The Trayvon Martin tragedy has made it clear that the relationship between many African Americans and officers is still based on suspicion and mistrust. Despite so much progress, a small crack of a possible action or inaction from a single officer or agency quickly brings on a national torrent of anger and frustration.
The Sanford (Fla.) Police department may not have dropped the ball on this investigation; however, that shouldn't stop the law enforcement community from engaging in some self reflection on our current mission and how we can improve our level of service particularly to customers who have historically been subjected to discrimination and bias.
The American policing model has experienced plenty of changes and advancements throughout its history. Now is a good time for a paradigm shift that allows for a deeper connection between the "server" and the "served." A four-prong approach—that brings more officers in the classroom, regularly re-evaluates drug policy, looks for new patrol strategies, and provides more transparency—may help establish the right elements for a transformative model built on trust that keeps officers safe and better protects the communities they work in.
Cops As Teachers
Encouraging officer participation in more educational opportunities can build trust with young people at an early age. Cops already help teach children to look both ways before they cross the street during Safety Town as well as warn them of the dangers of drugs in D.A.R.E. programs. I attended my son's D.A.R.E. graduation this year and it was obvious that every child knew "Officer Bubba." He and other D.A.R.E. officers have made tremendous inroads toward building confidence with young people about how to address peer pressure and handle a variety of challenges they will encounter while growing up.
Expanding on these efforts to include teaching more children about the risks of the Internet as well as instructing teenagers on the dangers of drunk driving and the consequences of social media can strengthen the special relationship cops have with kids. Also, the value of school resource officers is vital today as these men and women can grow from protectors to friends.
Question Our Drug Policy
This isn't intended as an argument supporting the legalization of drugs, but it's time to evaluate the success or failure of this effort of controlling drug use in our society and how police resources should be spent to eradicate this problem. Cops have been on the front lines of our nation's drug war and many of them have lost their lives bravely battling this scourge. More of their insight can help develop a strategy that evaluates when treatment takes precedence over incarceration and what can we do to decrease the demand.
New Patrol Strategies
We need to deeply consider new and unique patrol strategies where officers serve where they're most needed. One approach worth considering is saturating neighborhoods with a high volume of police personnel when crime gets out of control. Unfortunately, some residents will resent this special attention and compare it to a police state. Plenty of those trapped in neighborhoods controlled by gangs may have more gratitude. Cockroaches run when the lights get turned on, and thugs who prey on people may react the same way if they come under the blue glare of trained police officers.
Adding cops can cost money that many poorer municipalities may not have available. Those cities who do have money should be willing to share an officer or two for short periods of time. This isn't as difficult as it seems because many cities already have mutual aid contracts that allow them to assist each other when necessary.
Also, officers from a variety of agencies get assigned to federal or county task forces where they serve a larger audience. Wealthier communities must recognize that this is a good return on their tax dollar because criminals are already spilling over into their neighborhoods from crime-ridden areas. Control bad guys there and they may see less of them on their streets.
More foot and bike patrols can go along way toward helping officers connect with those they protect and serve. Both styles of patrol can be effective in stopping certain types of crime and increasing field intelligence. Trying to find new and more effective patrol strategies should be a regular effort of any police agency that should solicit the views of those it serves.
Whether it involves complaints against officers or the status of investigations, more transparency from police leadership could make a difference in building citizens' confidence in its public servants without compromising these investigations.
There are certainly times when quick answers are not available. There are other times that police have a good idea about what happened and can provide information about the progress in a case. People know that they can't get all the information right away. If they are constantly told that a matter is under investigation, some may begin to feel that something is being covered up.
For cops, trust is power. It is both the foundation and the framework of a successful mission of service and with it, officers can prevent more crime and better protect people. Trust can enhance the symbiotic relationship between the server and the served, which is why it is the most important tool on any officer's duty belt.
Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer, and certified law enforcement executive.