3 Insights on Community Engagement

by | June 6, 2018

Your department likely has a community engagement initiative—maybe it involves social media outreach, activities like Coffee with a Cop and National Night Out, or an advisory committee that meets regularly. Whatever the form, common factors unite successful community engagement programs. Following are insights from three community/police engagement approaches outlined in a recent webinar hosted by Lexipol’s Gordon Graham.

Own the Problem

Officer Ryan Tillman and Lt. Rodney Lombard of the Chino (Calif.) Police Department started the Breaking Barriers United (BBU) program following the events in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The program focuses on interaction with adults and youth in a way that allows community members to air grievances and helps them experience what it’s like to be in a police officer’s shoes.

Officer Tillman, who overcame negative adolescent interactions with law enforcement to become a police officer, understood from the beginning of the program that transparency was key. For that reason, BBU presentations incorporate an approach that may be uncomfortable for some officers: an apology. “We tell our audience members that we’re sorry about some of the things they’ve seen in law enforcement,” Officer Tillman says. “And the reason we do that is we don’t realize how much hurt is actually occurring to some people … Many of our audience members have had tragic experiences” that have involved law enforcement officers.

BBU’s success is deeply rooted in this bold transparency. “Dialogue has to be transparent, because we don’t want it to be another dog-and-pony show,” Lt. Lombard says. “The only way to break the barrier down is to a) recognize that there have been some wrongs done on behalf of law enforcement and b) to be bold enough to confront some of those wrongs, to give the community members a voice.” That includes allowing community members to share negative experiences they’ve had with law enforcement. “Once we do that, it has the tendency for those community members to begin to let their guard down, to be more willing to engage and to start that dialogue,” Lt. Lombard says.

In addition to the public apology, the Breaking Barriers program uses real-world scenarios, with audience members playing the role of the police officer, to initiate a discussion about police use of force. “We do that so we can humanize the badge,” Lt. Lombard says. “We want them to see that police officers, despite the fact that we wear the badge and carry a gun, there’s a human side to us, we experience human emotion just like anyone else.”

Through pre- and post-program surveys, Lt. Lombard and Officer Tillman can tell they’re making a difference. After the program, about 85 percent of the students express interest in being mentored by a law enforcement officer, and the number of students expressing interest in a law enforcement career rises significantly in the post-program surveys. “Not only are we educating the community about what it is we do in our profession, what we’re realizing is this has actually turned out to be a great recruitment tool,” Officer Tillman says. “On one hand we’re changing the perception of law enforcement, and on the other hand we’re getting more kids interested in an Explorer program or a cadet program.”

Use Data and Resources to Micro-Target Problem Areas

Menlo Park, Calif., is best known as the home to Facebook, but it also features one of the most culturally and economically diverse populations in Silicon Valley. And when Chief Robert Jonsen joined the department in 2013, Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood was plagued with gang violence and associated crime. “Belle Haven was seeing about 10 to 12 gang-related shootings a year, something that had been going on for several years,” Chief Jonsen says. “It was one of the first things I knew I had to address. The trust between that community and law enforcement was somewhat strained, because they didn’t feel we were addressing their needs.”

After forming a community advisory group that included at least one representative from each of the city’s 20 neighborhoods, the department conducted a comprehensive analysis of crime data to determine where to focus resources. “The results were shocking,” Chief Jonsen says. “The vast majority of those shootings were connected in one capacity or another to three distinct properties. Residents were either victims of the crime, or connected to the crime, or in some cases suspects in the crime.”

Following this discovery, the department zeroed in on these three properties, making a concerted effort to work with the landlords, who had very little contact with their tenants and were oblivious to the crime problem. “We assigned personnel specifically to those properties, to work with the landlords, work with the residents,” Chief Jonsen says.

Additional resources dedicated to the Belle Haven neighborhood included a new police substation and surveillance cameras on the main corridor. The department also started using license plate readers. “It’s nearly impossible to say what exactly contributed to the reduction of crime because we had so many things implemented at once,” Chief Jonsen says. “By reducing the fear in the neighborhood … the lines of communication opened.” And the impact was undeniable: Menlo Park has not experienced a gang-related shooting since November 2013, and there has been a 47 percent decrease in crime in the Belle Haven neighborhood.

Ditch the “Handle the Pending Calls” Mentality

The Columbia (Mo.) Police Department had a similar “hot spot” in its community—a 6-acre park that saw a lot of calls for service, mainly for assaults and drug activity. Following a comprehensive analysis that included factors such as crime rates, poverty level, school failure rates and free lunch program participation, the department dedicated two officers to the neighborhood and began engaging the community in earnest.

For Sgt. Michael Hestir, the biggest lesson from these efforts was the need to dedicate the appropriate time to each call and interaction so that true relationships could develop. As a patrol officer, Sgt. Hestir notes, he believed community policing meant stopping to talk with kids or other community members on the street. “But people in poverty need more than just drive-by compassion,” he says. “They need a partner, they need a relationship.”

Two factors proved key in building those relationships. The first was to “meet people where they’re at, instead of asking them to come to you,” Sgt. Hestir says. So the department hosted barbeques and meetings at people’s houses, and went into the schools regularly. “There’s a lot of hurt and misunderstanding, so we tried to be better listeners. We got out on foot, started meeting people on their blocks, and started to attend to the things they brought us,” Sgt. Hestir says. “When we arrest the people they have identified, that goes a long way toward building trust.”

The second factor was deepening the focus on each community interaction, with the intent of solving problems rather than just clearing calls. “We got so busy in law enforcement, we thought we had to get to the next call, and meanwhile citizens are experiencing a crisis that’s important to them,” Sgt. Hestir says. “It looks pretty uncaring if you focus on the least time you can invest because you have to go to another call.” He admits the time investment is a political risk. “No administrator wants to say it took us 30 minutes to get to these calls. But if you spend extra time on calls that deserve it, those other calls will go down,” he says. “And more importantly, when you have the big call, you have people right there willing to help, and to talk.”

In Columbia, the results speak for themselves: a 38 percent reduction in “shots fired” calls, and double-digit declines in rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft and vehicle theft.

Our Foundation

Law enforcement engagement with the community is nothing new—in fact, it was woven into Sir Robert Peel’s 9 Principles of Policing developed in the early 1800s. Departments that recognize community engagement is built into the very foundation of our policing culture keep striving to find new ways to build trust and improve relationships between community members and law enforcement officers. Admitting there’s a problem, identifying the exact geographic location where the problem exists and flooding it with resources, and taking the time to listen—rather than just clear the call—are three good places to start.

Want to learn more? Watch the on-demand webinar here.

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