Police Departments Prioritize Community Engagement

September 13, 2018

Gale Horton Gay

This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Canton Police believe that starting with trust building while students are young is a key to successful engagement.

Building trust between public safety officers and the community members they serve doesn’t happen without effort. Police departments throughout Georgia use a variety of strategies to keep the lines of communication open in their jurisdictions.
 
In Canton, Police Chief Mark J. Mitchell and his team of 56 police officers and administrators rely on a multi-prong approach to trust building and partnership with Canton’s 26,700 residents.
 
“They learn about us,” said Mitchell of the outreach efforts. “And, we learn about them.”
 
Among Canton’s programs are:
  • Roving Roll Call: Evening roll calls (when officers are briefed on current issues or crime trends that are impacting their patrol area) are held out in the community
  • Coffee with a Cop: A monthly event in which officers have coffee at different eateries and engage in conversation with residents about their concerns
  • Bus Stop with a Cop: Different bus stops are selected five to seven times a year and tents are set up with games and snacks when students get off afternoon buses
  • Read with a Cop: Police officers read to kindergarten through fifth-grade students at the city’s two elementary schools
 
Mitchell said engagement with young people is especially important so that they view officers as people they can confide in and trust.
 
“Our philosophy is it starts with the kids,” he said. “They go home and tell mom and dad that ‘an officer read to us today,’ then they are more apt to trust us.”

Often at Coffee with a Cop and similar events residents share concerns about issues such as potential criminal activity, neighborhood speeding, a clogged storm drain that leads to flooding, etc. Mitchell said officers share the information and police patrols may be assigned to an area or another department may be contacted to resolve the problem.
 
The Canton Police Department also conducts surveys after a range of police encounters to find out if officers were professional, empathetic and provided services needed.
 
“This engagement has really paid real positive dividends for the department,” said Mitchell.
 
In Douglasville, the head of the police department called community engagement programs “opportunities” to connect during non-confrontational situations to show what police officers do, how they treat people and that they give respect and deserve respect in return. In the city of 38,000, 95 Douglasville Police Officers patrol the streets, enforce laws and spend time getting to know residents.
 
“The community has a stake in keeping the community safe,” said Douglasville Police Chief Gary Sparks.
 
He emphasized the importance of working together. “When the community knows the officers serving them and the officers know the community, we are less likely to hurt one another.”
 
The police department’s Youth Against Violence program was initiated 11 years ago.
 
“We were tired of locking up young people,” said Sparks.
 
Douglasville officials attempt to counter youth being lured into gangs and participating in risky—sometimes—criminal activity through the program that’s designed to educate young people on the consequences of their actions. The chief said the goal is to get young people to think twice before violating the law.

The program is held in four eight-week sessions as well as a 10-week session throughout the year for teens 13-18. Sparks estimates that several thousand young people have gone through the free Saturday program that focuses on how to deal with the police, the consequences of being in a gang, shoplifting, sexting, alcohol and drugs, conflict resolution, life skills and more.
 
The program has drawn assistance from fraternities, sororities, churches, professionals and other groups and individuals.

“We show them that they are loved, they are important, they are the future,” he said.
 
The police department also rented a house in an area of town that once had a reputation for drug activity. They turned that property into Hollis Street Community House, which is now a resource and training center.
 
Another effort that Sparks speaks of with pride is one that wasn’t initially embraced by all of Douglasville’s top leaders, according to the chief.

Sparks said that four years ago when he observed that the police department’s quarterly town hall meetings had few people of color attending he decided to take an old-fashioned approach.
 
Police officers were dispatched to go door to door in apartment complexes and subdivisions introducing themselves and sharing neighborhood crime trends and resources such as the police department’s website with residents.
 
“People were like ‘Wow.’ They had never seen anything like this,” said Sparks. “They are our eyes and ears. It’s a win-win situation.”
 
Over in Lawrenceville the police department has been hosting a series of gatherings called “Bridge the Gap” since 2017. At the gatherings, police representatives along with diverse civic leaders answer questions from a moderator and the audience. Panelists have been asked about the gap that exists between police and community and what needs to be done to bring them closer together, use of body cameras by police, use of force by police, racial profiling and more.
 
“Anytime you can build relationships with the community, especially the community you are policing essentially you are building trust, transparency,” said Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis.
 
Bridge the Gap is the brainchild of former Lawrenceville High School senior Ephraim Kum who shared the concept with Wallis. Although Kum now attends the University of Utah, he still participated in the event when he was home on winter break.
 
Wallis said community engagement programs such as Bridge the Gap help Lawrenceville’s force of 96 police officers strengthen its relationship with the city’s 14,000 residents.

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