There are millions, if not billions of dollars spent on studying police and public relations in an effort to improve police effectiveness and public satisfaction. Miscommunication and misunderstandings abound in both police and the public. How do these issues arise and what can be done about them?
In the profession of policing, the socialization into the “thin blue line” is a recognized phenomenon. It begins in police academies and proceeds into the influence of veteran officers, as well as the tone set by agency leadership. A great deal of emphasis is placed on officer survival skills and conversely, risk management at the academic training. When an officer is released from field training, the veteran officers within the shift further socialize into the “thin blue line”.
The View from Policing
Officers are socialized by personal experiences, perceptions of media reports on both individual officers and their agency, as well as their experiences with the criminal justice system. This begins the widening gap in the connection between police and the public they serve.
During my career as a patrol deputy, I often felt and observed commonly held beliefs within policing. “No matter what we do, we can’t win”, “the public just doesn’t understand or care” “even when we do our jobs well the public doesn’t support us” “people hate us just because of the badge” “we’re all guilty because of the screw ups of a few” are just a few of the thoughts expressed by fellow officers across the country.
Changing legal parameters, changing public and political priorities add to the frustration of the policing profession. Add to this the fact that police have very little contact with the law abiding public that is most supportive of the job that police do contributes to the divide felt between the police and the public.
The View from the Public
Since retiring and having closer contact with the part of the public not seen during my time on patrol, different perspectives are emerging. Some admire and respect the police, feeling that they do a very difficult and dangerous job. Others see police as an extension of government intrusion or political and racial intimidation, some of this being influenced by media reports and internet videos. Some see police as lazy, arrogant or uncaring civil service workers wasting tax dollars.
Current government scandals, concerns over increased regulation and intrusion by the government, as well as concerns over the militarization of policing are influencing how the public perceives police officers and policing in general. Economic issues, the dysfunction of the criminal court system, as well as the public’s perception of local crime all influence police and public relations.
Even changing perspectives on how criminal acts are categorized and dealt with, such as drug crimes, domestic violence, and DUI’s as well as how these changes are reflected in the media influence how policing is perceived. How the mentally ill are dealt with, court decisions regarding every aspect of public-police contact, as well as how the public perceives laws that officers are enforcing all influence public satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the policing profession.
The most important factor, even given all of the other influences, is how an officer interacts with the public. An officer who is impatient, arrogant, domineering and dismissive of the public not only damages the perception of the individual person being dealt with; anyone watching the contact is affected too. This also makes the job that much harder for future officers that may be genuinely reaching out to repair such damage.
Getting Past the Divide
When there are difficulties that arise between groups, whether political, racial or other reasons, the steps to improvement are much the same. The first prerequisite is that there is a desire or motivation to improve the situation by at least one side, preferably both. Individuals on each side of the difficulty can begin repairs by taking a risk and reaching out to the other side to begin a dialogue. Determination, perseverance, commitment and patience are hallmarks of the individuals who begin the process of overcoming the divide.
Dealing with presumptions and misconceptions with both respect and honesty brings opportunities to build on common ground. It also clarifies areas of contention that can be dealt with more effectively as trust is established. The most common cause of failure in this area is an unwillingness to self-examine and admit that the other side may be correct in their perception.
Within my experience both as a deputy and a citizen, I’ve seen that too often police can be arrogant or dismissive of the public. Conversely, I’ve seen that too often people displeased with the police often have unrealistic expectations, do not take personal responsibility or understand the parameters of policing and the legal system and forget that police are people too.
Given that police have duties that can potentially destroy people’s lives and have sworn an oath regarding upholding the Constitution in the course of those duties, the greater responsibility lies with them to ensure they operate with the public’s support. That said, citizens, especially those living in high crime areas have both a duty and a responsibility to participate in dealing with the issues causing the criminal activity in their neighborhoods. Understanding that crime is a community problem, not just a police problem does a great deal to begin to address the crime in the community.
The greatest opportunities on both sides of this police and public perceptions issue is to deal with each police officer or citizen as the individuals they are. While society and human nature tends to plug people into groups, the most profound and positive changes within society have begun by one person reaching out to another individual, leaving preconceived notions aside and respectfully listening to each other. This is simple, but not easy. It will take continued efforts and perseverance through many set-backs to achieve a more positive partnership between the police and the public.
Interestingly enough, video cameras, initially the bane of police by agenda driven activists may in turn serve to assist in raising the public’s view of the police through department issued body cameras. Initial reviews have found a reduction in citizen complaints, as well as reductions in use of force incidents. Both sides understanding their behavior can be reviewed encourage restraint and that is positive for both the police and the public.