It can be argued that there has never been a more critical time for the law enforcement profession to maintain a steady focus on community outreach and engagement efforts. With several high-profile uses of force incidents capturing national attention, followed by protests calling for increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement, agencies must use every avenue available to them to establish and maintain strong community relationships. Investments in these relationships can pay many dividends—enhanced trust, a greater ability to transmit and receive information, and a greater overall perception of safety and service level from the agency are just a few. Successful community outreach efforts require a multi-faceted approach and generally consist of meetings, public events, participation in social media platforms, and high levels of ‘face to face’ interaction between officers and citizens in which joint problem solving remains the key component.
But how can law enforcement agencies hope to maintain this focus when the onset of COVID-19 has rendered many of these avenues impractical or impossible? Law enforcement leaders must not abandon community policing efforts due to the pandemic. Instead, they should utilize available technologies to adapt and maintain their commitment to community outreach. Here are several ideas on how to put this concept into motion in your agency:
"Law enforcement leaders must not abandon community policing efforts due to the pandemic"
Don’t Just Cancel!
Citizens across America have seen cancellation after cancellation of many of their favorite events and activities. They have also, in large numbers, adapted to work-from-home arrangements and risen to the challenge of becoming proficient in Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other programs. Rather than canceling community events and meetings, why not take this opportunity to both expand the technological comfort level of your staff and meet residents where they are? Moving meetings to one of these platforms instead of canceling them demonstrates your agency’s commitment to citizen engagement and partnership. At my department, we hold quarterly meetings in which officers and supervisors assigned to each beat area make themselves available to answer questions, receive feedback, and obtain information on problems or issues the residents are experiencing. A supervisor begins the meetingwith a PowerPoint presentation detailing crime trends in the area, public safety bulletins, upcoming events, and other relevant information. While we value the in-person interaction between our officers and residents, we have realized significant benefits from livestreaming these meetings. What we found when we began livestreaming the meetings to our Facebook page was that our reach was dramatically increased. As we have gotten more proficient with the streaming process, we have had to remain flexible and tweak the process as we have gone along. For example, we initially utilized a ‘hard cam’ method in which the live presentation was streamed from a device by another employee. After receiving complaints about it being hard to hear the presenter and difficult to read what was on the screen, we switched to a Zoom presentation mode as shown below.
Use Technology to Bridge Gaps and Find Solutions
While activities such as citizen ride-along must be paused due to the pandemic, why not consider other ways to fill those voids? For example, conducting a “Virtual Ride Along” with an officer from your department could be an innovative way to put social media technology to use. During his or her shift, the officer could livestream videos, share photos, answer questions, and interact with residents in real-time on your department’s social media platforms. While this may not fully replace the ‘in-person’ ride-along experience, it would create an interesting event for your community to participate in, showcase the great work your officers do every day, and quite likely drive up your ‘likes,’ ‘follows,’ and other social media engagement measures. An added potential benefit of this type of event is the potential to enhance your department’s recruitment efforts. Providing a glimpse into policing for a wide audience just may inspire someone in your community to seek a career with your agency.
Engage Your Staff in Seizing Unique Opportunities
The pandemic has undoubtedly caused much of your community to be at home more often than they were before. This presents an opportunity to reinforce ‘target hardening’ measures to enhance public safety. When we learned that one of our larger neighborhood associations had received a grant from DuPage County, IL Habitat for Humanity to purchase doorbell cameras to distribute, we jumped at the chance to assist. We have supported the project by participating in online association meetings and webinars to increase awareness. We have also offered to help residents with the setup and installation of the cameras. This project not only serves to increase safety in the neighborhood, but it has also provided an excellent opportunity for positive engagement with our residents.It is also a safe bet that these cameras may help us solve future crimes in the neighborhood as well!
In summary, for all the challenges that COVID-19 has brought, it has also created opportunities for police agencies to increase their community outreach and engagement. Forward-thinking leaders will seize these opportunities to strengthen the bond between their agency and their community at large.