How winning an art contest connected me to the community I serve
Police leaders would be wise to cultivate the intrinsic skills and talents of their officers in purposeful ways to fortify meaningful connections with communities
By Elizabeth Prillinger
Several years ago, I was assigned to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco as a Foot Beat Officer. For those not familiar with Haight-Ashbury, it lies in the geographic center of San Francisco, a city of sweeping vistas covered by a soft blanket of slowly ever-shifting fog.
“The Haight,” as it is called affectionately by those drawn to this eclectic neighborhood, was the historic epicenter of 1967’s Summer of Love and the associated cultural shifts, iconoclastic music, politics and art that came to define an era that forever changed the American ethos. I took pride in the opportunity to be a Foot Beat Officer in this incredibly diverse neighborhood, walking the streets, talking to the people and being a small part of the community itself. I already had quite a bit of experience working patrol throughout San Francisco, but I particularly loved this assignment because it provided the greatest lessons in community policing.
One event that epitomizes the eclectic, bohemian culture of the region is the annual Haight Ashbury Street Fair. Thousands of people show up every year to listen to live music and celebrate the vibrant history and culture of this street. As a Foot Beat Officer, I worked this illustrious fair for several years, so I know how culturally relevant it is to San Francisco.
An art connection
There was always a poster contest associated with the Haight Ashbury Street Fair that reflected the stylistic qualities of the seminal concert graphics of the 1960s. As a law enforcement officer, many people might assume my only passion in life is penal codes, but I also have a substantial background in art, with a master’s in fine arts from San Francisco Art Institute, Painting and Drawing. I decided to submit some original artwork to the poster contest. My design was loosely inspired by the graphic vernacular of concert posters from the Summer of Love era and the seminal band posters from the Fillmore music hall.
For two years in a row (2015 and 2016) I submitted original designs for the Haight Street fair poster competitions, which were decided by public vote. Miraculously I won. It was incredibly moving that the people in the very neighborhood I served chose my artwork to represent this major San Francisco event
It was so cool to be in uniform and sign posters at the fair. A lot of people could not wrap their heads around the fact that the poster was designed by a cop and were shocked that I was in the booth signing posters. When the local newspaper covered the contest in 2015, some people had a hard time accepting that a cop could also be an artist.
As I think about winning these poster contests, I know it was a unique moment in time, when multiple sides of my persona visibly merged in the diverse work I do. While this simple poster contest did not represent any great act of bravery or astounding investigative ability, it had a resounding impact on my relationships with people in the neighborhood.
People saw that I reflected their values, and they respected my personal involvement in their activities. Perhaps they saw it as a way of showing that I cared enough about the neighborhood to insert my own creativity into the environment.
To this day, I think my greatest professional success was as a Foot Beat Officer in the Haight-Ashbury because I was able to create and sustain myriad complex relationships on the street while performing my job as a law enforcement officer.
Humanizing police officers
As officers, we sometimes struggle to be seen as having a human side with an endless variety of unexpected talents and abilities beyond the irrefutably serious responsibilities that come with our uniforms. While a significant part of police work involves and mandates the enforcement of laws and ensuring public safety, a significant scope of what we do also requires immense sensitivity, empathy, some humor, relatability and a profound respect for humanity. In every station I’ve worked, I have been blown away by the surprising gifts and interests of my colleagues. We are not just uniforms, but teachers, chefs, musicians, writers, yogis, mechanics, gardeners, coaches, carpenters and martial artists – all individuals with unique histories, voices and experiences. Our strengths and vulnerabilities make us human.
Police leaders would be wise to cultivate the intrinsic skills and talents of their officers in purposeful ways, which could fortify meaningful connections with the communities we serve. Our humanity, if better recognized and supported by our leadership, could be the key that helps us unlock collaborative community partnerships that are central to 21st-century policing.
Promoting officer resilience
Encouraging individuals to pursue their interests and thrive within their commitment to policing can also promote and foster officer wellness and resilience, especially in a profession that is fraught with a high incidence of suicide and trauma. Hobbies and passions are not trivial distractions but can help us metabolize stress and feel good.
I believe there are many enormously positive and extraordinary stories of kindness and heroism that go unheard and under-reported. Police are human and not immune to the worries and concerns that affect us all, and pervasive negativity can shut down a person’s spirit. It is that human light, that spirit that burns inside first responders, which should be cultivated and preserved, not allowed to slip into darkness.
Over the past few years, in the face of significant adversity, cops show up every day trying to do their best under difficult, uncertain and unprecedented circumstances. Yes, we have unbelievably serious jobs and we are held to a higher standard for many important reasons. It is also true that the greatest qualities we bring to this profession are our individual experiences and unique perspectives that enable us to build connections with people. These connections can help raise communities up and resolve public safety issues. These connections can forge trust and help people in times of crisis. These connections can convey procedural justice and fuel the spirit of collaboration. An officer’s basic humanity is the heart of this great profession.
About the author
Elizabeth Prillinger is a San Francisco police officer with over 16 years of experience in a wide range of challenging law enforcement assignments. She is currently assigned to the Crisis Intervention Team Field Unit where she has demonstrated a profound commitment to public safety and collaboration. She is also a member of the Hostage Negotiation Team, where she serves as an Assistant Team Lead.
Throughout her assignments on uniformed patrol, in plainclothes, and as a foot beat officer in the Haight-Ashbury, Elizabeth has taken great pride in her service to the many communities of San Francisco. Elizabeth also served with distinction on the Mayor’s Security Detail for both Mayor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Edwin Lee. Elizabeth Prillinger is also a Certified Forensic Artist for Law Enforcement.