Taking The Pulse On Police

How to cost effectively track residents’ level of trust

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Local government managers and police chiefs are increasingly focused on building trust between residents and their police officers so that all groups feel fairly and justly treated and are invested in maintaining public safety. This is essential for the integrity of the criminal justice system and the health of local representative democracy.

Communities with law enforcement agencies, whether in-house or under contract, should track the level of trust in police by their communities just as they measure crime trends. But how can this be done efficiently and economically? Few of the 18,000 police agencies in the United States have the resources to conduct sophisticated surveys of residents’ attitudes toward their police.

Public confidence in police has historically been higher than most institutions but is still far from desirable. According to a Gallup poll in June 2017, only 57 percent of Americans expressed confidence in their local police. This masks a growing divide, however, as more people of color, lower income, and younger age indicate falling levels of trust in police. Only 30 percent of African Americans, 45 percent of Hispanics, and 44 percent of people between 18 and 34 years of age are confident in police.1 For many people, perceptions become their reality.

This trend is in spite of the fact that crime levels across the country have fallen in recent decades and police departments in general are better staffed, trained, and equipped. Most police departments collect a great deal of information on crime and calls for service and regularly publish this data.

Need for Continuous Review

Information on public attitudes toward the police is much harder to come by. Yet, a major finding of the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing is that the public cares as much about how police interact with them as they care about crime and arrest rates.

Leonard Matarese, managing partner, Center for Public Safety Management, advises police departments to continuously review their relationships with the communities that they serve, with a commitment to just and fair policing. As more law enforcement agencies embrace different forms of public engagement, this routine assessment helps pinpoint where and how to better engage with those groups who tend not to trust the local police. This is anything but straightforward though.

Many local governments conduct resident surveys of community perceptions of local government services, including law enforcement. While only the largest and best-funded local agencies can afford to conduct regular and comprehensive surveys of resident attitudes toward police, it is possible for medium and small cities to collect data routinely about trust and confidence in local policing—whether by the police department or the sheriff under a contract for service—by adding targeted questions to general public surveys.

Bryan Godbe of Godbe Research and Richard Bernard of FM3Research have been conducting resident satisfaction research surveys for decades. They recommend that officials be clear about their goals and use methodologically sound techniques for sampling public attitudes toward police.

Such surveys may include phone polling using landlines and cellphones and e-mail to voter files, with extra efforts to involve underrepresented populations. Simply placing a survey on the agency’s website, though, will be unlikely to provide statistically accurate data.

The same goes for mail surveys, which are tough to make representative of the whole community, but they still can provide useful information.

If a locality cannot afford to use a professional adviser, then perhaps the local university can assist with more scientific surveying as part of a class project. Or consider getting a group of contiguous cities to share in the cost of a regional or sub-regional survey on attitudes toward police.

Questions to Consider

Here are three questions that might be included in a resident survey:

  • What do you think is the most serious public safety problem facing the residents of [insert city name]?
  • Overall, how would you rate the job performance of the police officers (or sheriff’s deputies)? Would you rate them as excellent, good, just fair, or poor?
  • How much would you say you trust the police officers (sheriff’s deputies) to protect you and your family? Would you say you trust them a great deal, somewhat, not too much, or not at all?

The survey might also ask participants to listen to some words and phrases—examples listed below. After hearing each one, they can indicate if it applies to the police officers or sheriff’s department employees who work their community. If it does apply, the participants can then be asked: “Does it apply strongly or just somewhat?”

  • Respond quickly to emergency calls?
  • Effective in curbing local crime?
  • Make community relations a priority?
  • Treat people professionally regardless of race or ethnicity?
  • Treat people professionally regardless of gender?
  • Treat people professionally regardless of age?
  • Treat people professionally regardless of sexual orientation?
  • Committed to helping citizens of City X?
  • Treat homeless people with respect?
  • Are trustworthy?
  • Are impartial?
  • Are proactive in preventing crime?
  • Give the public a voice?
  • Enforce traffic safety laws?
  • Able to reach out to and work with young people?
  • Able to work with those suffering with health issues?
  • Are approachable to residents?

The survey could then test resident satisfaction with local government efforts to communicate through mail, Internet, and other means, answering such questions as these:

Would you say you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied with the police department’s (sheriff’s) efforts to communicate with you?

If you interacted directly with a police officer (sheriff’s deputy) in the past 12 months, did he or she:

  • Treat you with respect?
  • Listen carefully to your point of view?
  • Remain impartial?
  • Earn your trust?

Data Enhance Engagement Efforts

Clearly, there are more questions that could easily be appended into an existing satisfaction survey. The point is to choose those that are most relevant and to track changes in responses over time.

Most scientific surveys obtain demographic and locational data on participants. Mining the data for differences in responses by neighborhood, gender, age, and race/ethnicity will also yield important information. It will help the police department customize its resident outreach and engagement efforts for greatest effect.

Like all government-funded survey reports, the results of these questions should be made fully public and accessible to all. Even better is to discuss them publicly at a council or board meeting and consider developing a departmental goal or action plan.

It is essential to undertake public engagement for police services to build trust and confidence for a better civil society. Systematically monitoring public attitudes toward law enforcement can be daunting for smaller agencies.

By incorporating specific questions regarding trust and confidence into existing satisfaction surveys, those agencies can gain critical information from which to plan and act.

Distinguished Service Award – Rod Gould

By ICMA

After 35 years of government service, including 29 years in city management, a colleague describes Rod Gould as an ambassador for public service, guru of best management practices, and mentor extraordinaire. The cities he served — Santa Monica, Monrovia, San Rafael, Poway, and Walnut Creek — all were beneficiaries of his forward-thinking approaches to service delivery, finances, sustainability, capital projects, police reform, civic engagement, transportation issues, and ensuring public access to high-speed Wi-Fi.

Mr. Gould enjoys serving in professional associations for the perspective it provides of local government management and its many practitioners. He has served as ICMA Vice President, president of the League of California Cities – City Managers Department, and as a member of the league’s board. He currently serves on the boards of the Institute for Local Government, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, and SAGE Publication’s State and Local Government Review.

He has taught at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, San Francisco State University, and California State University, Long Beach in the MPA programs and the Stanford Local
Government Institute, and has served as city manager in residence at Stanford, Pepperdine, USC, Cornell, and Berkeley. “I am thrilled by the energy, enthusiasm, and smarts of today’s MPA students” says Gould. “Their many strengths and skills auger well for public management in the future.”

Mr. Gould provides professional training and consults with local governments. “Helping my active colleagues and staff to solve or manage pressing problems has multiple rewards,” he says. He is a senior partner with Management Partners, serving local governments; director of training for the Center for Public Safety Management; and a director of the HdL Companies. Mr. Gould has published articles in Public Management, Western City, and Governing magazines, and presented on issues in emergency preparedness, civic engagement, good governance, police reform, pension reform, and council-manager relations. He has received numerous awards, including the Cal-ICMA Hall of Fame Award for Ethics and the Wes McClure Manager of Distinction Award by the League of California Cities.

At this point in his encore career, Mr. Gould enjoys blending teaching, consulting, training, mentoring, and coaching, particularly to support those rising in the profession. Although local government management is one of the most demanding professions in society, he believes that it truly offers some of the greatest opportunities for service and fulfillment.

Read the award excerpt here.

Public Engagement for Police Departments

 

How to Build and Regain Trust

By Rod Gould, ICMA-CM

Police departments face this growing crisis in communities: A lack of public trust and legitimacy. Besides recommitting to the tenets of community policing, the police must undertake continuous and well-thought-out public engagement efforts to bolster confidence and two-way communication.

This requires specialized civic engagement, and what works for local organizations in general may not be effective for police departments, where circumstances can often be extremely different.

Why Now?

Despite steep decreases in crime in communities throughout the country over the past 15 to 20 years, public confidence in police is dropping. It is particularly low among the poor, people of color, and youth. Use-of-force incidents caught on video have inflamed communities that perceive overly aggressive or racist police tactics. Police departments routinely provide crime statistics, but information about complaints regarding misuse of force, bias, and misconduct remain sparse.

The public, too, often forms its impressions of its police based on news stories, videos, social media, and anecdotal experience with officers. Civic engagement requires incorporating a diverse cross section of residents into recruitment, selection, promotion, discipline, developing policies, guiding implementation, and evaluating results.

It means getting on agendas of groups already meeting in the community and going “into the lion’s den” on occasion. It requires creating an environment that welcomes dissent and difficult conversations. Public engagement goals for both police departments and residents can include:

  • Better understanding of the intricacies of communities—not just those people one interacts with on a daily basis.
  • Clarifying perceptions vs. reality.
  • Understanding the expectations and concerns of the entire community when it comes to law enforcement.
  • Identifying critical community resources and those in need.
  • Building legitimacy and trust with vulnerable populations.
  • Developing rapport with and support from the community.
  • Opening lines of communication and hearing criticism directly.
  • Developing a referral network of stakeholders.

Prior to engaging with the community, a police department would be wise to get its own house in order. Some of the relevant questions that managers need to ask about a department include:

  • Is there a culture of trust within the department?
  • Have officers and their unions been engaged?
  • Are procedures in place for timely, transparent, honest, and accurate internal and external communication?
  • Is data made easily accessible to everyone, even when it doesn’t paint a flattering picture on public complaints and what came of them?
  • Is the complaint process open and accessible?
  • Does the department reach out to local business owners who know their customers?
  • Are officers encouraged to mentor youth and to volunteer in the community?
  • Do officers partner with the faith community and train for cultural competency?
  • Are regular meetings held in different neighborhoods and locations that are chosen because they are centrally located, near transportation, neutral, and comfortable in nonstressful times?

In Difficult Times

Sometimes difficult conversations will be encountered, particularly where trust is low or where a police action has harmed community relations. After a contentious incident takes place, hold town hall meetings to allow community members to vent and ask questions.

Also allow the police to provide information on adjustments to policy, practices, and training in light of the incident. In these cases, take extra care to plan community meetings wisely:

  • Be clear about the issues and objectives.
  • Adopt a mindset of inquiry, manage emotions, and be comfortable with silence.
  • Be tough on the issues and easy on the people.
  • Use a neutral facilitator trusted by both sides.
  • Leave the meetings with a list of action items for everyone, including police, community leaders, and political leaders.
  • Work for mutual respect and develop “anchor” relationships that provide lasting and influential relationships with community leaders.
  • Foster shared responsibility, avoid blame, and admit mistakes.
  • If the meeting is to solve a specific problem, develop an agenda with the community leaders and share it with the attendees for feedback.
  • Debrief after the meeting to discuss what has been learned.

The Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) and the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, Pepperdine University, are partnering to research this critical facet of public engagement. If you are interested in improving police and community relations, contact Leonard Matarese (lmatarese@cpsm.us) or Ashley Trim (ashley.trim@pepperdine.edu).

Endnotes and Resources:

1 The Final Report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, May 2015, pg. 9. Time, August 24, 2015, “What It’s Like to be a Cop in America,” Karl Vick.

2 RAND, “Performance Metrics to Improve Police-Community Relations,” Jessica Saunders, February 2015.

3 International Association of Chiefs of Police, “National Summit on Community Police Relations: Creating a Culture of Cohesion/Collaboration,” January 2015.

4 COPS Office, DOJ, and VERA Institute, Police Perspectives: Building Trust in a Diverse Nation — No. 1, “How to Increase Cultural Understanding,” Caitlin Gokey and Susan Shah, 2016.

5 International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Policy Summit on Community-Police Relations, January 2015.

6 Police Executive Research Forum, “Advice from Police Chiefs and Community Leaders on Building Trust —Ask for Help, Work Together, and Show Respect,” March 2106 and National Coalition Building Institute’s Cops and Community Training Program, www.ncbi-cops.org.

7 COPS Office, DOJ and VERA Institute, Police Perspectives: Building Trust in a Diverse Nation — No. 1, “How to Increase Cultural Understanding,” Caitlin Gokey and Susan Shah, 2016.

8 National Crime Prevention Council, “Improving Police-Community Relations through Community Policing,” 2007-2008.

9 COPS Office, Department of Justice, Community-Police Relations, Rank and File, “Leaders in Building Trust and Community Policing,” James E. Copple, 2016.

10 International Association of Chiefs of Police, “National Summit on Community Police Relations: Creating a Culture of Cohesion/Collaboration,” January 2015

Rod Gould, ICMA-CM, a retired city manager, is director of training, Center for Public Safety Management, Greenbrae, California (rodgould.com and rodgould17@gmail.com).

Engaging Your Public

By Rod Gould and Ashley Trim

As a local government practitioner, you’ve heard a lot about public engagement during the past few years. You probably have your own public engagement success stories and your own stories about failing to properly engage residents.

These lessons learned have no doubt given you a sense of what is appreciated and works with stakeholders and what simply wastes everyone’s time. We live in an exciting era of innovation and experimentation, but there is no secret formula for public engagement.

Some new policies and approaches work in some situations (and some communities) but backfire in others. It is trial by error and by fire in some cases, but there are certain characteristics that engaged organizations share. As you take proactive steps to strengthen resident and business involvement, do you know how you measure up?

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