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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
As police departments across the nation strive to build public trust, many use surveys to get feedback from residents about how their departments are viewed and what changes or improvements their communities would like to see.
Among them is the Radford City (Virginia) Police Department (RCPD), which collaborated with Radford University’s Criminal Justice program in the winter and spring of 2021 to develop a survey soliciting opinions on a variety of possible concerns.
Sergeant Emily Hite of the RCPD’s Community Outreach Department, who oversaw the project, said, “We were looking for new ways to engage with our community and identify the residents’ needs and safety concerns, so we can develop new strategies and initiatives. The ultimate goal was to develop a foundation for a strategic plan, based on community policing through transparency.”
Using the Community Survey on Public Safety and Law Enforcement developed by the COPS Office as a model for format and terminology, the RCPD collaborated with Criminal Justice Program’s research methods class to create the survey and analyze the results.
“By partnering with the students, we got additional insights on how to phrase questions for helpful feedback. They enjoyed doing it and loved seeing the fruits of their labor once everything was completed,” said Sgt. Hite. “And one of them, Jacob Cornelius, who became an intern in our department after the school term ended, helped us with the data analysis.”
A cover letter at the beginning of the survey explained the purpose of the study and assured respondents’ anonymity. This was followed by demographic questions asked to determine whether perceptions varied according to gender, age, neighborhood, etc. Twenty-seven additional questions were related to specific topics, in examples such as the following:
There were also two open-ended questions, which were intended to provide respondents with an opportunity to offer additional comments or bring up concerns not addressed in the survey.
To ensure the privacy of all participants, the research study was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board for the Review of Human Subjects Research and adhered to established ethical research guidelines. To further ensure anonymity, the survey software the RCPD used, Qualtrics, was set to not track IP addresses.
The RCPD made the survey available during the entire month of May 2021 on the Radford City web page as well as through social media and in paper copies that could be picked up at the police department. A letter explaining the survey and where it could be found was also included in residents’ April utility bills and handed out by officers attending local seniors’ meetings.
The survey received 388 responses, and after doing data analysis, Sgt. Hite presented the results to Radford’s City Council. To let respondents know that their answers would make a difference, she also posted her presentation on social media.
“Most responses were positive and encouraging,” she said. “But people said they want more community engagement. About 50 percent said police do not communicate with them. Asked ‘how often does the police department work with you to solve problems,’ 36 percent said, ‘not at all,’ and 34 percent said, ‘just a little’. So, there’s room for improvement and the development of new community policing strategies.”
Commenting on next steps, Sgt. Hite said, “We are still in the early stages, but our ultimate goal is to use it in our ongoing strategic planning, which is focused on community policing and serving local people. We will also use it to strengthen and develop partnerships with stakeholders such as local businesses, faith-based groups, nonprofits, and schools as well as residents.”
She said that the RCPD will use the data to plan procedures, processes, training, programs, and budgets for the next three years, at which time they will conduct another survey—but she added that they have already made some changes.
“One problem we saw was that 48 percent said police did not develop relationships in their neighborhoods. So, I shared that with the officers on each patrol shift,” Sgt. Hite said. “They are reaching out more to residents now, looking for new ways to engage and let residents know police are in their neighborhood. They want everybody know they can stop them to talk and feel safer knowing we are there.
“The department also developed a transparency portal with a weekly blotter of reports and a crime map,” she added. “And we’re going to develop a programs and opportunities for open dialogue with residents so we can collaborate on ways to address their concerns.”
According to Sgt. Hite, the City Council was pleased with the project and its goals, and the RCPD’s officers were supportive of it too. “Though they liked the questions, they felt there was a need for follow-up questions to get more detailed responses. They also wanted clarification as to why each respondent chose their particular response.”
She also said, “Though the survey was distributed at a time when there was a negative light shone on law enforcement in the media, it was good to see that the people of Radford still trusted us and knew they could call us in their time of need, and that we would respond professionally.”
Community surveys take some time and effort to develop but partnering with a university and enlisting the help of its students and department interns can defray the cost and time commitment. Moreover, the results can be invaluable for building trust, improving services and programs, and planning budgets and programs.
RCPD Chief Jeff Dodson Jr. summed it up by saying, “Across the country recently, we have seen many communities suffering from the erosion of trust between the community and their police agencies. Maintaining a high level of trust with our community requires that we listen and then be responsive to their concerns.
“This community survey allows our agency to better understand those needs and develop appropriate responses in addressing these concerns. Our goal is to ensure that we are delivering the most professional and highest quality of law enforcement service to our community here in Radford.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
Photos courtesy of the Radford City Police Department.
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