DC’s Special Liaison Branch builds positive police-public relations
“The SLB is all about having officers who understand and mirror the communities that they serve.”
It’s the kind of police-public interaction video that police chiefs love to see.
Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) released a video of their officers during the 2022 Capital Pride Parade. Some MPD officers are interacting with the crowd in a fun and friendly manner. Others are just keeping an eye on things, their relaxed yet attentive postures communicating a sense of calm vigilance. Overall, the MPD officers look comfortable with the people watching the crowd, and vice versa. It’s an example of effective community policing in action.
This low-key posture is due to the hard work of the MPD’s Special Liaison Branch (SLB). It leads the MPD’s constructive outreach to historically underserved communities, such as DC’s African-American, Asian, deaf and hard of hearing, interfaith, LGBTQ+, and Latino communities. The SLB was formed in the wake of the 1991 Mount Pleasant riot, a days-long confrontation between the MPD and the District’s Latino community. Following that riot, the MPD formed a Latino Liaison Branch, adding outreach programs to other minority communities until all of the programs were centralized under the SLB in 2009.
“We pride ourselves as being the model of community policing,” Captain David Hong says, who heads up the SLB’s 13-officer unit. “Our biggest mission and goal is to make sure that we're bridging any gaps between the communities and the police.”
An inclusive approach to community policing
Through the work of its core officers and trained "affiliate" officers throughout, the SLB builds bridges with underserved communities in Washington DC. This bridge-building starts with the wide number of languages spoken by these officers, which is bolstered by cultural training with respect to the many communities that they serve. This ability to speak to Washingtonians of all kinds enhances the MPD’s ability to serve and protect the entire population, both during conventional incidents and the hate crimes that minorities too often endure.
“The SLB is all about having officers who understand and mirror the communities that they serve,” Captain Hong said. “Since DC's such a melting pot with so many different nationalities and ethnicities we make sure to provide the best police services to the District as a whole.”
As a second-generation Asian-American, Captain Hong personally understands what it is like to be policed by people who know nothing of one’s language and culture. “My parents owned a beauty supply store in upstate New York, and we were calling the police all the time,” he said. “I can tell you of countless times when we were victims of hate crimes, robberies violence, whatever the case may have been, that when we called the police, it was like there was no connection there. They were coming to our store just going through the motions – it was never real – and they only came when there was an emergency. The local police made no effort to get to know us as fellow citizens.”
The MPD’s SLB takes an entirely different approach to community policing. “We're building relationships with the communities we serve,” Captain Hong said. “We’re not just there when you call 911. We’re dropping by to see how you're doing, we're checking in on you to make sure you’re okay. We’re getting to know you, and you us.”
Informed by training
Enabling culturally appropriate police-public communications and support is one of the SLB’s most important duties.
“Say an officer responds to robbery of a transgender community member,” Captain Hong noted. “One of our LGBTQ+ liaison unit affiliates, hearing that call on the radio, will go to that scene. They'll know what resources they can provide that transgender community member, whether it be nonprofit organizations, connections with the Mayor's office, and the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants that they learn from us.”
With only 13 core officers on the SLB roster, it is vital to the Branch’s mission to share knowledge across the entire MPD. This is where the SLB’s affiliate officers come in. They volunteer to take a week of specialized training on diverse communities, their particular issues, and how to best serve them. This is followed up by affiliates being assigned to SLB for a four-week "immersion detail," working along with its full-time officers.
“The affiliates continue to work in their home district but receive coordinated support, information and training through the SLB,” Captain Hong said. “Together, our core members and affiliates enhance the MPD’s response to these communities throughout the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also reinforce the messages of progressive training, policies, and procedures to officers throughout the Department.”
In addition, SLB members provide cultural references to all new MPD recruits, while SLB-driven reminders are provided to all members at roll calls throughout the year.
Outreach to underserved communities
The SLB’s culturally informed responses to incidents affecting underserved communities, plus its ongoing efforts to build positive relationships through regular social contact, are at the heart of the MPD’s provision of community policing to all of Washington, DC. “The SLB also assists the community with incidents that are not necessarily criminal, such as helping to locate missing persons or with death notifications to family members,” Captain Hong said.
As well, the Branch hosts and participates in meetings and presentations, and provides the community with public safety materials and information. These efforts include monthly meetings with LGBTQ+ community advocates that are focussed on violence prevention, regular appearances on Latino radio, and holding discussions with students about tolerance and safety. The SLB also steps up when hate and bias-related crimes occur, delivering the informed communications and relevant support that community victims need.
“It is just as important to build constructive relationships with underserved communities as it is to answer 911 calls,” Captain Hong said. “That's the mentality of the Metropolitan Police Department, not just the SLB. This is why we have outstanding programs and great outreach units within the District to constantly build these relationships because we know how difficult it can be for officers to get past the distrust that some people have for law enforcement.”
An option for all departments
The SLB’s community outreach efforts are delivering positive results for the MPD, its officers and the many communities that they serve. It’s an approach that other departments can adopt, Captain Hong said.
“I understand that small towns might not have the resources that the DC police does, but that doesn't mean that you can't have community engagement officers,” he said. “All you need to do to make this happen is to identify the officers on your roster who go around connecting with the communities they serve and let them fulfill this function on a daily basis. In fact, every single officer in your police department should be community-oriented because, at the end of the day, that's the way policing should be.”
To pick Captain Hong’s mind about the SLB and how your department can build better relationships with underserved communities, drop him a line at SLB.firstname.lastname@example.org.