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Beyond ‘Thank you for your service': How to encourage citizen support of law enforcement officers

Nurturing positive community relationships is an integral part of maintaining a positive trajectory for police morale, enthusiasm and commitment

City of Mesa citizen academy.jpg

Joining with citizens who want to show their support can be more effective than expensive public relations programs.

City of Mesa PD

An essential of holistic wellness for police officers is their sense of appreciation from the community they serve. Surveys show there is a great deal of respect and trust in the competence and professionalism of most law enforcement agencies in most communities.

Despite controversies and headlines, agencies, officers and community members must make the most of these positive relationships as an integral part of maintaining a positive trajectory for officer morale, enthusiasm and commitment, as well as overall health.

Agencies can prompt the community members they serve to show support to law enforcement in a variety of ways.

Encourage communication

Civilians need to have an accessible way to give praise, ask questions and even criticize. Carefully curated social media is, of course, one path, but so are surveys, media appearances, tiplines and other venues.

Keeping anonymity when prudent, spread the word to encourage others to interact. One agency encourages the sign language of “I see you” or “thank you” to be displayed silently to officers as a way to say “thank you for your service” without approaching or interrupting an officer.

Allow volunteering

One of the recommendations to community members is to volunteer. Many are willing but they see no place for them.

Frankly, managing volunteers can be a headache, from doing background checks to scheduling. Find some tasks that are amenable to using volunteers on a regular basis or on-call. It could be knitting emergency comfort blankets, getting victim assistance training, crowd management, getting comfort items for lengthy deployments at a major event, compiling data, or even washing patrol cars.

Avoid being the agency that says no to a willing worker.

Citizen advisory board

Police leaders may bristle at the thought of civilian oversight, but why not take the initiative to gather groups to focus on specific concerns?

Park safety and community activities are two ideas for forming an advisory board. Making the board a temporary assignment rather than a standing committee can help manage the focus and outcome.

Avoid being the center of attention at the head of the table. Meeting at the agency building at least from time to time will give a sense of access and familiarity to civilians, but meeting off-site can help law enforcement participants engage more deeply in the community.

Create visible symbols of support

Many citizens are willing to risk using obviously pro-police bumper stickers and apparel, but some supporters have a legitimate fear of retaliation. Creating neutral paraphernalia for display can increase the number of people willing to share their support.

A bumper sticker that says “support quality law enforcement” is a little less militant than some other images or phrases. Creating a sticker with a plea for help with information and a hotline number, or some safety message with a badge logo can avoid some of the hostility from anti-police citizens.

Accept donations

Good citizens who want to pay for coffee or meals for officers often face rejection because of department policies against taking gratuities. Offer ways to let citizens help by advertising a need for comfort blankets or teddy bears for patrol cars, for school supplies for indigent children officers know about, gift cards to give out as awards or to other citizens in need, or a fundraiser for much-needed equipment.

Listen to your officers

Patrol officers know what generates affirmation and appreciation. Give them the opportunity to voice their thoughts on what would be a good way to encourage the public to voice support. Get their opinion on ride-alongs, citizen police academies and ways civilians can help. Offer opportunities for line officers to positively interact with their community.

Joining with citizens who want to show their support can be more effective than expensive public relations programs. The interest is already there in the community.

NEXT: 6 steps to hosting an effective community meeting

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.