysis, by a university professor and a police chief each with decades of experience, said advisory boards can’t be effective if they become political. “Each member must genuinely represent the community, or a fundamental objective of the board will be lost.” It recommends tapping someone from the local academic community to help the board develop its problem-analysis and decision-making processes.
Forming the Atlantic City police advisory board is a good first step. If officials help it develop and remain functioning, it could help police better serve the public and help residents better understand what law enforcement does to serve them.