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DARE to Build Community Trust with Law Enforcement

Photo by wyo92 via Flickr

The Bureau of Justice Assistance recently released a report titled “Lessons from the Battle Over D.A.R.E. –  The Complicated Relationship Between Research and Practice.” Unlike many other programs that attempt to reduce criminal activity, DARE has been the subject of over 30 research evaluations, the overwhelming majority of them concluding that DARE’s ability to reduce substance use amongst youth is negligible. What is even more concerning is that several studies have found an actual increase, albeit a small one, in substance abuse amongst participants.

Attempts to explain the continued funding of DARE have often focused on the tremendous support it receives from the law enforcement community. When a law enforcement official tells the community that the DARE program is worth implementing, the community often accepts the officer’s assessment at face value. Who wouldn’t?

Other explanations have suggested that perhaps those officials in charge of deciding to implement DARE are simply unaware of the research. While logical, this conclusion is also incorrect. In fact, researchers discovered that policymakers were often very aware of DARE’s inability to reduce substance use amongst youth; however, these same decision makers were aware of the other positive results that arise as a result of participation in the DARE program. So why do communities continue to fund the DARE program? Because despite its negligible effect on substance use, DARE does other things well.

What Does DARE Do Well?

One of the most important, and oft overlooked, outcomes of DARE is its ability to build positive relationships between the community and law enforcement. Youth that participate in the program frequently report improved attitudes about their local police officers, and DARE officers report that their participation in the program helped “improve their understanding of young people because they had a chance to interact with them personally.” While it may be easy to overlook this result—because it isn’t related to the stated purpose of the DARE program—in reality this outcome simply cannot be overvalued, if for no other reason than the long term benefits it provides.

Building trust between law enforcement and the communities they police is no easy task; yet, it is key to keeping the community safe.  How often are law enforcement officers unable to take a dangerous criminal off the street because the very community members that witnessed the crime are too scared to come forward? Their inability to trust that the police can keep them safe in turn keeps them unsafe by keeping dangerous offenders in their midst. Police officers face an uphill battle in developing trust with their community. Gone are the days when officers could build relationships by simply walking their beat. And yet, DARE seems to have accidentally discovered a way to build that trust.

Capitalizing on DARE’s strengths

It’s important to keep in mind that just because DARE has not been successful in its primary goal of substance use reduction, does not mean that the program is worthless. The attention and research that has been focused on DARE should be focused on more programs so that academics and criminal justice professionals can work together to discern which aspects of programs work and which do not. Where DARE has really failed is in its sluggish response to criticisms. Once we know what isn’t working we need to begin retooling our programs. While DARE did eventually embrace such change, it should have done so sooner.

It’s important to remember that DARE was an innovative approach; Glenn Levant and Chief Gates had an innovative idea. Their decision to take a chance on an innovative approach has given the criminal justice community invaluable information on what works and what doesn’t work. The challenge now is to take those lessons and learn from them.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Research has shown that when DARE officers move away from the didactic approach to drug education and instead find ways to engage youth in conversations about the various effects of mind altering substances the youth are more responsive. Perhaps drug and alcohol education is best approached from a perspective of healthy decision making.

School systems should be focusing on taking the valuable lessons of DARE and incorporating them into health courses that begin when students are in elementary school and continue throughout high school, incorporating various community partners, like DARE Officers, while at the same time broadening their approach to include information about dating violence, sexual assault, the age of consent, “sexting” and other healthy decisions.

By involving police officers, as well as other community leaders, students could be easily connected to community resources and be continually exposed to “booster shots” of information instead of programs that take place for a short period of time, only to be forgotten soon after. Their continued contact with police officers would allow law enforcement to build trusting relationships with the community and continue them throughout the youths’ school involvement, which after all is the real value of DARE

Meridith Spencer is an adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Bridgewater State College and Fisher College and an advocate for public policy that is “smart on crime.” She can be reached at or followed at .