IACP 2013: Former interim Chief of Sanford PD shares how to recover trust

Don’t wait until a critical incident happens before you establish partnerships in your community

The term “critical incident” often brings to mind mass-casualty events such as the Aurora movie theater shooting, Newtown school massacre, Boston Marathon bombings, and other horrific tragedies.

But Todd Miller, director of public safety in Mankato (Minn.) reminded attendees during an educational session at the 120th annual IACP Conference that critical incidents come in all sizes and varieties.

“Anything can create a critical incident in your community — it doesn’t matter where you are located, the size of your city, or the number involved,” he said. As demonstrated by the Trayvon Martin case, sometimes it only takes one person being killed to cause a critical incident in a community.

Richard Myers made a career out of listening to the community he served, whether Sanford (Fla.) or Colorado Springs, pictured, where he helped the city deal with the 2007 shooting at New Life Church.
Richard Myers made a career out of listening to the community he served, whether Sanford (Fla.) or Colorado Springs, pictured, where he helped the city deal with the 2007 shooting at New Life Church. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Tough Assignment for a New Skipper
Richard Myers knows the impacts of such a critical incident firsthand and shared his experience with an overflowing crowd during the IACP conference session “Newtown, Aurora, Oslo, Sanford: Strategies to Help Prevent, Deter, Respond and Recover from Critical Incidents and Threats in Your Community.“

For 11 months, Rick Myers served as the interim police chief in Sanford (Fla.), taking over after the department’s chief stepped aside.

“The dynamics of this case were similar to a mass-casualty event,” Myers recalled. “The media attention was severe and serious.”

Everywhere he went, there were 15 to 20 TV cameras following him. The way in which a chief copes with such a media frenzy is crucial, especially since the media’s portrayal will have a major impact on the reputation of the department and the community.

A huge asset to law enforcement agencies — as many well know — is social media. Agencies can push out their own story directly to the public, unfiltered by the media.

“But effectively using social media requires skill and strategy, and it requires the continual distribution of information and updates,” warned Myers.

In the Sanford case, Myers wasn’t just facing an onslaught of media attention. The Sanford Police Department itself was extremely dysfunctional.

For good reason: Myers was the fifth chief in less than two years.

“It was a ship without a rudder,” Myers candidly recalled.

How to Recover from a Critical Incident
Myers recommended that chiefs focus on building key partnerships and reaching out to organizations in the community. In Sanford, there was a long history of major disconnect and distrust between the police and the African American community, which was only amplified by the Trayvon Martin case. Myers worked to reach out to faith-based organizations and other community entities to start establishing those relationships.

He reminded the audience that building partnerships isn’t just about making the connection and moving on, it requires hard work to maintain an ongoing relationship.

“Always ask yourself: ‘Have we leveraged this partnership as far as we can?’” he said. And, it should go without saying, but don’t wait until a crisis happens to establish these partnerships.

Also, take risks in your relationship building. Myers said he attended many meetings where people yelled at him for several hours and told him horrific stories about what had happened in the past.

Be prepared for such situations, but don’t let them deter you.

Realize that the path toward healing will require you to take two steps forward and one step back for a long time, but you have to take those risks in order to establish some of those relationships.

Above all, remember that trust and respect in these relationships must be earned — it cannot be demanded.

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