Policing is a relationship driven business

By Chief Rick Myers
City of Newport News (Va.) Police Department

Somewhere along the journey of providing our officers with better tools, better training, increasing their safety and protection and access through advanced technologies of real-time information, we forgot about a basic reality: All policing is done through relationships.

It is just as important that we provide training and tools to maximize relationship building as it is the many other facets of policing.

Relationships cannot be developed without direct human interaction. At a time when it seems folks are more adept at communicating through thumbs on a phone’s keyboard than looking eye-to-eye, it falls on police leadership to recognize skill deficiencies that we can train and improve.

In the past few years, we’ve begun taking our academy recruits out of the classroom, occasionally and having them knock on doors in neighborhoods probably unaccustomed to seeing officers in a friendly, proactive interaction. This results in a learning experience for both the police recruits and the residents. It is the beginning of a relationship that we hope will carry over as they transition from recruits to new officers working the beat.

I believe the most important work that police officers do is when they’re out of their police cars when NOT on a call for service.

Engaging someone from the community in conversation is almost always a great starting point for relationship building.

Another lesson for officers: every conversation does not have to and shouldn’t start with “…show me your I.D.” Successful veteran officers are often adept at engaging in polite and friendly banter with citizens, yet still manage to learn their identity and place of residence along with the person’s knowledge of what is going on in their neighborhood.

As it is with most person-to-person dialogue, it is incumbent on the authority figure to put everyone else at ease to ensure a free exchange of ideas and information.

There is a full continuum of policing styles, ranging from “combat policing” that is highly enforcement driven to COP/POP which is centered in police and citizens mutually engaged in problem solving and improving quality of life. No matter where on the continuum an agency lies, however, nothing gets done absent relationships. Perhaps it would be simpler for our officers to embrace our overall mission if we de-emphasized “flavor of the day” policing, with the many labels we tend to attach (COP, POP, intelligence-led, hot-spot, evidence-based, zero-tolerance, et al) and simply emphasized the positive outcomes that result from strong relationships throughout the community.

I’m a strong believer in police officers taking “ownership” of their assigned beat. In this context, ownership means really getting to know who lives, works, plays, goes to school, runs the shops, and the predators within one’s assigned area.

An officer will not know and be known by the people of his beat without regularly engaging citizens in conversation. This requires exiting the confines of the patrol car, being approachable, and even engaging folks in conversation who may not initially be eager to have contact with a police officer.

Each time an officer demonstrates respect, empathy and fairness in their interaction with citizens, they are building trust with that person.

Eventually, a neighborhood will “own” the officer back in return; this often manifests when citizens begin referring to “their” police officer.

Officers who have successfully developed ownership in their beat will receive more cooperation, more information, and more support throughout the neighborhoods they patrol.

Of utmost importance to the officers, they’ll also be safer! A neighborhood that has a relationship with “their” officer is far more likely to help protect that officer from harm, yielding more officer safety and fewer injuries to both citizens and the police.

The benefits of relationships extend across the entire range of policing styles. In an enforcement-centered style of policing, officers can rely on relationship-based sources to quickly identify offenders, drug house locations, and who is carrying guns. Reactive investigations that rely on witnesses to augment the physical evidence benefit from a more engaged and trusting population, resulting in “stop snitchin’” yielding to “you didn’t hear this from ME, but….” Information need not be the exclusive domain of Confidential Informants; everyday citizens who know and trust their local police officers WILL provide invaluable information, and often before crimes have occurred.

I recall years ago hearing a former superintendent of the London Metropolitan Police (aka The Met, or Scotland Yard) tell the story of how The Met cracked a major terrorism case involving planned mass bombings throughout London. The case was made because a neighborhood constable had a strong and trusting relationship with a Mosque within his beat, and the Imam and other Mosque representatives had expressed concerns about an increasingly radicalized attendee. The resulting raids and prosecution of conspirators was not soft on crime, but a swift and decisive blow against terrorism. Some of the most aggressive and successful drug and gang units rely on relationships to secure awareness, officer safety, intelligence and planning.

It is easy to hate someone that we don’t know. We tend to resist the unknown, and mistrust anyone we haven’t yet met. We are in an era when the police are under extraordinary scrutiny, are subject to recording from the ubiquitous phone videos, and when controversial police behaviors are broadcast non-stop on worldwide media and social media. There has never been a greater need for the term “police-community relations” to mean more than a program or a strategy. The gap that exists between the police (both as an institution and individually) and the public (both as a society and individually) can only be diminished through the building of stronger and trusting relationships.

In our personal relationships, we know that there are ups and downs, periods of conflict, and periods of relative peace. It is unrealistic to expect a complete absence of conflict between the police and members of the community.

But the time to work on developing a relationship is NOT at the onset of conflict! As the saying goes, exchanging business cards for the first time when it hits the fan is not an effective strategy. Some of the widely reported conflicts between police and community may have been triggered by singular events as a catalyst, but the source of the fuel is the ongoing lack of trust and relationships.

One of my favorite metaphors to live by is an old gardener’s rule: The best day to plant a tree was 50 years ago; the second best day is today.

We may not be able to go back in time and artificially make up relationships, but we can begin today at building and strengthening authentic relationships built on honesty, respect, and fairness. This is as important a lesson for a new police officer as knowing how to use their radio, gun and ticket book.

 

Chief Richard W. “Rick” Myers has served as Chief of Police in the  City of Newport News, Va., since January 2014, leading a total staff of 445 sworn officers. Chief Myers received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University and has been admitted to the MSU Criminal Justice Alumni Wall of Fame. He is a graduate of all three of the FBI’s leadership programs: The FBI National Academy-156th Session; the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Seminar-26th Session; the FBI National Executive Institute-31st Session. Chief Myers is in his 9th year as a Commissioner on the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) and currently Chairs the Commission. He is a Life Member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Past Board Member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and a Past President of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association (WCPA) and the Society of Police Futurists International (PFI).

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