Food for Thought: Community Policing Culture Change

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It seems like each time you turn on your television the national and local media is featuring stories of social unrest or public mistrust of the police in communities across the United States. The stories provide great viewership for these media outlets, but what is really happening across the country?

Where did the “Sheriff of Mayberry, Andy Griffith” image go? It seems like our social norms are changing, as well as the culture and public opinion of police in the Unites States. I won’t go so far to say we are in a 1960s “Cultural Revolution,” but there appears to be a shift in public perception of law enforcement.

As a young boy growing up during the 1970s and later serving in the Marine Corps, I couldn’t wait for my opportunity to go to the police academy and be a public servant. I saw it as a solid and proud profession that offered a fair wage.

Sadly, today departments are finding it hard to recruit people who are interested in a law enforcement career and are able to pass the rigorous standards required to be a police officer. When asked to consider a police career, I have heard many young people respond, “Why do a job that no one respects, when and I can make the same or better money without the hassle and personal risk?”

Many cities report a reduction in property crime, but violent crimes are increasing, as well as attacks on police officers. In her article entitled “Rise in Attacks on Police Reflects Lingering Tensions” dated August 17, 2014, The Indianapolis Star, crime and public safety reporter Jill Disis details a 50% increase from 2013 of police officers killed in the line of duty by firearms. That’s scary!

Yet there is no media demand for answers or public outcry. Where is the outrage? Maybe it’s another sign of the times and shift in public opinion. In the same article Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, explains that civil unrest and anti-authority attitudes helped push police fatalities to an all-time high of 280 (Police Officers) in 1974. Is this further evidence of a continued breakdown between police and community?

It might seem that is the case as the story unfolds in Ferguson, Missouri each day on the national news. Also, we are seeing an increase in anti-police sentiment through online social media sources such as “CopBlock.org” or groups like the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. These groups claiming police abuse further create a divide between police and the public.

So what’s the answer? What solutions will help to solve this seemingly growing negative sentiment? I think there is a remedy for this, and it’s all about a “Community Policing Culture Change.”

I’m talking about a culture change not just for the police but the communities they serve.

In the St. Louis American newspaper former President and CEO of the NAACP Ben Jealous explains in his article entitled “What is Community Policing?” dated Oct. 9, 2014, where he quotes the Co-Director of Assistant Public Safety of

National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) Guillermo Lopez as saying, “You don’t go in trying to change a whole department; you go in trying to change a few people, who eventually come to change the whole department.”

Ben Jealous paraphrased this by saying, “Community Policing cannot be accomplished with a wave of a wand.” I agree with both of these men. It takes time to build relationships with the community and to get “a buy in” from the rank and file who will need to see the benefit in developing the necessary symbiotic connection with the citizens they serve.

Tom Casady, the Public Safety Director for the Lincoln, Nebraska Police Department, explains this relationship beautifully on his departments’ online homepage. “Community policing is perhaps the most misunderstood and frequently abused theme in police management during this decade.

In the past few years, it has become fashionable for police agencies to initiate community policing, often with little notion of what that phrase means. Indeed, all manner of organizational tinkering has been labeled community policing. But community policing is not a program. Instead, community policing is a value system, which permeates a police department, in which the primary organizational goal is working cooperatively with individual citizens, groups of citizens, and both public and private organizations to identify and resolve issues, which potentially affect the livability of specific neighborhoods, areas, or the city as a whole.

Community-based police departments recognize the fact that the police cannot effectively deal with such issues alone, and must partner with others who share a mutual responsibility for resolving problems. Community policing stresses prevention, early identification, and timely intervention to deal with issues before they become unwieldy problems.”

Wow! Did you hear that? Tom Casady said, “Community Policing …is not a program. Instead, Community Policing is a value system, which permeates a police department…” That is an awesome concept!

Now I don’t profess to know all the details about the Ferguson Police Department and what led to this relationship breakdown with the citizens and the department, but I would bet some of it was due to community perception of those who may feel as though they are not being represented and an overall break down of communication between the police and citizenry. This can crate an “Us and Them” scenario. Time will tell, as the facts are revealed.

On August 17th, 2014 in an episode of Meet the Press NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported the Ferguson Police Department has only 3 or 4 African-American officers in a 54-officer department. The city’s population is 67% black and 29% white. Could that contribute a feeling of division? Maybe!

Some communities may not have enough qualified or interested minority applicants who want to join the police force, especially for a small city like Ferguson with a population of only 21,000. However, I challenge departments to actively get involved in their communities.

If they haven’t done so already, perhaps police departments should start up Police Explorer programs to plant seeds in young minds that law enforcement is a career option. Even if those youths don’t grow up and become officers, they will be left with a positive experience with their hometown police department. It will also provide much needed guidance to those who might be interested on how to be better prepared when they are ready to join the force. Before you know it, you have a police department with a face that is representative of the community it’s policing, what ever that community might be!

Consider starting up Citizen Academies that allow the public to see what it is we do and to become familiar with use of force policy and reasons for those policies. With these outreach programs in place, the public will become our biggest allies when a volatile event happens. Finally, we in police work need to become masters of social media. It is where many get their news and information. Collectively, we can do a better job of connecting with the citizens we serve.

I have found in my years on the job that the wrong time to ask for help from the community is when you need it and have just met. It takes time to create a relationship and a trusted bond. Police officers who meet community stakeholders before a critical incident happens tend to have more support and trust from the community. They have forged and developed relationships during non-enforcement contacts where both parties got to know each other and began working together towards a common goal.

So for those old school “flatfoots” who are reading this and might see this as more of the same “PC” style of police work, here’s is a story and some “Food for Thought!”

I remember a real watershed moment early in my career as a municipal officer. I was working a beat and patrolling a densely-populated, predominately Hispanic community, where most of the residents spoke Spanish as the primary language in a southern California city.

I am a Caucasian male and originally from New England. I speak little to no Spanish. I handled my radio calls for a 12-hour shift in this beat. I only left my beat when I provided cover for another officer in an adjacent beat.

When I took my lunch break, which we called “Code 7,” I would leave this beat to an adjacent beat for 30 minutes and then return once my lunch was up. A senior officer who understood this culture of Community Policing recommended I have my “code” in my beat where I was assigned.

I followed his advice and something happened that caused a paradigm in my policing methods. I had my “Code 7” at what I like to call a local “Mom & Pops” restaurant. As I sat at the counter facing out to the street, I literally and figuratively changed the glass through which I was looking.

The view through the restaurant window was different from the view I had from my police car windshield. The numerous negative contacts seen from behind that windshield were potentially causing me to have a skewed perception of the people I was policing and serving. This perception changed when I looked through the window of the restaurant as I ate and watched folks come and go on their lunch hour.

This view gave me an opportunity to see the community during their daily routine and not when they were in crisis and needed the police. Although I had trouble communicating verbally with most citizens due to a language barrier, I discovered the citizens were happy to see me and appreciated my being part of the neighborhood. By becoming part of the community I developed strong, lasting relationships that still exist to this date.

My presence at lunch also gave the community the same opportunity to see me in a different light as well. People who had relatives or friends who were breaking the law or causing a problem, would routinely turn them over to me without incident, because they knew and trusted me to treat them fairly. This was some of the best advice I ever got from a real pro who made a difference everyday, made this job fun, and enjoyed a long and successful career that included being respected and trusted by the public. Isn’t that the real end goal as a public servant? Solve the problems, stop the criminals, and go home safely at the end of the day!

Be yourself by being the same person in your professional life as you are in your personal life. Treat people as if they were your friends and as you would want to be treated. Don’t think you need to compromise officer safety, crime detection, and enforcement.

I discovered that the better relationships you create in your community, the more it helps to improve your overall officer safety and enforcement. It is often harder for someone to hurt you if they know and like you or because they don’t want to disappoint you. If you show that you care about them and that you will be fair to them, they will usually comply. There is always the exception, but the greater percentage of people will work with you, making your job easier and more efficient.

So go out and embrace this Community Policing “Culture Change” and enjoy a safe and rewarding career. “Bon Appétit!”

Matt Lyons has been in law enforcement since 1980. He retired as a USMC C.I.D. Special Agent from the U.S. Marine Corps after 22 years of honorable service and is currently a sworn Police Officer in Southern California. His duties have included patrol, field training, crisis negotiation, criminal investigations, K-9 handler, and executive protection. He attended and graduated from Park University and has been teaching for Central Texas College (Continental Campus) since 1998 as a member of the Criminal Justice Faculty.

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