Perception vs. reality (Surprise, they’re one and the same)

To build a diverse community of LE advocates, focus on engaging with people who don’t understand policing or don’t share your viewpoint


So often police leaders lament that their community members don’t understand why officers take certain actions in situations, such as the classic, “Why couldn’t you just shoot the gun out of his hand?” argument.

While Hollywood plays a big role in how people perceive police, much of the responsibility falls to police leaders and communicators to explain and define situations, rather than simply defend actions as “right” or “justified.” Defending actions won’t work, especially if your community doesn’t understand the how and why behind those actions.

This brings up an interesting dilemma for police chiefs: How can chiefs address both perceptions and realities of police work? How do you affect perceptions of your community while addressing the realities of difficult situations?

How can chiefs address both perceptions and realities of police work?
How can chiefs address both perceptions and realities of police work? (Getty Images)

Understand that we each have our own reality

Let’s start with the basic tenet that is the title of this article. Reality is what a person perceives to be true. Presenting to Canadian police chiefs in 2019, Anishinaabe Nation Elder Dave Courchene said, “When you talk about the truth, whose truth are you talking about?” Think about that for a moment. While police officers are educated, trained and skill-tested on de-escalation techniques, safety tactics and how to safely make an arrest, your community is not.

Each person in your community sees police action through their own lens. Those lenses are affected by myriad personal biases and experiences including gender, age, race, culture, faith, education, where they live, how they grew up, political viewpoints, what they watch on television, and previous personal, family and friends’ interactions with law enforcement.

Let’s talk about TV for a moment. Police dramas and local television news exploit sensationalism for ratings. Over the past two decades, television has shifted its depiction of police from the “good guys” of “Adam 12“ and “Dragnet“ to the anti-heroes we see in shows like “Hill Street Blues,“ “Chicago PD“ and “The Wire.“ The public thinks it understands police work from the skewed portrayal by Hollywood, traditional news media and whatever social media feeds they follow. Fictional dramas show police with technology that most do not have, working from lavish settings and reaching outside the limits of constitutionality. Reality? Not a chance.

Have uncomfortable conversations

So back to the original question: How can we better gain our community’s trust and true understanding of the why and how of what we are doing?

First off, most communities have a foundation of supporters who trust the police implicitly. Police leaders enjoy meeting with these folks at “Coffee with a Cop” events. While those civic engagements are important, law enforcement leaders must get better at addressing the uncomfortable conversations with people who do not trust the police or even like them.

Shortly after Anthony Batts became police commissioner in Baltimore in 2012, he hosted two meetings. One was with a group of about 25 young Black men. It was just him and these men who had strong feelings about the police in the city. He asked, “What percent of cops do you think are good?” One young man said, “About 75%.” Tony responded that was good. The young man replied, “No, about 75% are bad.”

Later in the year Commissioner Batts sat with others from his command staff on a stage in a community hall and listened for hours while person after person expressed their pain, anger and fears about police and public safety. Those were hard but necessary conversations for the new commissioner. It was the beginning of building trust. Truly, engaged listening – which often is not easy – is the first step to building bridges between differing perceptions.

Focus on the skeptics

While engaging with supporters where trust is high is comfortable and listening to “screamers” where trust is non-existent is not, it’s the middle “S’s” a police leader should focus on, and those people are the skeptics, the straddlers and sympathizers. Sympathizers may not always trust the police but are empathetic to the job cops do. Straddlers can go either way on an issue, but they’re not fully engaged. It’s the skeptics that chiefs should seek out. Skeptics are engaged and conversion theory suggests, if you can prove something to a skeptic using facts and communicating the way they want, you will convert them from skeptics to supporters.

Chiefs should seek to engage with the skeptics in their community.
Chiefs should seek to engage with the skeptics in their community. (Graphic/Dr. Terry Flynn, APR, FCPRS, McMaster University)

Let’s take the skeptic who thinks cops should be able to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Knowing that facts and experience can alter perceptions, invite the skeptic to watch training, participate in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, and provide statistics on the accuracy of being able to shoot such a tiny target while heart rates and stress are high and both people with guns are moving. If they refuse to participate, identify someone who the skeptic trusts (it’s not you) to participate. Let them tell your story.

Third-party endorsers are some of the best ways to change opinion. There are times that it is best to be quiet and let the groundswell of supporters and true advocates speak for you. However, police must work to build that foundation of advocates across their diverse communities.

Create a community of advocates

Every police leader should work toward creating a community of advocates for public safety. After all, public safety is a shared responsibility. This is accomplished by leading your community through the five stages of engagement: awareness, appreciation, acknowledgment, action and finally advocacy.

A survey of Canadians in 2019 showed 32% of people didn’t know enough or didn’t know what to think of their police. If people don’t know or understand you, bad news creates a negative opinion. If people already know you and have a good opinion of your agency, bad news doesn’t affect them. Goes back to the old adage, “It’s hard to hate up close.”

Bottom line, focus on engaging with people who don’t understand policing, or who don’t share your viewpoint or perceptions. Get out into your community, meet with people, establish community advisory boards made up of people who don’t think or look like you. Create this group of advocates who can then go back to their unique communities and be your third-party endorser. They may be able to gain trust where you cannot.

Show don’t tell

Another strategy focuses on the fact that people believe what they see before what they hear. Explaining a use of force in a news release or news conference will not take an agency far in the trust department, especially with a skeptical audience. Body-worn camera video is a game-changer in this field. Proactively release BWC footage whenever possible. Some chiefs will experience significant pushback from their legal departments, but district and state’s attorneys across the country are recognizing the value in de-escalating community tensions with the release of footage in questionable incidents. Don’t edit use of force videos you post. You may want to do a quick 30-second compilation but post the entire viewable video to allow people to see the incident for themselves at every angle. One edit makes skeptics think, “What did they take out? Why didn’t they show that?”  

Let your community inside

Also, be as transparent as possible all the time. Technology allows police to post reams of information to allow your community to see the “inside workings” of the department. Cries of “defund the police” may not be as loud if everyone in your community understood that salaries make up more than 90% of your budgets and that cutting budgets will likely result in delayed 9-1-1 response, a reduction of critical training, and fewer less-lethal options on hand.

Posting patrol guides, department demographics, calls for service (of course keeping in mind protection of privacy) and training records (what training members get each year) will help educate your community about your agency. The more your community understands your department, the less uneducated questions you will get. By the way, that education and communication must extend not only to your community but to the media, your elected officials and internal audiences as well.

Take the heat

Lastly, when there is an incident involving employee malfeasance, get out in front of it immediately. As famed football coach Bear Bryant said, “In crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.” As painful as it may be, stand up, take the heat, show you care about the issue, let your community know what you are doing about it, and reinforce what your agency stands for.

At the end of the day, the misperceptions your community has about your agency have often been fed by decades of various perception-producing lenses. Police leaders must recognize that better communication and engagement is the key to alleviating the unknowns and to creating a diverse community of educated public safety advocates.

NEXT: Keep your community informed with a transparency hub

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