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Improving Your Public Safety Department’s Image in Your Community

Here’s a program that will help foster better relationships between your public safety department and your campus community.

Improving Your Public Safety Department’s Image in Your Community

As a child, my parents and teachers advised me to seek out a police officer if I were ever lost or needed help. The police are your friends, I was told; and it was not just me. These statements were made to and accepted as gospel by most American youth.

However, today public safety departments have a serious branding problem because significant portions of the population reject this benign image of the police. A recent Gallup poll found that many believe the mantra “to protect and serve” is both untrue and hypocritical.

This change in public attitudes toward police was increasingly evident long before Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas and other hot spots where police were accused by critics of discrimination at best and murder at worst. The fact that the vast majority of criticisms of police have been thoroughly and convincing refuted (according to The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe) is irrelevant.

Critics’ perceptions of systematic police wrongdoing are what shapes subsequent encounters with law enforcement and often contribute to increased violence in citizen-police interactions, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

On many college campuses, criticisms of police and other forms of law enforcement and security address different dimensions that go beyond the Black Lives Matter narrative.

Lt. John M. Weinstein will be presenting an in-depth preconference workshop on evaluating competing security and public safety technologies at all three of the 2019 Campus Safety Conferences. For more information or to register, visit CampusSafetyConference.com, call (855) 351-0927 or email events@campussafetymagazine.com.

First, the perceptions of police as agents of order and discipline are inconsistent with the campus ethos that extols experimentation, relativism and political activism.

Second, and sadly, as a result, police are often considered anti-intellectual by many faculty and students alike. Police and security’s commitment to rules make them appear more robotic than creative in thought.

Third, campus populations are swelling with foreign students. For many of these students, police in their countries of origin are corrupt and instruments of state-sponsored oppression. They assume American police are similarly dangerous and untrustworthy.

The results of these criticisms and perceptions are pernicious. In our communities, these perceptions give rise to self-fulfilling prophecies. People who expect to be treated badly by police may become surly, defensive and/or aggressive, eliciting a response in kind from officers, thereby confirming the expectations and the negative narrative discussed above.

The prospects of violence directed at police, community criticism, citizen review board second-guessing and calls such as “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” encourage police to take a less proactive approach to law enforcement in troubled communities, further strengthening the view that police don’t care about safety in minority communities.

On campuses, beliefs that police are agents of oppression or simply incompetent undermine campus security. Campus citizens either don’t interact with police out of fear, loathing or due to low expectations of capability. The result is the same. The “see something/say something” solicitation breaks down because many won’t say anything to campus police or security when they do see something.

We Need Sustained and Meaningful Dialogue

Corrosive attitudes years in the making will not be changed easily or quickly. What is needed are mechanisms to break the cycle of distrust and animosity. Sustained and meaningful dialogue between police and the communities they serve are needed to address and understand the perceptions, perspectives and expectations of both.

An active community outreach program can do much to address negative college attitudes toward police. Getting officers out of offices and cruisers to foster personal interaction via foot and bicycle patrol; campus-wide safety and security presentations; a regular public safety newsletter; lecturing classes (e.g., criminal justice, sociology, psychology, law); sponsoring clubs; participation in student and other offices’ (e.g., Sexual Assault Services) campus events; and giving orientation presentations to new faculty, staff and students are among the initiatives that can showcase police professionalism, approachability, service and competence. These activities also allow police to hear campus community perspectives and concerns.

Police outreach to the campus community, however, is not enough. A concerted effort must also be made to train police to deal with an increasingly diverse population. Specific training going beyond mandatory cultural diversity training required for recertification is needed.

For example, the VA requires two hours of cultural diversity every two years, and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) also requires annual training in conflict resolution. Officers should be trained in strategies for dealing with different cultures and generations. They should also be trained in non-verbal communications and conflict de-escalation skills such as Verbal Judo.

A Possible Solution: The Safe Passage Home Program

Safe Passage Home (SPH) is a joint NOVA/Prince William County Police community outreach initiative that has achieved remarkable results in improving citizen/police dialogue, understanding and even affect.

Phase 1 Discussion Topics

Some of the items discussed in Phase 1 include:

  • Personal background of officers to humanize them.
  • The arduous process of becoming a police officer: application, background check, medical check, polygraph, academy training and field training; all of which must be successfully completed before an officer is allowed to patrol alone.
  • General Orders and the complaint process, which establish standards and hold officers accountable for unprofessional or discourteous service.
  • The large number of officers killed or assaulted each year and how threats to life and limb require an officer to control the situation. How action beats reaction and how an officer cannot allow himself or herself to be put in a reactive posture. The logic of this survival strategy is often not appreciated by citizens who simply interpret police actions as rude or motivated by prejudice.
  • How officers, who may be trying to clear numerous waiting calls, do not have the time to hear each person’s backstory at a traffic stop. Additionally, it is explained that motorists’ expectations for police to respond favorably to their special circumstances introduces significant subjectivity into the stop and opens the officer to allegations of preferential treatment.
  • How officers, who make possibly hundreds of traffic stops each year, have a less sensational perspective toward the stops, as opposed to motorists who are stopped infrequently and for whom a stop is a traumatic event.
  • Different concerns of motorists and police. Motorist responses to a traffic stop are governed by embarrassment; concerns about delay and inconvenience; anger at getting caught; and anger about having to go to court, pay a fine, and bear subsequent increases in insurance rates. On the other hand, in the face of large numbers of law enforcement officers who are killed or injured conducting traffic stops and related activities, officers are concerned about their safety and even survival. As a result, motorists and officers react differently to stimuli. For instance, a motorist who cannot find a vehicle registration might exit the vehicle to take it to the officer who is sitting in his cruiser. The officer may respond with a loud and brusque command and even a drawn weapon at this potential threat due to the action/reaction calculus. The driver expects appreciation for the helpful gesture of taking the registration to the officer; certainly not the officer’s actual response. Lacking information about the police perspective, the officer’s actions are considered rude or motivated by some dark attitudes toward the driver.
  • How the frequency of bad police behavior is incredibly rare, despite the frequency of media articles and broadcasts.
  • Just as the officer might not know a motorist’s backstory, the motorist is unaware of the officer’s last call, which may have been traumatic (e.g., a dead child in a swimming pool, a fight).
  • The stresses of policing, including high divorce rates and police suicides that approximate the number of officers killed annually in the line of duty (approximately one officer every three days).

Briefly, this three-hour program is for local high school and college students and their families. It consists of three parts: (1) presentations by college and local police on their training and perspectives (see Phase 1 Discussion Topics sidebar), (2) demonstrations with a police narrator of a compliant and confrontational traffic stop, and (3) a question and answer period about elements of the stops, although the subject of the Q&A session tends to range broadly to questions including “driving while black” and how police enforce immigration policies. In each of these phases, the goal is to introduce heretofore unknown police perspectives, borne of experiences and expectations, to community members.

These perspectives, and others, provide important revelations that explain how and why police do the things they do and challenge the public’s perspectives. When the audience goes out to observe staged traffic stops (a citizen’s vehicle, with two cruisers behind it), they appreciate what they see in a new way.The stresses of policing, including high divorce rates and police suicides that approximate the number of officers killed annually in the line of duty (approximately one officer every three days).

In the compliant traffic stop, the narrator explains how an officer conducts the vehicle approach, request for documentation, return to cruiser, evaluation of motorist paperwork, subsequent warning or summons, and departure. Items discussed include:

  • Dangers to officer and motorist on the side of the road
  • The content of communications between the officer and dispatch
  • What motorists can do to put an officer at ease
  • Why officers test the trunk and mark the left tail light
  • Why officers make a passenger-side approach
  • Why a second officer may arrive at the scene
  • What a motorist can do if he or she is uncomfortable with the officer or the stop

In the confrontational stop, the narrator explains how and why officers call for back up and how they use conflict de-escalation skills to defuse potentially toxic situations.

Following the demonstrations, the officers respond to specific questions about the traffic stop and other topics such as driving while black, immigration law enforcement, protests, selected legal questions, firearms training, police salaries and even police recruitment standards.

SPH Fosters Greater Understanding of Police by Students

NOVA and Prince William County Police have completed two SPH presentations to date, with another scheduled in the spring. Both sessions were attended by racially and ethnically diverse youth.

A criminology professor’s class attended one of the sessions, and its students were asked to write their assessment of the program, what they learned and how their attitudes toward police might have changed. Their responses were almost exclusively positive.

These responses were gratifying inasmuch as the audience came to perceive police as more approachable, more human and more professional. Police behavior was seen as motivated by valid reasons such as tactical necessity, not racism or malevolence. And citizens learned what they can do to put officers at ease, thereby avoiding any inadvertent escalation of hostility. If these were the only SPH benefits, the session would be an unqualified success.

There were other important benefits. First, officers got experience articulating police policies to a potentially skeptical audience. The ability to justify their department’s behavior and answer tough questions is an important part of officers’ professional development and a positive department image.

Second, increased respect for the professionalism of police will encourage people to say something when they see something, thereby making campuses and communities safer while increasing departmental morale and encouraging officer proactivity.

Third, improved police relations with those they serve result in more opportunities to address classes and mentor clubs.

Fourth, the institution’s reputation as caring about safety and possessing a professional police force is enhanced, with a positive effect on a school’s ability to recruit students.

Finally, SPH offered a valuable opportunity for college police to interact (and impress) local responders.

Program Has Helped NOVA PD Polish its Image

SPH was a revelation for both the police and the campus, high school and family communities. It has helped rebrand police as professional, capable and motivated by the noblest intentions.

NOVA will continue to pursue this innovative and fruitful program. You may view a portion of SPH on YouTube.


Lt. John M. Weinstein serves with the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department. He can be reached at jweinstein@nvcc.edu. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be construed as representing the official views of the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department or of Campus Safety magazine.

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