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Why your police department needs a brand

To create greater community engagement, increase retention and improve recruitment, every police agency should develop and capitalize on their own brand


It is your agency’s brand that differentiates you from any one of the other 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States.


Every organization has a brand. Great organizations understand and strategically control and shape their brands to enhance their value proposition. Branding defines an organization’s core mission to both employees and the public. The importance of effective branding cannot be overstated.

A good brand is all-encompassing, creating a desirable emotional image and physical response when you think of that brand. For instance, mention Nike and the “swoosh” logo or “Just Do It” tagline come to mind. Likewise, think Starbucks and you see the image of a mermaid with Starbucks Coffee around the edges.

Private sector companies understand the power of differentiation as a necessity for their own survival. To create greater community engagement, increase retention and improve recruitment, every law enforcement agency should understand how to develop and capitalize on their own brand.

Public safety brands

Law enforcement’s business is safety and our product is providing protection to the citizens we serve.

“To Protect and to Serve” became the LAPD’s motto in 1955 and, since then, has become a tagline adopted by police departments around the country. But a tagline is different from a brand. It is your agency’s brand that differentiates you from any one of the other 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States. In these trying times, it is imperative agencies develop and own their brands.

For simple examples of branding think about the visceral response you have when summoning up the image of the Texas Ranger of the Old West. A desired image is a key consideration in developing an organization’s brand. Consider how the United States military has effectively branded organizations for decades. The use of slogans such as “Be All You Can Be” and “The Few. The Proud,” and symbols like Green Berets or images of Navy SEALS, are interwoven with stories from veterans to create a sense of pride and value in one’s mind. Such branding is also a call to action – to join and become a member of the team.

Brands have internal and external impacts

Your brand has an impact internally, as well as externally. A well-developed brand helps engage current employees and assists in recruiting individuals who embrace the agency’s mission, vision and values. It helps in turning away applicants who are not a good fit or who may even harm a forward-thinking agency.

When the agency and its frontline people internalize the promises inferred by the brand it helps create positive relationships within the communities and businesses.

Who will control your messaging?

Brands have their own momentum; once moving they are difficult to alter in direction. Will you control your messaging, or will you allow outsiders to control what people think and feel about your agency? An agency either owns or shapes its brand, or it allows others and events to create the brand and layer it upon an agency. Agencies that ignore their brand do so at their peril.

Agency administrators must shape their call to action. What do they want citizens to know or do? Your credibility is on the line and eventually, you will have to show concrete examples supporting your statements.

What is your agency’s value proposition?

As part of any public safety branding initiative, consider your agency’s value proposition. Does it raise the level of safety people feel when looking to relocate to the community, or as a place to start a small business or expand a current one, or does it persuade them to look elsewhere or move away? Do the residents of your communities feel pride or anxiety when they see your officers?

If possible, get help when your agency begins a branding campaign. To save time and reduce cost, begin with a deep dig into your organization to determine what really differentiates it from others. Begin by asking simple questions:

  • Why does our department exist?
  • How does it fulfill the promise set out in the rationale for its existence?
  • What makes us different from other departments in the area?
  • What would happen if our agency did not exist?
  • How does our agency improve lives?
  • What are our core values and how are they incorporated into our brand?
  • What mechanisms will we use to help officers internalize the brand?
  • How is our agency perceived by the citizens? Are they pleased or apprehensive when they see officers on patrol, and does it change depending on location within your jurisdiction?
  • Are we more focused on enforcement of law or community support, or a combination of the two?

Once your agency determines the nature of the brand that works best, how do you reach out and communicate with different community groups? Perception matters. The landing page of your website or social media can have a significant impact on the perception of your agency from outsiders.

If citizens are already apprehensive of the police it is best not to feature a SWAT truck on your website’s landing page. A photo showing officers in a relaxed stance in class B uniforms or a bike team wearing shorts on bicycles presents a different message than an armored vehicle. A landing page with officers and citizens pictured working together on a project shows commitment to the community. Each of the above creates a different emotional impact.

Communication strategies must evolve

With the advent of social media, messaging to current officers, potential recruits, citizens and businesses requires forethought. Everything you say may be taken down and used against you. Communication strategies must evolve as changing demographics occur in your communities. Agencies not only have to tailor their messages differently, but also research how citizens communicate. Questions to ask include:

  • Does word of mouth work?
  • Do pamphlets need to be written in English and Spanish?
  • Should most communication happen through social media? If so, which platform and style?

The impact and use of color and fonts should also be considered in your messaging and micro-messaging efforts.

To create trust, be meaningful to communities and avoid the perception of being an occupying force, law enforcement agencies must understand the impact of branding. Like it or not, all agencies carry a brand. For it to be a positive one and work as a force multiplier, it needs to have a strategy for implementation. Agencies that control and strategically shape their brands successfully enhance their value proposition for the betterment of employees, businesses and communities they serve.

NEXT: Establishing a brand for your agency is easier than it sounds

Lieutenant W. Michael Phibbs has more than 28 years of experience in law enforcement. He is a member of the Central Virginia Type 3 All-Hazard Incident Management Team and is qualified as an Operations Section Chief and an Air Operations Branch Director. He has worked in those roles in national, regional, state and local events and disasters.