What it Takes to Build a Model Police-Community Relationship – A Conversation with West Palm Beach Chief of Police

Sandy Rodriguez

Civic Change Champions

Civic Change ChampionEveryday Democracy recognizes the work and achievements of outstanding Civic Change Champions. These are people and organizations whose work is bringing Everyday Democracy’s values of equity, voice, sharing power, and participation to life. To nominate someone for recognition as a Civic Change Champion, please send your name and your nominee’s name, organization if applicable, address and website, and a short description of their work to Everyday Democracy’s communications team at


Chief of Police Sarah J. MooneyIn West Palm Beach, officers regularly have the opportunity to take part in dialogues with youth and community residents, utilizing Everyday Democracy’s Dialogue to Change process and discussion guides.  Chief of Police Sarah J. Mooney’s commitment to inclusion and dialogue have earned her our Civic Change Champion Award.

Q: When was the concept of dialogue to change brought in?  Do your officers embrace this concept of community engagement?

A: Everyday Democracy started working with us and our community when my predecessor Delsa Bush was Police Chief back in the mid-2000s.  Working with Everyday Democracy Senior Associate, Barbara Cheives the Dialogue to Change process began, and we tried to have every office in the department take part. Initially, the officers were kinda like, “Oh, goodness. Here we go,” and “oh, the social work aspect.”

Yet, people are coming around to understand that there’s a lot of social service that goes along with this job. Sometimes we’ve got to change the minds of our guys a little but I think that they understand what we’re trying to do and the reasons for doing it. It’s different way of looking at things and that’s what we promote and try to do.

Q:  So why is community dialogue important?  How do you do it, and what difference does it make?

A: Dialogues allow us to humanize what we do. It also makes us more open to accepting an invitation to come speak to a group, or to participate in some sort of panel discussion about very difficult topics, because I think that our officers have been exposed to this type of dialogue along the way at this point so that it’s not a scary thing.
Police work is not just catching bad guys. We’re trying to create more opportunities for members of the community to have more than just one contact with us in a negative light.
We’d rather have more positive contacts with people. And the more we do it and the longer that we do it, the more our officers realize this is a community effort they want to be a part of.

Q:  Why is it important for officers and community members and police to talk about structural racism and other inequities?

A: Well, you can’t not talk about it. It’s still an issue. Seeing how structural racism has impacted people, at the history of opportunity or the lack thereof in our country and how it impacts people in our community...Open discussion and dialogue is important. If you can’t have them in a contained environment, what’s going to happen when you are out in the community and things get hot? The more proactive you can be, the better.


Everyday Democracy has been working in communities across the nation since the 1980s, helping residents use our Dialogue to Change process and other resources to solve community issues.

Our discussion guides and organizing advice provide a blueprint for a flexible engagement process that brings diverse people together and helps them build trust and connection as they learn about and tackle difficult issues.

Guides focus on issues such as poverty, racism, and policing, and our policing guide has been used throughout the country to address incidents and to improve relations between the community and police departments.

We are now working on a Community Police Relations Initiative that will involve development of a new discussion guide and advice for communities.

Q:  I understand you are a 23-year veteran of the department, became Assistant Chief in 2014 and were appointed Chief in 2016.  Having a master’s in social work, what interested you in the policing field?

A: While I was at Florida State University for my Master’s studies, I got interested in criminal justice. I had an internship at the federal prison up in Tallahassee, which really piqued my interest.  I was interested in the psychology of how people end up getting arrested, how they handle it, and what contributed to their situation that landed them in federal prison … I figured that doing police work would be the easiest way to do get that experience.  So, I went to the police academy and was hired at West Palm, and once I got out on the road in West Palm, it was like that’s it.

And regarding the degree in social work, we’re all social workers in a certain sense of the word.  Not that you are doing clinical stuff.  You are not.  But you are troubleshooting problems with people and trying to help give them resources to help themselves and to make things better for themselves.

Q: Final Thoughts?

All my officers would love to not have an “us against them” ever. Ongoing Dialogue to Change makes approaching difficult topics in the community easier.  I think we’re on the right track with more community engagement, and prevention initiatives as opposed to just enforcement initiatives.  Barbara Cheives and the Everyday Democracy team have provided the blueprint to be successful.


  • To learn more about Everyday Democracy’s Community Police Relations Initiative, contact Gwen Whiting,
  • To learn more about Everyday Democracy’s Dialogue to Change process, discussion guides, and other resources, visit
  • Housing Partnership of West Palm Beach is an Everyday Democracy anchor partner.
    To learn more about Everyday Democracy’s anchor network, including how to become an anchor, page or contact Val Ramos at

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November 9, 2017

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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.