Police must regularly communicate with the people they serve, as well as have positive contacts with people, in order to gain respect and trust, consultants told Martinsville Police Department officials on Thursday.
“Negative contacts with police, if we can knock that out, that’s 50 percent of the battle” to convince people that police are striving to serve them rather than harm them, said Richard Johnson, chief academic advisor to the Dolan Consulting Group, which helps public service agencies develop organizational leadership strategies.
The other 50 percent, Johnson said, is finding opportunities to have face-to-face interaction with people at times when they are not actively trying to enforce laws. An example, he said, is getting out of their patrol cars and walking through neighborhoods while on their beats to try and get to know people – even in districts where police know they are not well-liked.
It reduces fear of crime and increases public satisfaction with police, said Johnson, a former law enforcement officer in Indiana and Illinois who now teaches criminal justice at the University of Toledo in Ohio. He has done extensive research into how police and citizens interact.
The strategy is called “community policing.” Martinsville police have emphasized that strategy in recent years as part of their patrols, according to Police Chief Sean Dunn.
During a symposium Thursday afternoon at the New College Institute, police officers received guidance in using the strategy from Johnson and Harry Dolan, the consulting group’s president and chief executive officer who is the retired chief of police in Raleigh, N.C.
Community policing involves “going back to the basics” of law enforcement, Dolan said.
To successfully fight crime, police and the public must work together, he said.
That is where police walking during patrols, and getting to know people they encounter, comes in.
“There are a lot of people hiding behind the blinds (in their homes) who would support you,” Johnson told police officers. “They just don’t know you.”
Research mentioned by Johnson shows that 86 percent of recent immigrants to the United States are somewhat dissatisfied with police. He told officers to keep in mind that many of those immigrants come from countries where police have reputations for being corrupt and abusive. In turn, those people do everything they can to avoid having any contact with police, he said.
Police must strive to find ways to get to know immigrants and let them know that police practices in America are not the same as those in other places, especially smaller, lesser-developed countries in the Middle East, he indicated.
They also must strive to reach people of all ages from all segments of society, Johnson said.
Younger people, in particular, need to be taught how to act in encounters with police, he said.
People also need to realize, he continued, basics such as being caught having no license with you while driving is a misdemeanor but fleeing from police to avoid being caught without a license is a felony, which is more serious. A felony on a person’s criminal record potentially could ruin his or her life, he mentioned.
Gaining respect and trust also involves keeping people informed about police activities, the consultants said.
Traditionally, media coverage has kept people abreast of those activities. Johnson suggested that police “don’t do the ‘no comment’” when reporters ask questions about crimes they are investigating or other aspects of their work, but instead “quickly respond” with as many details as they can without jeopardizing investigations.
But through social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, police now can communicate with the public directly, such as by posting news releases on those sites, Johnson said.
“Tell your story in a way that it’s going to make the most sense to the people who read it,” such as by using plain English instead of police jargon, he said.
And, “give them a visual story that they can understand in their terms,” he said, using photos when appropriate.
Photos can be disturbing as long as they portray what actually happened in an incident, Johnson indicated, showing one of an officer with blood streaming down his face as an example.
When people get details they need to make informed judgments concerning police actions, it reduces the chance for a “media firestorm” with sensationalized coverage, Johnson said.
“Their message is on point,” Dunn said of the consultants, adding that “a lot of what they’re saying reinforces what we’re already doing” at the police department.
Dolan, who has more than three decades of experience in public safety, including 25 years as an executive in the field, oversaw more than 900 employees while he led the Raleigh Police Department from 2007 to 2012. He said that while eating lunch with Martinsville police officers in the community in recent days, he has been impressed with positive interactions they have had with area residents with whom they came into contact.
It seems that “everybody knows each other,” he said.
Community policing has been more prevalent in smaller localities but now large metropolitan area police forces are delving into the concept, Dolan pointed out.
In the big cities now, “when they’re successful, they think small,” he said.