The barbershop: where real conversations take place

By Chief Mark Holtzman
Greenville (NC) Police Department

What police department in America is not looking for a way to bridge the gap between the police and the community we serve?  Skipping right to the issue at hand, the trust and relationships between our police and the African American community is an equation we [Chiefs and Commanders] are trying to solve.

Like most, after doing a thorough review of our current community-policing outreach initiatives, we recognized that something was still missing.  We still weren’t bridging the gap.

But could the Barbershop really be the answer?  

We aren’t talking about the shopping mall hair salons. We’re talking about the ones in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Shops few non-African American police officers were ever taken to for a haircut by their parents growing up.  

We’re also not talking about changing barbers. The program isn’t about haircuts.  It’s about building relationships and breaking the ice.

Following a good model

The Cops and Barbers outreach initiative was started in Charlotte, N.C., a by then Chief Rodney Monroe and retired homicide Detective Garry McFadden. Their story began when the chief, who happened to be getting his haircut, began to engage the barbers in the shop with the honest dialog that seems to only take place at a barbershop.

The chief was quick to call on McFadden to get over to the barbershop and help answer questions the barbers had heard from the neighborhood about a recent officer-involved shooting. From that encounter came the idea to use the relationships with barbers to rebuild police credibility in the African American community.

“Cops and Barbers” was even highlighted by the White House as part of a progress report on police-community relations after the establishment of the national 21st Century Policing Taskforce.

Making it our own

As a skeptic to the latest ‘flavor of the week’ outreach program I needed to hear more. I didn’t want to launch an initiative into this uncharted territory that would backfire and land our department in worse shape with the community we were trying to reach. We met with Detective McFadden and he encouraged us to make the program our own.  

Step 1: Pick the right person to lead the effort.

From the beginning I knew that in order to do this right we needed to demonstrate that we were “all in.” I had to find the right person who had credibility in the African American community and it needed to be their full-time job.

Officer Richie Williams, a 15-year veteran of the Greenville Police Department, was our guy. His extensive experience as both a homicide detective and as a school resource officer were the ingredients we needed to help make the “Cops and Barbers” recipe a success.

Step 2:  Building relationships and breaking the ice.

Even for Officer Williams, who had grown up going to a barbershop, walking in wearing a uniform was still an awkward encounter. But with the energy of a traveling salesman and the honesty and good heart of a saint, Williams began to open the doors of local barbershops, and in doing so, opened our department to what is quickly becoming a flagship program.  

Step 3: Engaging the community.

Our first meeting began with Officer Williams and myself sitting down at a round table with just a small handful of equally skeptic barbers. I remember one barber, Eric, who sat quietly next to me – arms folded and no doubt wondering why he gave up an hour after work to meet. I opened with honesty, talking about the gap between police and the African American community. Then I asked for help. I told them that we were not looking for someone to share information or snitch to the police, but rather to help us bridge the gap by creating opportunities for our officers to engage with the community they serve.  

So far so good

Not only have we held our own roll calls in the barbershops, we’ve hosted several community meetings there. The barbershop has been a “safe place” for people who might not otherwise feel comfortable coming to meetings at City Hall or the Police Department, to get to know our officers and express their concerns.

The conversations are sometimes tough – many are centered on “over-policing” and the purpose of traffic stops and subject stops. After one meeting, at which I explained our data-driven strategy of Crime Reduction Initiative Areas (CRIAs), I went against all conventional wisdom when one of the barbers asked if he could see the CRIA map — which helps dictate where our officers patrol.

I told him I’d not only show him the map but I would bring him a copy to hang on the shop wall. Yes, I got a few strange looks from my staff, but as I explained to them later, if you lived in a CRIA area wouldn’t you want to know?  Wouldn’t you want to know why the police were in your neighborhood?

Before long, the ‘hot spot’ CRIA maps were hanging in neighborhood barbershops and they are doing more to spark conversation about policing and ownership of a neighborhood than I could explain in a dozen meetings.

We also reproduced small wallet-sized cards and brochures, modeled after similar publications used in Charlotte, to distribute through our partner barbershops.  The cards explain your rights during a traffic or subject stop and I have picked them up off the counter during many a community meeting to quickly share information and answer questions in real time.  

Beyond the meetings

From free “back-to-school” haircuts to Turkey Give-a-ways and Prom Night, the barbers in our community are doing so much to give back and are allowing us to partner with them in many ways.  There’s nothing like a child receiving a free back-to-school haircut and a backpack compliments of the barbershop, while the officers cook up some hot dogs and hand out drinks.

One of my favorite moments out of the program came at the end of this school year when Officer Williams talked to the barbers about a few high school students who couldn’t afford to go to the prom.  The barbers stepped up and Williams worked with the high schools and a local men’s shop to identify worthy young men.  A fresh haircut and nice rental tuxedo, and the prom became a reality for these young men thanks to the partnership.

As for the haircuts…

You can keep your barber, if you want.

As Chief of Police, I purposely stayed away from the publicity angle of siting in a barbershop chair to promote the program (but I would add that James and Rodney do a great job.)  The initiative is not about putting cops in barber chairs.  It’s about allowing us, as police officers, to get to the heart of real issues and do it in the heart the community.

And as for that skeptical barber I mentioned at the first meeting… Eric is one of our best advocates.   

 

Mark Holtzman joined the Greenville Police Department in September 2015 as Chief of Police.  Holtzman is no stranger to law enforcement, having spent 24 years with the Hagerstown, Maryland Police Department. A graduate of the University of Baltimore, he quickly advanced through the ranks and most recently served as Chief of Police in Hagerstown before accepting the opportunity to serve in the same capacity in Greenville.

Holtzman’s varied background in neighborhood and data-driven policing has proven to be a tremendous asset for the Greenville Police Department. A forward-thinking and solution-oriented chief, Holtzman believes in addressing “real issues” facing neighborhoods to reduce the fear of crime and improve quality of life. He has a passion for changing the reputations of neighborhoods and finding unique solutions to longstanding issues.

During his time thus far with the Greenville Police Department, Holtzman has implemented a number of projects and initiatives aimed at decreasing crime and improving quality of life. Some noteworthy accomplishments include the creation of a gun violence reduction unit; the implementation of “Cops and Barbers,” a nationally-recognized program highlighted by the White House as part of a progress report on police-community relations; the rebirth of several youth initiatives; the implementation of red-light cameras and local pedestrian-safety ordinances; advocating for a city-wide LED lighting project; as well as proposing statewide hate crime legislation. Holtzman acknowledges the effective delivery of public safety can only be accomplished through a department’s partnership with the community they serve.

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