By Haywood Irving
Community policing is not complex. It involves the community and the police coming together to get to know, trust and relate to one another with respect.
For the two to come together, it makes the most sense for the police to initiate the relationship at a basic level: one on one. This goes back to a time in policing where the beat cop got out of the station to walk the beat, waving, greeting and talking to people as they moved through their day. The modern “police station” is the patrol car, and it is urgent we change our culture to get out of our vehicles to interact with our community and, when we cannot, we at least wave.
Now is the time to enact policies that outline simple ways to interact with the public. Mandated or suggested ideas generally become part of our policies and procedures. Review your department's policy on community policing and officers' personal, daily interactions with the public. Do you have specific expectations and standards for your officers to facilitate easy, successful public interactions? One simple approach is “Operation Wave and Get Out.”
A gesture of goodwill
There is a misguided belief that money is needed to make changes in government. But it does not always take money to change the culture of officers and the police department.
One obstacle between police and the community is that civilians often do not experience our humanity. In some neighborhoods more than others, the residents do not see our good side. We are not viewed as friendly, empathetic protectors, but oppressors disinterested in their lives. What if we could change how we are viewed through repeated gestures of kindness and caring and score a cost-free, public relations win-win?
The hand wave has an unclear origin but is believed to have originated as a salute from one knight to another to show they come in peace. Fast forward to the modern-day knight, the law enforcement officer, where a wave from a cop says “I come in peace” to the public. It says, “I pose no threat and I come seeking friendship, not to harm you.” The wave is a way to disarm any discomfort the public may feel around the police. The wave from the officer says to the public, “I am approachable” and is an invitation to come together.
When I was on my department's Crime Suppression Team, one of the officers who was having more complaints than normal and a poor attitude toward those who lived in the neighborhoods we worked in, was assigned as my partner. One of the things I told him we were going to do was to wave at the children and adults we passed while either driving or on foot. I jokingly called this “Operation Wave.”
At first, only a few people would wave back; many would look at us with confusion. After a month or so, though, especially in the neighborhoods we were frequently in, my partner began to notice that people were waving at us first. Not just a few people, but just about anyone we came across waved, smiled at us or had something positive to say to us. His attitude changed, and the way people interacted with us changed.
Just through the minor gesture of a simple wave, we created a positive encounter between the community and the police. This in turn changed their attitude from seeing officers as an occupying force to being there for them and their safety. For any agency of any size to simply wave at the public would only cost the effort of getting officers to raise their hands.
Operation Get Out
“Operation Get Out” is something I have done for 23 years. Some of the public only see officers arresting and using force against people in their neighborhoods, especially in high-crime locations. They do not believe we are there for them, and we disrespect them by not even taking the time to acknowledge them with some type of gesture (wave, head nod, or greeting). How would you feel if day after day, year after year, someone passes you and never acknowledges you?
With “Operation Get Out,” if I am driving in a neighborhood and see kids throwing a football, playing basketball, or just out, I just get out of my vehicle to throw a ball around, shoot some baskets, or chat with them for a few minutes.
If I am leaving a house, business, or building from a call and do not have another call to go to, I greet anyone I come across. If I have time, I might stop, introduce myself and talk with people for a short period.
On our beats, we should walk into businesses and introduce ourselves, and let owners and customers know we are there for them. When we see gatherings in neighborhood parks, we should do the same thing. These small gestures go a long way to humanize us.
While we do community outreach programs, the impact is small in terms of the number of people we encounter. On the other hand, on calls for service, proactive activity and detective follow-ups, we come across hundreds of thousands of people each year. Imagine if an agency of any size, on every call, on every follow-up or contact, 365 days a year waved or got out of their cars and in some way interacted with the public. In short order, we would impact a very sizable portion of our population as humans, and not as enforcers of the law. We would no longer just be patrol cars, guns and badges, but become real people to our public and garner their respect and trust.
Implementation is simple and personal
Let us not complicate the simple during our implementation of such initiatives. Questions of when to wave or acknowledge the public will probably arise. The simple answer is if you can see community members, wave, or acknowledge them. If you have time, and you see children playing basketball, throwing a football, or hanging out, get out and play with them. If residents are out, or a business is open, stop for a moment to chat.
Here is the simplicity of this policing: If you are stopped at a light, every car that pulls alongside you, wave to them. If someone passes in front of you in the crosswalk, are standing on the corner, or walking by, wave. If you are entering or exiting for a store to get coffee, try to acknowledge everyone you pass as you enter and leave. When you arrive and leave a call in a neighborhood, wave and acknowledge everyone you see. If time warrants, stop, introduce yourself, and talk to the public.
With our public image at an all-time low, let us identify those areas where we can improve police-community relationships that are easy and inexpensive. Wave and get out, not just for the community, but for all of us.
NEXT: Why we need to humanize law enforcement (and how to do it)
About the author
Haywood Irving has been with the Fresno (California) Police Department for 23 years and is currently a detective. He worked patrol for the first eight years of his career, three of them as a Field Training Officer. He was assigned to a District Crime Suppression Team for six and has been a detective for the past nine years where he has worked robberies, property crimes, hate crimes and crimes against persons. He has received numerous commendations, including the Medal of Valor Under Mortal danger for leading an ad hoc rescue team of officers who responded to two officers that had been shot while under fire from the suspect. He served in the United States Air Force for six years achieving the rank of Staff Sergeant.