Law Enforcement is one of the greatest professions that exist. There are so many wonderful attributes to the job and the amazing people who are drawn to it. Many departments have motto’s but the most famous description of what we do is the motto “To Protect and Serve”.
Regardless of individual stories by often disgruntled citizens, police officers do a fantastic job of “Protecting” the people they serve. The heroic stories and the sacrifices of so many “blue warriors” who have risked or given their lives to protect citizens fill news columns and books.
What about this “Serve” thing we do. There are also scores of stories of serving the public. There are so many that are unknown outside of the people who have carried them out and that is a good thing in many ways because they were never meant to be published. Just a humble gesture of a public servant reaching out to those in need, the homeless man who receives shoes, the meal purchased for the woman down on her luck, the hotel room paid for the family having hard times or the Christmas gifts purchased and delivered to the children who had no Christmas coming are a few of the gestures that we often do when no one is watching.
Lately, these gestures seem a little more forced as we try to respond to the pressure about the relationship between certain segments of the public and the police. The officer “caught” on video throwing the football or shooting hoops, the officers delivering turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day or the line dancing officers at the public festivals are just some of the examples. I truly have no quarrel with any of these displays toward the public but when I think of service I think about relationship building. Service is generally not a photo op but the pursuit of gaining the public trust as a servant. Sir Robert Peel (the father of modern policing) stated “… to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.”
So, service means to be a servant and that word seems to scare some people. What I am suggesting is to spend time building our relationship with the public so that we seem more like servants than an occupying force. Leaving all the politics out of that last line for a minute, we often seem more like the boss than the servant. In a recent class on police legitimacy I asked the class to raise their hands if they had ever been stopped by an outside agency for a traffic violation. More than half the room raised their hands. I asked them to keep their hands up and then asked, after identifying yourself as a police officer, how many had a bad experience? Very few hands went down.
I will ask you the same thing I asked them. If we treat each other like this, how do we treat the public? Captain Chip Huth, Kansas City, Missouri Police Department and author of the book, “Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect” often asks the question, “What is it like to be policed by you?” Take a second to think about that question.
A few years ago, I, along with the officers I was working with, received a call from a restaurant about a group of teenagers who were throwing chairs and drinks in the business. As we headed to the area, we received information that the manager was following the teens and we were able to locate them. We came upon a mixed group of males and females ranging in age from 12-14 and confirmed by the manager that they were our suspects. Video confirmed the damage and the group was placed under arrest. Before I would let the officers leave the area, I made them go to the people who were observing this action and explain what we were doing and why. Often, we don’t feel the public is entitled to this information but why is that? We explained and the public agreed that they did not want that behavior in their neighborhood. Without taking the time to talk to the citizens, they would have filled in the blank with what they surmised instead of the facts. That narrative might have gone something like, “Don’t those cops have anything to do besides hassle kids?”
Every call you go on is an opportunity to speak with the public. You should always be a public relations officer. If you go on an alarm call, stop by the neighbors who are out and tell them things check out ok and why you were in the neighborhood. If you chase a suspect through the neighborhood, take the time afterwards to tell those watching what took place.
We do a bad job of telling the public who we are and what we do. We work for them, not them for us. Every call you go on is an opportunity to “secure the willing cooperation of the public”. Make the connections by talking to the public, informing them of what is going on in THEIR neighborhoods.
It is easy to see when a police department is connected to their community and when it is not. So, keep throwing the football or shooting hoops but don’t forget to stop and connect with the community you serve. The bank account you build now could be the difference between bankruptcy or extended credit when you have a difficult arrest or worse.
Tim Barfield is in his 35th year as a police officer. He started as a police officer in a rural village before transferring to an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He spent 32 years in that department gaining experience in many areas of police work. In 2014, he accepted a position as police chief for another department. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.