Some Solutions to the Reputation Crisis Impacting Policing

Police violence against civilians has become breaking news nationwide resulting in a major image and reputation crisis for urban and suburban law enforcement agencies. Police departments across the United States have been faced with extensive media attention over high profile incidents of use of excessive force that has caused death and serious injury to civilians of all ages and races. All the good news about the work and accomplishments of police officers, their bravery, and the dangers they face on a daily basis is being aggressively overshadowed by a growing amount of frequent and negative news coverage, social media reports, and viral videos of serious police misconduct, which is negatively impacting the image of police officers.

As part of my crisis communications course at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts, I charged my students to develop a crisis communications strategy that begins to turn around the negative image of law enforcement and rebuild community trust and appreciation for the role of police officers in the community. The 25 students who assisted in the preparation of this strategy, which has been shared with local police chiefs, are not professionally employed in law enforcement. Some students are married with young children; several are decorated military combat veterans while others are traditional college students, the majority of whom are taking classes while working. Their majors range from nursing and business to communications, liberal arts, and criminal justice. Through their research and more important from their personal observations and experiences with police officers, the students created dozens of recommendations that police departments should consider for improving their image in the community.

Highlights of the students’ recommendations include the following:

  • Departments should work with local colleges to design and distribute an annual public opinion survey to local residents to gauge their rate of satisfaction with local policing and solicit suggestions on how the local department can communicate a higher level of service and a more positive perception and connection to the community.
  • Police chiefs must have high visibility in the community by attending civic and community events in full uniform. Coffee with the Chief is an excellent way of connecting police leadership with community residents. These events, which could be held at a local supermarket, library, or coffee shop, would provide the chief and his command team with an informal way of meeting and listening to local residents.
  • Patrol officers need to humanize themselves. They should be required to interact with their community through park-and-talk opportunities. When not responding to a call, officers should engage local residents in casual, informal conversation by getting out of their patrol cars to talk to residents who are walking, mowing lawns, raking leaves, or sitting in their front yards. This personal connection is essential in building community trust, good will, and a more positive interaction with local patrol officers. If they encounter kids playing basketball, for example, they should talk to them; even ask if they can shoot a few baskets as a way of relationship building. They need to project an Officer Friendly image to local residents rather than a stern and unfriendly command-and-control perception.
  • In communities that have growing ethnic populations, police commanders should invite leaders to meet with officers and educate them on their culture, religious customs, lifestyles, and dress so officers better understand the different cultures they are now patrolling.
  • Departments should create a citizen or police advisory committee that would brainstorm with police leadership on ways to increase the positive visibility and appreciation of police officers in the community.
  • Promote newly hired police officers in local media so readers know who they are, their level of education and academy training, and what personal qualities the new officers bring to the job and the community.
  • Departments should host a series of community outreach programs on issues that range from how to burglar-proof your home, safe bike riding for kids, what parents should know about the downside of social media, and self-defense classes for women—especially female high school and college students. Invite the media to publicize and report on these community events.
  • Departments must reinforce academy training with regular in-house refresher courses in verbal and nonverbal communications taught by college speech professors. Seminars must be offered in crisis intervention, de-escalation training and stress reduction, and how to effectively deal with people with emotionally disturbances; these must be taught by licensed mental health professionals.

Professor Rick Pozniak
Middlesex Community College
Bedford, Massachusetts

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Community Policing Dispatch Photo Contest Winner: Jefferson County (Colorado) Sheriff's Office | COPS Office Director's Letter on SROs | Improving Officer Resiliency to Stress and Associated Health Outcomes | Perception is Reality | Some Solutions to the Reputation Crisis Impacting Policing