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An empathetic police model to build trust, outreach

It has probably gone unnoticed by many, but here in my agency, we are currently in what I believe is the closest we may get to a lull when it comes to “controversy over police officers.”

December 14, 2018  By Tom Wetzel

There may be lots of reasons for this, such as the fact there are no use of force cases currently drawing sustained attention. Whatever the reasons, the glaring spotlight on perceived or real police mistakes has dimmed significantly. We should enjoy it while it lasts because all it seems to take is one flashpoint to ignite a national media firestorm about the actions of those sworn to protect and serve.

This calm breather though does present an opportunity for finding strategies to improve on our police model and build on the progress that has been made over the years. Of special importance is finding ways to bridge the gap of trust with members of our society who don’t look upon their police officers as public servants there to help them. We should begin this effort in earnest, as it is easier to persuade in tranquility versus under the shouts of protest marches.

An important start is for police agencies to embrace an empathetic police model, which is basically community policing on steroids. I have long promoted this idea, which places a strong emphasis on astutely balancing the firm and gentle aspects of police work so that the level of service is seamlessly seen as fair yet compassionate, and can be admired by all — regardless of race or privilege.

This model strives for a deeper symbiotic relationship between the server and the served. It is a theme that begins in the hiring selection process and goes well past the individual retirements of officers whose service can continue beyond active duty (for example, mentoring youth or serving as armed volunteer school officers). Its philosophy is part of the very fabric of an agency and, if done right, this model of policing will create huge dividends of trust.   


Building on this theme, it is important for police leadership to promote more outreach to the communities they serve. This can be done through social media public service announcements and educational presentations. These efforts can include public accessibility to certain agency equipment, such as a shooting scenario judgment rig (which would allow them to see how difficult a split-second, deadly-force decision can be for officers). Members of the public can see how their tax dollar is spent, and actually use the gear themselves — under the direction of an officer, of course.

It is critical not to rely solely on the police to make inroads, as the public must put some elbow grease in this effort too. Schools need to include content in their curriculum that addresses the role of police. Teachers are busy enough that we don’t need to add a Police 101 class, but many of these matters can be addressed through other classes — social studies or civics — and won’t take a long time.

And just like so many things in life, you get what you pay for. If you want a good system that emphasizes officer safety, don’t try to do it on the cheap. A deeper public investment in policing is in order. This investment, which ideally would be a dual tax payer/large business contribution effort, could bring about much needed advanced training for police officers to include more cultural awareness instruction.

It could also be used to ensure all officers have bulletproof vests and access to emergency life-saving equipment (i.e. individual tourniquets and blood-clotting gaze). Many small agencies on limited budgets can only pay for so much and sometimes officers have to pay for these items themselves. When agencies embrace the empathetic police model and engage in more outreach, the buy-in for more funding will be easier.

If we take the right steps now, we can build up much-needed trust to help weather storms of police scepticism, and stop or mitigate the damage they may cause. It will take a team effort and much work, but it is doable, especially with a plan.

Tom Wetzel is a Northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant and former SWAT commander. He is also a certified law enforcement executive, adjunct professor in community policing and internationally published author on police topics.

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