It was a year ago when I became chief of the Vallejo Police Department. I was proud to join it – the department has a great group of officers and support staff, but like many communities here in Northern California, Vallejo has also been hit with tough times.
Not everyone may know it but Vallejo was the first city in the nation to file for bankruptcy from the financial epidemic that hit our country several years ago. The city officially pulled out of bankruptcy in late 2011 and we are continually making progress, but anytime a city goes through a bankruptcy, city services are altered and people’s lives are negatively impacted. That in itself builds a lot of cynicism, but it had been exacerbated by both the growing national negative opinion of law enforcement and several high profile local events. A distinct separation from some in the community and the police was clear.
We as a command staff knew we needed to reach out as a whole and reconnect with the community. Too many invisible walls had been built up, essentially creating an us-vs.-them mindset, which really is only a lose-lose for everyone involved.
So we built up our community involvement, being present at any community, social, service, or religious gathering we could. We embraced the digital age by developing new ways to communicate with our citizens through a smartphone app and increasing our presence on social media. Meanwhile, we instituted some new programs, such as neighborhood-based Coffee with Cops, department open house, midnight basketball league for youth, dinner with the Chief, and a diverse community Chief’s Advisory Board, to name a few.
The reception has been tremendous. Residents have come out for our events in far greater numbers than we expected. We found that youth crime dropped during the basketball league. Neighborhood watch groups have sprung up across the city, thanks much in part to us hiring a citizen who had created a watch group in her own neighborhood that showed exciting success. She in turn helped build up those neighborhood watch groups. Now we have 257 different neighborhood watches!
An often overlooked component of community relations is the community’s understanding of the police, the other half of the relationship. I always try and use these valuable interactions with the public to build an understanding of law enforcement. Being a police officer is a tough job, more now than ever before. This is especially true in Vallejo where the number of sworn officers is amongst the lowest in the nation and much of an officer’s shift is filled with challenging situations.
It really should not be a surprise. Just like walls can be built around people’s hearts when it comes to cops, walls can be erected around police officers’ senses regarding the citizens they are charged to protect – and sometimes arrest. We do a lot of police work in Vallejo. I see that for the men and women on my force, they sometimes feel like they are always pushing the pedal to the metal, moving from one crisis to the next. And then the next after that.
That can harden a person. And I don’t mean just their resolve. But harden their psyche when it comes to interacting with others. How could it not? Throw in the current national temperature when it comes to law enforcement and it’s pretty simple to see how officers can feel under siege.
The interaction between the department and citizens doesn’t just boost people’s positive feelings about police officers. It boosted police officers’ feelings about the people. It reminds them that they are in fact just regular folks, with feelings and struggles in life that we all endure. They are not just a statistic, nor are they all problems waiting to explode. It provides honest feedback to police and builds the community support an officer needs to fulfill today’s expectations.
A year ago, when we held our open house, one of our veteran officers approached me, and when I inquired, he told me the “whole thing was a waste of time.” Officers were running ragged, he stated, and didn’t need to be spending their day not being out on the street being police officers.
But by the end of the open house, he had come around and realized that this was in fact part of being a police officer. He spoke with citizens whom he knew previously and considered to be anti-police and found they really were not that at all. The officer then told me something that surprised me: He said, “We should be holding two open houses a year. Not just one.”
Talk about opening a person’s eyes.
We must understand each other better, and that’s just as much on us as it is on our citizens. So we will continue working on building relationships with all members of the community. Because no relationship can thrive without trust — which cannot be given, it must be earned. We must also remember, sometimes all it takes is personal interaction to change a mind and tear down a wall. Ultimately, in the end, that’s what we all must do.
Chief Bidou has spent a 26-year career in law enforcement, which began in Newark, California, and Benicia, California, where he served as chief. He is a graduate of the Senior Management Institute for Police held at Boston University, the FBI National Academy, and completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program held at John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.