How to build bridges through community policing
Police officers serve their communities in three fundamental ways – as warriors, servants and leaders
By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
The divide between police and community has become so severe that some towns and cities have suspended or altogether disbanded their police departments over allegations of racism, misconduct and controversy.
“Communities are getting so fed up with how bad and dysfunctional their police departments are that they’re firing entire departments and contracting out to a sheriff’s department or some other agency to provide police services,” explained Pat Welsh, a 26-year veteran police officer.
Camden, New Jersey was one such city to disband its entire police department in 2013 before rebuilding it from the ground up, with a renewed focus on community policing. This shift in strategy has been credited as the reason Camden, often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.
According to Welsh, community policing is key to rebuilding trust in police officers. However, there is more to community policing than protecting and serving. With this in mind, Welsh designed a training course for military and civilian law enforcement that emphasizes three fundamental roles of police officers: warrior, servant and leader. He also authored a book that elaborates on these principles called "Warrior-Servant-Leader: Life Behind the Badge."
Being a Warrior, Servant and Leader
“As a warrior, as a cop, you must conduct yourself with deep and unwavering commitment to what is right and just,” said Welsh. This doesn’t just apply to enforcing the law, but also to ensuring other officers act as they should and uphold their responsibilities. “When you see another cop abuse a citizen, it’s unacceptable to do nothing.”
In addition, Welsh reminds officers that a warrior does not necessarily need to engage in physical confrontation. “We train and test cops on the law, which is very black and white,” said Welsh. “Yes, there are times we’re going to need to be enforcers, but we can’t go treating everybody like they’re criminals.”
Officers need to know when and how to use force when appropriate, of course, but it’s just as important for agencies to train officers on using de-escalation techniques. Welsh recalled one incident where, rather than using force as was the original plan, he convinced his sergeant to let him approach and talk to an emotionally disturbed man. Welsh managed to persuade the man to cooperate before transporting him to the hospital for evaluation. “Talking, not being an enforcer, saved several folks from getting injured that night,” he said.
In order to serve, officers must put the needs of other people ahead of their own. “Cops tend to be good at the protecting part, but not so good at the serving part,” said Welsh. “They’re used to giving orders and they become more focused on being message-driven and less focused on connecting with people and developing relationships.”
Officers should be role models and are in a position to serve the public, both when they’re on duty and off. There are plenty of ways for officers to volunteer, be present in the community, and give back. “If you’re looking for opportunities to serve, you’ll find more of them,” said Welsh.
He shared that one of the best opportunities he had while working with the Colorado Springs Police Department was volunteering at the Marian House Soup Kitchen, preparing and serving over 600 meals for disadvantaged members of the community. “You gain a greater appreciation for the hardships others face, but also for the blessings in your own life,” said Welsh.
While it may seem counterintuitive, Welsh insists that new police officers shouldn’t always aim to replicate the actions or approach of veteran officers. “The danger is that some veteran officers lose sight of why they became cops,” said Welsh. “Most cops start out wanting to help people, but five years later, the reason they’re going to work is to put people in jail or get their next paycheck.”
Welsh explained that bad leadership stems from veteran officers becoming disillusioned with the job and bringing that mindset to work can negatively impact newer officers. He recommends officers regularly check in with themselves by asking how their thoughts, words and actions are influencing those around them.
Regardless of rank, Welsh encourages all officers to strive to be coaches to one another on a daily basis. “Leadership has nothing to do with all the bars and stripes on your uniform,” he said. “If you have influence, you’re a leader. It’s often the cops in lower ranks, who are out in the community, who end up having the most influence on the public.”
Changing Police Culture
To really rebuild trust in police officers, there needs to be a greater focus on changing police culture, which Welsh believes sets the foundation for building a better relationship with the community. “The culture is what drives the ‘us versus them’ mentality and relates to how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with the public,” he said. “We need to focus on creating a strong and healthy culture rather than on mission statements because true policing goes beyond protecting and serving.”
Welsh defines police culture as the accepted way of thinking, believing and behaving among officers. He points to several unwritten, but widely embedded, beliefs such as the “code of silence” and “thin blue line” that are detrimental to the way officers approach both the job and citizens. “We need to get rid of that mindset because it drives a wedge between us and the community,” said Welsh. “Cops aren’t just enforcers, but problem solvers and carers.”
Making such a monumental change to culture can actually be a fairly simple task and something every officer should contribute to. Much of an officer’s job involves communicating with victims, witnesses and suspects, as well as other officers. Officers need to take more time and put in more effort to employ empathy when engaging with others. Such a practice not only improves officers’ ability to deescalate situations when needed, but it also greatly influences the way the public interacts with them.
“It will radically change how the public perceives police,” said Welsh. “We need to show people that we do care about them and don’t just see them as problems. People won’t care about what a cop has to say to them, until they know the cop cares about them first.”
About the Author
Jinnie Chua is assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. She can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.