REPAIRING A FRACTURED TRUST
February 13, 2013 By Tom Wetzel
by Tom Wetzell
There were many casualties in last year’s Cleveland police chase, which involved at least 59 cruisers and saw 137 shots fired, resulting in the sad loss of life of Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams. Adding to the sadness is the collateral damage that may be done to the trust factor necessary for a police model of service to function.
Without trust officers will have difficulty successfully protecting and serving the citizens of Cleveland. It’s a problem cities large and small may face and how they respond can determine future success. Repairing and enhancing trust should be priority one.
It is important to convey the framework police work under so people can better understand why officers do what they do and the meaning of policies in the context of operation. Policies and procedures are guidelines for how to perform tasks and should be followed as much as possible. They are basically the best practices for getting the job done, designed to provide direction and coordination on matters both small and large. Following them helps an agency carry out its mission in an efficient and lawful manner.
There will be times, however, that an officer may not follow a policy in its strictest form and good policies make provisions for these situations – but officers will be expected to explain their actions.
Sometimes their decision will not be deemed reasonable and there will be a consequence. Police officers, like most people, know that there are many shades of gray. It is why they must appreciate not only the letter of the law but also its spirit. Some police decisions and actions will, at times, involve a mixture of both components.
When an officer believes a life is at risk, the strict application of a policy in certain environments may not be followed. In the Cleveland incident it may likely be the reason so many officers came to help what they believed were fellow officers in danger. It is also important to recognize that once officers reasonably come to believe lives are in danger, they will quickly respond and use available means to stop that threat. Not doing so could be fatal.
Communicating how and why officers do things is a good first step in restoring trust. A second approach is to immediately equip every cruiser with in-car video systems. I, like probably many officers, was initially concerned about them as I felt our profession is one of honor and trust and our word should count. A camera doesn’t change that and I have grown to appreciate and depend on video.
Cameras can help those we serve see what we encounter. Even though a video will not catch the rapid thumping of an officer’s heart or fear when in danger, it can help put into a little context what they encounter. It also demonstrates an agency’s commitment to more transparency, which is so important in gaining the trust people should have in their public servants. Cameras say loud and clear that a police agency is trying to be more transparent.
A third effort that can really make a difference is to embrace community policing concepts, which can build trust in a big way. Officers can work with their customers to keep neighborhoods safer, prevent crime, catch bad guys, protect officers and improve the standard of living for everyone.
“Working together” is the key phrase and when done well, it can help develop the symbiotic relationship between cops and citizens necessary to meet these goals. Adding more foot and bike patrols, which allow officers to have more face to face interactions with citizens, can help achieve this. More friendly contacts between citizens and those sworn to protect them builds confidence.
Officers working in schools to develop trust with children is another vital component of community policing. Programs like <Children’s Safety Village> and <e-Copp,> where officers instruct youth about Internet risks, offers special opportunities to connect with young people and imprint at an early stage that police officers are their friends.
Endorsing community policing and putting more of its concepts into practice can positively impact a city far more than people realize.
Whether the officers involved in the Cleveland chase are exonerated or punished, cracks have occurred and this has weakened the foundation of trust which is so vital to a successful police operation. Due to the speed that information travels and media reporting, this problem extends beyond the borders of Cleveland and affects cops everywhere. Giving lip service to the problem or trying to place blame won’t provide a short or long term solution to this damage.
Educating the public, showing more transparency and connecting through community policing can have an immediate impact on developing a future of trust fundamental to our role of “protecting and serving.” We owe it to ourselves and those we serve.
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