Informing your community about law enforcement policy: Key components of a communication strategy

Agencies should be obsessed with informing their communities about who they are – caring professionals committed to protecting the public by doing the right things right


I was interviewed by a local television reporter some years ago – when I was an officer who had enough experience to be assigned such tasks but not enough wisdom to fully understand the risks involved. The reporter requested the interview because he had questions about how our agency had handled an incident. During the interview, I described on camera how our agency generally addressed the types of events under question. The last thing the reporter asked was, “Do you think your agency handled this incident appropriately?” I answered, “I believe so, under the circumstances.” The reporter thanked me and told me the interview would air on the news that evening.

On TV that night, the reporter presented his work as an investigation into how our agency had messed up a case. His story falsely convicted my department of incompetence, and my only appearance in the piece was at the end when the reporter said, “We asked a representative of the department if he thought they had mishandled the incident. Here is how he responded.” Then he showed the clip of me answering, “I believe so, under the circumstances.”

I was shocked and angry at his falsely presenting my answer to one question as the response to a question he didn’t even ask during our interview. I learned an important lesson from the experience – your agency’s reputation is vital, so do all you can to make sure what’s being said about your organization is the story you want to be told.

It is critical to actively educating the public about your agency’s commitment to policing excellence, building and maintaining trusting relationships with those you serve.
It is critical to actively educating the public about your agency’s commitment to policing excellence, building and maintaining trusting relationships with those you serve. (Getty Images)

WHO IS TELLING YOUR AGENCY’S STORY?

A mid-2020 Gallup survey found that public confidence in law enforcement was at the lowest point in 27 years. Gallup is the same organization that, in 2017, presented survey findings showing that 56% of American respondents believed the law enforcement profession had high or very high honesty and ethical standards.

Some think that the media fuels the public’s lack of confidence in law enforcement by distributing stories about law enforcement misconduct without including balancing information on the job's challenges and the abundance of law enforcement successes. Whether or not this is the case, agencies should be obsessed with informing their communities about who they are – caring professionals committed to protecting the public by doing the right things right.

But some people aren’t getting the message about law enforcement’s true identity because agencies haven’t sent that message effectively. The recent Gallup survey results should be a call to action – a reminder of the importance of actively educating the public about your agency’s commitment to policing excellence, building and maintaining trusting relationships with those you serve, and an opportunity to clear up misconceptions. It is time to help others learn about your agency by telling them your story.

A MESSAGE OFTEN OVERLOOKED

Agencies use different programs, activities and methods to communicate and build relationships with community members. One often-unnoticed approach to sending a message that helps build trust between agencies and the public is sharing agency policy content and engaging stakeholders in reviewing, updating, and developing agency policies. Following are some reasons why doing so may help create the transparency that is so important for law enforcement-public partnerships committed to legitimately policing the community.

People expect it

Easy access to information is the norm, and agencies that do not share policies seem like they have something to hide, especially when most people can find extensive information on just about any other topic with the touch of a screen.

Transparency does not mean agencies should post confidential information when there is a legitimate reason to safeguard the information, such as protecting the safety of officers or the public or withholding specific details related to active investigations. But many law enforcement policies don't warrant such privacy, and agencies should not hide shareable policy information at the expense of public trust.

It helps the public relate to the agency

Ideally, agency policies are a complete collection of information about organizational beliefs and daily functions. Not only do policy manuals contain statements on the mission, ethics and values of the agency, but they also include information about most of the duties performed by law enforcement officers. This information helps the public better understand the job's difficulties and takes the mystery out of their perception of law enforcement, leading to increased trust and confidence between law enforcement and their communities.

It makes the agency more effective and the profession more enduring

Proactively sharing appropriate policy information closes the trust gap between law enforcement and the public. And inviting community representatives to participate with law enforcement in the policymaking and updating process, such as in a policy advisory group, creates opportunities for positive law enforcement-citizen interactions and stimulates public buy-in of agency policies that make public safety efforts more effective.

Engaged citizens often have a perspective on policy-related issues that the law enforcement agency doesn't have – considering these different points of view during policy development results in more comprehensive policies. These involved citizens can also serve as external review resources who can contribute to agency accountability.

Community representatives can also help educate other citizens on the reasoning behind policy development, leading to a better public understanding of law enforcement operations and improved law enforcement legitimacy. 

Finally, policy transparency and community involvement in the policy-making process produces publicly available information that may help attract potential law enforcement recruits, resulting in increased community safety and a brighter future for the profession.

DO MORE THAN POST YOUR MANUAL

Some agencies post a copy of their appropriately public policies on the agency website and call that good. While doing this checks the box for a minimum level of transparency and, in some states, may fulfill a legal requirement to do so, it doesn't take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen your agency's relationship with the community.

People found your agency policies because they searched for them. For a moment, your agency has a captive audience – it has the attention of a community member wanting to know your story. It is an excellent opportunity to share the efforts made to ensure each policy reflects the latest legal requirements and best practices and how they are developed and maintained in partnership with experts and community members to establish a framework for professional policing.

And don't settle for the reader just seeing words on a page – give them some context. Show them how the policies relate to the agency's aspirations as noted in the mission statement. Help them understand how the mission, policies, procedures, and training build a foundation to help your agency achieve excellence. Following are some tips to help you deliver your message.

Mission

Let your audience know that law enforcement organizations exist to fulfill a mission of service and protection for their communities. Most agencies communicate this in a mission statement that is readily available to the public. But a mission statement is merely blind ambition without a plan to effectuate it. So, agencies develop plans in the form of policies and procedures to help them accomplish their missions.

Policies

Educating your audience about the policy development and maintenance process shows them your commitment to excellence and lets them know that your agency constantly looks for opportunities to be better. Inform your audience that the policy development process frequently involves:

  • Identifying a problem to be solved or an opportunity to improve.
  • Collaborating with attorneys, subject matter experts and practitioners to determine the best way to do the right things right.
  • Obtaining input from community members and organizations, such as advocacy groups.
  • Policy finalization and stakeholder approval.

Then the policies are distributed to and acknowledged by officers, and policy training is provided to officers to establish an understanding that results in the desired conduct. You should also let your audience know that the agency periodically reviews each policy in the manual to ensure content remains applicable and to see if the agency can improve existing content.

Agencies should also educate audiences on short-term directives, sometimes called General Orders, explaining these are used to establish temporary requirements and guidance on time-sensitive issues. The general orders are then reviewed sometime after implementation to see if they should become policy.

The agency should also explain the difference between policies and procedures. Policies tell agency members what to do, what not to do, and what’s expected of them in certain circumstances. They also establish the agency’s philosophy and the reasons behind why they do what they do. Procedures provide them a step-by-step guide in executing the policies that require them to take prescribed action, thus providing order and consistency in operations. Policies are generally strict and heavily scrutinized during legal actions and internal reviews, while procedures are typically more flexible than policy and allow various ways to comply.

The relationship between policy and procedure can be challenging to understand, so agencies should consider using an illustration outside of law enforcement to help their audiences better understand the connections.

For example, think about using the story of a mountain climbing group (illustrative of your law enforcement agency) that looks at a spectacular peak and decides, "We are going to climb to the top of that mountain and then return to ground level safely." The group has established its mission. But just having a mission doesn't put the climbers on top of the mountain. And if they charge off and start climbing without some plan, they may fail in their mission, or someone may get hurt or killed during the attempt.

So, the group wisely decides to develop a comprehensive plan that contains the things they need to do to climb the mountain and return to the ground in the safest and most effective way possible. The plan is the group's policy manual, and it likely contains guidance on the general route they will take up the mountain, the physical shape members will need to be in to do the climb, what type of training will be required, what equipment and supplies will be needed, the legal permissions necessary for the climb, and what kind of rules will they need to follow during the climb. However, because groups and organizations, including law enforcement, differ in size and resources, some flexibility is needed to accomplish policy requirements. This is where procedures come into action.

Procedures

Continuing the mountain climbing example, suppose the government of the area where the mountain is located wants to preserve the purity of several sides of the mountain. Hence, they passed a law restricting climbers to the mountain's south face. The climbing group's policy writers and advisors are aware of the law because of their research, and they write a mandate in their policy that requires members of their group to climb the mountain on the south face.

However, there is more than one way to climb the south face of the mountain. Beginning climbers can use trails to reach the mountain top, intermediate climbers can use ropes and anchors to climb to the summit, and advanced climbers can climb rock faces to get to the top. So, the leadership of the climbing group considers the skill levels of its members, determines most are beginners, and writes procedures that tell their members to use the trail network to climb the mountain. The procedures cause members to climb the mountain in a way that complies with policy and works best for their abilities.

Now every climbing group (i.e., law enforcement agency) will have similar policies for climbing the mountain in question, but each group will have different skills and resources. A group made up of more experienced climbers will still have the policy requirement to climb on the south face, but their procedures will provide direction on not only trail climbing but also on using ropes and anchors and rock-climbing techniques to summit the mountain. Both the example and the experienced groups have the same policy requirement, but each group’s procedures outline how the group will comply in a way that works best for them.

So, mission, policy and procedures make up the overall plan that guides agencies toward policing excellence. But having a plan is of little value unless those responsible for carrying it out know what's in the plan. This is where training comes in.

Training

Agencies should inform their audiences that policy is generally the primary driver of training for officers. Officers become familiar with the content of their agency’s policy manual when they are first hired, and agencies provide ongoing training on policy requirements throughout their officers’ careers to make every officer a policy expert. This process helps create officers who are well prepared to perform their duties and are accountable for completing them following the policing plan established by agency leaders and representatives from their community.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Misconception: Policy only exists to protect from lawsuits

Some have commented that legally defensible policy is only in place to keep officers and agencies from getting sued. These statements show a misunderstanding of the role of policy.

Agencies should inform their audiences that protection from lawsuits comes only from proper conduct. Legally defensible policies are sound policies that provide officers with legal requirements and guidance on professional policing practices so they can do their jobs effectively and in a way that respects the public’s rights, which will result in a reduction in lawsuits against the agency.

Safety is most important

It is important to inform audiences that the agency cannot share some policy and procedure information because it relates to tactics that officers use to keep them and the public safe, and someone intending to cause harm to officers or members of the public could use such information to maximize the harmful results of an evil plan. Agencies must be selective in the information they withhold from the public. If the likelihood of harm increases by presenting the considered information to the public, do not make the information available unless doing so is legally required.

But agencies should not stretch the public-safety reasoning to withhold policy and procedure information if a public safety connection is not reasonably apparent. To provide additional transparency while still protecting safety-related information, agencies may consider supplying information with redactions so audiences can access the information without specifics that compromise public safety.

CONCLUSION

Law enforcement agencies work very hard to write their stories. Their mission statements memorialize what they seek to accomplish, and their policies and procedures tell who they are and how they intend to complete their missions. But agencies will not fulfill that mission if they do not have the trust of the communities they are responsible for policing. And trusting relationships cannot survive on unnecessary secrecy; they need openness and communication to exist and grow.

An agency that proactively shares policy information and engages community members in policy development shows its community that the agency is worthy of their confidence and respect and invites them to become a necessary part of the agency's story.

NEXT: Training day: How to set up a community outreach event to review police policy

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