How small town chiefs can connect with the 'hidden public'

How police leaders can locate and establish relationships with the “hidden” population in a small town


There’s an old cartoon that reads “There isn’t much to be seen in a small town, but what you hear makes up for it!” Truer words were never spoken, and yet many of the words spoken in small towns never make it to the local newspaper, public hearings or town council meetings. 

In any small jurisdiction, law enforcement leaders are well aware of the “public voices.” They are frequently seen and heard at town council meetings, voicing their personal grievances. They are the local politicians, and the “unique” citizens who boisterously express concerns about everything from UFOs to government mind control. They’re the squeaky wheels that get the grease (and drain the resources of the department).

Despite the attention that public voices demand, the voices effective law enforcement administrators must listen to often come from the silent majority — the members of the public who don’t air their grievances in  public forums. Who are they, and why don’t they go public with their feedback?

Seek Out Business Owners and Retirees
Among those who tend to be silent in public forums, two groups that can provide invaluable information to law enforcement are business owners and senior citizens. Establishing solid relationships with each group can greatly facilitate the law enforcement administrator having a direct line on what’s really happening in the jurisdiction.

Local business owners are frequently a hidden population. In many instances in small towns, local business owners have a more-than-full-time job just trying to keep their doors open. They have no job security, and are well aware that their very survival depends on keeping their business afloat in a continually diminishing small-town economy. 

Do they have concerns about things in the community other than their business? Of course they do, but they’ve probably got a lot of other issues that are of higher priority (like business survival), and there are only so many hours in the day. Don’t wait for them to come to you with their concerns — go to them. Make it a regular practice to drop in on local businesses at least once a week and chat with the owner for a few minutes. It won’t take many visits before they begin to share with you their concerns and observations about the jurisdiction.

Similarly, senior citizens are a hidden population — particularly those who have retired. They are not only fantastic repositories of all they have heard and observed, but all their families have heard and observed! They may be at a point in their life that they aren’t willing to speak out at a town council meeting, or write a letter to the editor, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what’s going on in the community. An issue or event that impacts their child or grandchild impacts them, and they’re frequently not reticent at all about talking about it in an informal setting. The administrator who establishes a viable, communicative relationship with the senior citizens in his or her town will have a direct conduit to not only what’s happening in town, but what’s important to the citizens as a whole.

Establishing Relationships
In many small jurisdictions, there are senior center close by where seniors may gather once a week or more for lunch and/or activities. Go regularly and make a regular five-minute presentation of any scams happening in the area to  watch for, and make yourself available to answer questions. Write down complaints and follow up on them. You’ll quickly establish your validity as someone who actually listens, cares, and makes an effort.

For the seniors who don’t come to the senior center, look for restaurants and coffee shops where elderly citizens tend to gather to chat. Getting accepted — and ultimately included — in these clique clubs may take a bit of effort, but the rewards are significant. A friend of mine became the chief of a neighboring jurisdiction, and faced a couple of immediate hurdles: 

1. He wasn’t from the area
2. He wasn’t part of the majority racial demographic of that jurisdiction

He learned that a group of senior men met each morning for coffee and a biscuit at the local fast food place. He got into uniform, went to the restaurant, got a coffee and biscuit, greeted the men and sat a respectable distance from the group — close enough to hear, but not so close as to be perceived as intruding. He finished his breakfast, wished the men a good day, and left. 

A few days later he returned and repeated the process. This time he stepped over to the group and introduced himself. They invited him to join them at the table, and the rest is productive history. By showing the men respect and not immediately intruding upon their ritual, he quickly gained admission and acceptance. 

But these coffee klatches are often predominately male — what of the senior females? The answer is often found in church. As a law enforcement administrator, particularly in a small jurisdiction, visiting every church in or near town is essential to meeting and establishing a connection with the community you serve. 

You won’t need to wear your uniform for the service — go in normal civilian clothes. In a small jurisdiction, those in the church will immediately recognize that you’re a guest and approach you. That will afford you the opportunity to explain who you are, that you want to meet members of the community, signal your accessibility, and establish significant relationships with many of those in the community whose voices are not normally heard. Religious leaders are frequently unofficial community leaders, and often are a pretty good barometer of public opinion.

Approaching Children and Minorities 
There are likely other “hidden voices” in your community — children and ethnic minorities, for example. With kids, you can begin to establish communication with by spending time in their schools in a role other than authority figure. Become a lunch buddy and have lunch with a class once or twice a week. Create a “Caught Being Good” program, where officers reward kids with a treat when they’re caught wearing their bicycle helmet or some other positive action. 

In a previous jurisdiction, I began going to the soccer games that the Latino residents would have each Sunday afternoon, rain or shine. Initially there was concern that I was there in a law enforcement capacity, and they were both suspicious and fearful. It took a little while, but ultimately my standing on the sidelines, cheering and waving my arms with the rest of the spectators, reduced their fears, granted me acceptance, and ultimately bore great fruit.

To establish a relationship with that “hidden” population, identify who they are, what they do, and when they do it. Seek them out in an open and honest manner, and you’ll soon learn both what’s important to the members of your community, and what’s going on in that community. 

I guarantee you’ll be surprised by all you’ll learn!

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