How Ferguson changed my job as police chief

We take our marching orders from the citizens we serve, so we need to be flexible, innovative, and fearless enough to change with the expectations of our residents

Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. Below is one in a series of pieces which will address the challenges facing police leaders during times of diminishing budgetary support and increasing public scrutiny. Learn more about Pulse of Policing

After returning back home from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP 2015) conference, I began to ponder just how significantly policing has changed in the last year. All one would have to do is review the schedule of breakout sessions offered at the conference, the featured topics covered by the panelists, or simply stroll through the trade show exhibit hall to underscore that fact. That led me to think about the intense scrutiny that our profession is facing and how difficult it must be as a young street cop these days. Our politicians, our citizenry, and our police administrators are simultaneously delivering mixed messages to the men and woman who are actually on the road, donning the badge, doing the job. We need to be cautious in not leaving our officers feeling demoralized and confused.

There is no question that as always, we take our marching orders from the citizens we serve, so we need to be flexible, innovative, and fearless enough to change with the expectations of our residents. We need to continuously adapt our technology, policies, training and deployment plan to fit our communities’ needs. By doing this, we build partnership, understanding, and trust (PUT) within our communities. "PUTting" their concerns first will help us resolve the problems that we all signed up for when taking the oath to protect and serve.

Chief Kenneth Berkowitz speaks to the crowd at the
Chief Kenneth Berkowitz speaks to the crowd at the "Black and Blue: Teen Lives Matter Too" community forum. (Vimeo Image)

Although this is an ongoing process, here is how my colleagues and I have evolved to policing in the post-Ferguson era – addressing both the needs of our officers and the community they serve.

Staying Up On Technology, Tools, and Tactics
As my own home state of Massachusetts grappled with the legality of police officers wearing body-worn cameras, we decided to upgrade and install on-board cameras in all of our police vehicles. The systems that we were using were broken, ineffective, or obsolete. Additionally, we began to upgrade our electronic compliance weapons to the next generation, settling on the new Taser X26P. We also explored other less than lethal alternatives — such as a bean bag round fired from a shotgun or a .40mm less lethal weapon system — but remain steadfast that the X26P gives us the versatility that our officers need on the street.

We have begun to review and examine all of our policies, paying particular attention to our use-of-force criteria. We have — and will continue to — encourage officers to take in the totality of circumstances before using deadly force. For example, we are reinforcing the necessity to create distance and space when dealing with someone who suffers from mental illness. We are training our officers more than ever before in effective communication methods for this population.

Working to Better Connect with Citizens
While I have always felt that as a whole we did a pretty good job with being involved with our community, this past year we have done a lot of soul searching to make sure that we are engaging all subsections of our community. We have partnered with a local African American attorney to host forums entitled “Black and Blue: All Lives Matter” as well as “Black and Blue: Teen Lives Matter Too.”

These nights were well-received by the community and were captured on video to be replayed numerous times on our local cable station. These forums offered an opportunity for our citizens, business owners, local clergy, and media to offer feedback on both our strengths and more importantly, our growth areas as a police department.

We used the comments as a foundation to build upon and followed through with programs that addressed their concerns. During the summer months, we loaded up our prisoner transport wagon with coolers that were filled with ice cream. We travelled to neighborhoods and housing complexes, playing ice cream truck music over the PA system.

We gave out free ice cream to the children and got to know each other. We advertised this event as “Chillin’ with the Chief” and encouraged people to tweet at us directly if they wanted us to visit their neighborhoods. We were able to communicate through our actions that our citizens are important to us. We were also able to add followers to our Twitter account, allowing us a connection long after our ice cream truck drove away. Overall, both the community and our officers embraced the outreach programs. Proudly, many of our uniformed personnel attended these events without being asked and on their own time.

Remembering Our Oaths
Let’s face it: 99 percent of us took this job and continue to serve for the noblest of reasons: helping our fellow man. So let’s not get sidetracked, offended, or distracted by the vocal few. The simple fact is that there has never been a time in our nation’s history where our citizens have needed us more.

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