Ready, Set, Engage! Ideas and Options for Community Engagement and Partnership Building

Photos are Evansville Officers and Prosecutor joining the community “dust bowl” Basket Ball

One of the most critical components of effective law enforcement is the establishment and maintenance of public trust. Though vital to public safety, its existence is often taken for granted. But as recent events have demonstrated, examining your relationships with your community is essential to maintaining law and order.

Where do you start? With a thorough, honest, and clear-eyed appraisal of just what your agency does and how it functions with regards to community policing. Here are some questions to ask yourself and others in your department:

  • Do your residents and business owners truly trust your police department, its officers, and its employees?
  • What kind of impact do your officers make in the community? Are they seen more as enforcers to be feared or as community partners to be trusted and relied upon?
  • Are your officers participating in local projects? Do they attend community meetings or neighborhood watch? Support a Police Athletic League or other sports project? And when was the last time one of them visited a church, synagogue, or mosque just to say hello?

If your officers don’t regularly get involved in these types of activities, you might want to take a hard look at why, then take steps to encourage them to practice community engagement—not just “hook and book.”

Non-enforcement community engagement activities make a huge contribution to building and maintaining lasting relationships and community trust. The fact that an officer goes out of his or her way to participate in something that is important to a certain segment of the community shows that the officer really cares about the members of that community, not just about enforcing laws.

To accomplish this kind of community engagement, police departments and sheriffs’ offices need to start empowering young officers to think outside of the box—to really look at a neighborhood and try to identify and address the needs of that community. Too often, leadership forces young officers into statistic-driven policing, relying on the number of arrests the officer makes, tickets he or she writes, and radio calls the officer handles as a gauge of how well that officer is doing the job. Though these reportable, identifiable statistics do indicate productivity, statistics and numbers reveal only part of the picture. What about community satisfaction and trust?

At the summit, participants heard from experts about how to enhance their programs with understandings of trauma, youth development, and a number of practical strategies to communicate with practitioners from other disciplines and plan for challenges in implementing and evaluating their programs. They also had the opportunity to share experiences and challenges. “We arrest them, but then a month later we are coming to provide services for them,” said Reed Daniel of the West Palm Beach Police Department, which is running a program called Policing Approach Through Health, Wellness, and Youth (PATHWAY). “So one roadblock was the parents didn’t trust us because we’d arrested their kids. We’re trying to consider ourselves as caseworkers, connecting them with services, not just cops locking them up.”

Here is a scenario to think about: it’s a warm summer Saturday and one of your officers is on patrol at a local park. The officer spots some kids skateboarding and walks over to the group. As he approaches them, he asks one of the kids if he (the officer) can “show them how it’s done.” The kid gives the officer his skateboard and the group watches him ride (badly) in full uniform for several minutes, and are impressed with the fact that some “old cop” can ride a skateboard. The officer’s supervisor just happens to see this and calls the officer over to talk. How would your agency’s supervisor handle this?

  • Would they tell the officer that there are people breaking laws and he should be out writing tickets and not messing around with a bunch of kids on a skateboard?
  • Would he commend the officer for having the initiative to reach out to those kids and build a relationship?

And most importantly, how would the group of kids feel and react in both of those scenarios?

It’s important that police departments encourage individual officers to establish community relationships and partnerships, and even become community leaders. The support and encouragement from command staff and supervision make a huge difference in an individual officer’s ability and willingness to go above and beyond—to truly be community police officers. But to get proactively involved in their community, they must also have the ability to identify a need and find a solution by being given the time and opportunity to do so.

An example of this kind of community involvement is the Evansville (Indiana) Police Department’s handling of a problematic basketball event. According to Chief Bill Bolin, “The annual Evansville Dust Bowl basketball tournament had become known for violence and ended a few years ago after a person was shot and killed at the event. Last winter, I was approached by the head of the local NAACP and the leaders of a group called Young & Established about partnering with them to bring the event back. I saw this as great community outreach opportunity to partner with the tournament, rather than perform a strictly enforcement role during the event. I am proud to say our officers and even the city prosecutor played in the tournament this year and it went off without a hitch.”

Examples like the Evansville police department’s approach to the basketball tournament not only prevent problems, but enhance the trust of the community simply by having officers engage in a non-enforcement capacity. And there are many other examples of how police officers around the United States have built trust and established ongoing community relationships just by taking the steps to address an issue that is important to that community.

Tournament and Ville Deux-Montagnes Officer Chris Harding teaching a child to skate as part of the Les Forces police hockey program

Here is another example, which I witnessed firsthand in Hawthorne, California, where the Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team practices. I and other Hawthorne Police Department (HPD) officers noticed that none of our local kids played ice hockey because of its expense. So with the blessing of the department, we set out to change that. We contacted Matt Langen from the National Hockey League Players Association and applied for the “Goals and Dreams” grant, which provides free equipment to deserving organizations. After explaining that Hawthorne police officers would be volunteering to teach the kids how to play, 20 sets of equipment were donated to the project. HPD officers also raised enough money to pay for ice rink rental for eight weeks, and the “Hawthorne Force” Ice Hockey program was born.

At first, there was some apprehension on the part of the families, who are mostly Latino and African American. But when the parents saw the same police officers who patrolled the streets teaching their six- to eight-year-olds how to ice skate and become comfortable with the officers, they did too. The kids trusted the officers and everyone bonded over the success of the team. These youngsters were doing something they had never been able to even contemplate before, all because of the efforts of police officers and the support of the police administration.

Now, two years later, the program has more than 80 kids on six teams, all coached by volunteer officers who take pride in the kids, the parents, and the community. The parents support and trust the officers and have a great relationship with the HPD. What’s more, the program has been replicated by police; one example is Ville Deux-Montagnes, Québec, Canada, and it continues to grow, helping police officers bond with communities through sports.

Chief Robert Fager of the HPD sums up the value of this kind of engagement best: “To think that societal relationships are a secondary priority in running a public safety organization is professional suicide. Law enforcement is built upon the trust and needs of its community—and with the advent of social media and information access, that community can be national in scope. Our department’s contemporary philosophy integrates direct interaction with our citizenry through community forums, youth scholastic and sports partnerships, no-cost driver safety and basic first-aid classes, and our personal pride—Coffee with a Cop.

“In essence, create offerings that move or attract people, then invest your staff in it. Not only do you derive true-value feedback, but moreover, you literally reintroduce police officers and citizens to each other, with no overtone, and allow them to reinvigorate the common goal of a safer, more enriched community.”

These trust-building non-enforcement activities cost little in terms of money, time, or effort, but they pay huge dividends in public safety. All you need do is encourage your officers to get out of their cars some time and go into a church, mosque, or community center and just talk to people. Officers will usually find a warm welcome and will often learn something new about people. What’s more, those people will learn something new about police officers. And that is how relationships are started—with a simple handshake and a smile. It’s time to get engaged.

Chris Cognac
Law Enforcement Fellow
COPS Office

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