The New Police Officers’ Creed: To Serve, Protect and Communicate Effectively
From San Francisco to Baltimore, to Chicago, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, cities across the country are grappling with tense relations between their respective police departments and the citizens they are sworn to protect. This escalation in tension typically follows the shooting of a suspect by a police officer.
Law enforcement experts point towards a lack of trust between police and minority communities within their jurisdiction.
According to a recently published report, nearly 1,000 people were killed in police encounters last year in the United States. Less than 4% of those incidents involved a white police officer killing an un-armed black man. But much of the media attention focuses on this small sliver of cases. The majority of people killed by police were armed with either a gun or another weapon according to a Washington Post investigation.
The tipping point of national attention began on August 9, 2014, when Ferguson Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. This singular incident focused a glaring national spotlight on an issue that has hovered in the shadows for decades. That fatal shooting ignited days of riots, resulted in weeks of protest, spawned a national debate on the use of excessive force and gave added momentum to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. That crusade began the previous year in Florida following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African American teen Trayvon Martin.
The cases of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin coincided with the rise in technology and the use of video cameras on dashboards, street posts and most pervasively on nearly every cell phone. “This use of video technology has dramatically impacted the way law enforcement officers are perceived by the public,” says Beverly Thomas, the Dean of Public Safety and Security at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Covington, Georgia. Thomas goes on to say that video cuts both ways. “It can justify the officers’ reaction in a situation and it can identify areas where an officer may not have made the right decision.”
But the issue goes beyond whether it is caught on camera or not. The foundation of the tension between police and community residents is trust.
“You can have all the police technology in the world like body cameras, drones and dash-cams, but if you don’t have trust and a relationship with the community, none of that will work,” says Dr. Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and DeKalb County Georgia Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Public Safety. He continues,
“Building trust is the most basic and fundamental thing we can do to reduce crime in our communities.”
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the number of people interested in careers in law enforcement has declined dramatically since 1990, and the situation is getting worse. Law enforcement experts say recruiting new officers is difficult right now because of the poor perception people have of police officers. Dr. Dani Harris is a retired Atlanta Police Department officer who grew up in New York with a cultural and personal disdain for police. “I can’t fix the problem until I become a part of the ‘perceived’ problem,” says Harris. So at the prompting of a police officer in his neighborhood, he entered law enforcement with the hopes of changing it from the inside and changing the public’s perception of police officers.
Those cadets who are now entering police training academies are being trained differently with an eye towards cultural sensitivity. “The expectations and the skills needed to be an effective police officer are different today than they were twenty years ago,” says Lt. Jennifer Ross, Community Information & Education officer for City of Decatur Police Department in Georgia. Training the next generation of law enforcement officers requires greater finesse in communicating with the public effectively and a greater understanding of cultural, ethnic, religious and gender diversity.
GPTC’s Law Enforcement Academy is not only training new recruits who will soon be entering the field, but providing advanced training to veteran police officers who have spent decades working the streets and making their way through the ranks of law enforcement. More than 40 police officers from a dozen different agencies recently attended a week-long conference called Beyond Community Policing; Building & Sustaining Positive Relationships for the Long Term. Among the topics discussed at the conference were effective communication, cultural diversity and cultural responsiveness, mental health and crisis intervention. Many of the attendees were either Caucasian or African American. But conference presenters exposed them to the cultural mores of Asians, Muslims, Christians and Latino communities as well as the inner workings of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) and Homeless cultures. The group discussed, at length, the most effective way of responding to these groups. Law Enforcement has a culture of its own, and so do the communities they serve. The goal is to have mutual respect among these communities. As one conference presenter told the group: respect runs both ways.
“We can’t do business the way we used to,” Alexander told the group in the opening session. He added, “Policing will become more convoluted and complicated as we move forward.” Police are called to a scene when there is a crime or there are issues to be resolved – therefore many encounters with police can be unpleasant or tense. Even a traffic stop can result in bad feelings toward police. But as officers learned, that feeling can be tempered by how the officer responds to the situation, both in their demeanor and their communication style. “Please leave people in a state where they will not hate the next officer they come in contact with,” says Lt. Ross, a 20-year veteran of the City of Decatur police department.
The training conference culminated with a face-to-face meeting between community leaders and the police officers that patrol their neighborhoods. The 42 police officers were joined by nearly 50 members of the communities they serve. Sitting at round tables, officers sat shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have different perspectives on the same issues.
At one table, City of Decatur Police Officer Scott Roberts told residents of the suburban Atlanta city how his body camera worked, when recording was triggered and how the video is labeled, uploaded and saved. At another table, a tall and burly DeKalb County Georgia Sheriff, Deputy Charles Dix, emphatically said what he expects when he responds to a call. “Treat me the way you want me to treat you: with respect.”
Matt Sitter is the Neighborhood Association president of his Chamblee, Georgia community. He was sitting at another table. “Find common ground. It is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. It shouldn’t be that way. Shine the light on the good things. Toot your own horn. Having something like this summit bridges the gap and focuses us on common ground,” said Sitter. “This training is a first step in strengthening the communication bridge between our communities and law enforcement,” said Dr. Jabari Simama, president, Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
As the conversation wrapped up and police went back to their respective precincts and residents back to their communities, there was a sense that the afternoon conversation and the week-long police training may not have closed the chasm between the two groups. Most everyone agreed, however, that the chasm is a bit smaller now. With the tools taught during the training session and the dialogue underway, the officers and the communities they serve are constructing the bridge to better understanding. One interaction at a time.
Major Harry McCann is the Law Enforcement Academy Director at Georgia Piedmont Technical College.