“How do you know?”
With the explosion of media and YouTube accounts of police misconduct — either actual or implied — I suggest that police leaders consider ways to answer these questions within their own cities with a preface that goes like this:
“We, too, are concerned and often shocked by the police conduct we see in the media and Internet. We, however, are not like that. We are committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect, preserving life, and working with you to assure your neighborhood is orderly and safe. Now let’s look at what police are doing in our community and how they are doing just that…”
There should follow the community-wide sharing of specific data on at least the following areas of policing. (Local media plus social media should be used to share this information; which is to answer the question, “How are we doing?”)
- Various empirical surveys of citizen attitudes (focussing on trust and support) who have experienced police activity: complainants, witnesses, traffic violators and (yes) persons arrested.
- A survey which focuses, specifically, on the attitude of persons of color who have experienced police action.
- Specific times police officers have had to use physical force in carrying out their duties (in comparison with, perhaps, other police agencies).
If police leaders do not gather these kind of data then they will always be having to resist negative statements about the agency without having any data (other than experiential) to refute negative comments from some community members.
Is this not a better way to do the difficult business of policing?
I wrote the following in “Arrested Development” about “customer surveys”:
“From my own experience, I knew this: citizens who have had no contact with their police tend to rate us quite high; out of sight, out of mind. Conversely, those who have had contact with us don’t rate us quite as high as those who have not. And, disturbingly, the more contact citizens have with us, the lower they tend to rate us…
“What I intended to do was create a survey of people who had contact with us – I called it a customer survey. A contact could be, for instance, making a verbal complaint, being the victim of a crime, or even being arrested. As it turned out, the results of this monthly survey became a valuable source of information. It helped me to more realistically evaluate how we were really doing.
“Think about it: without an ongoing survey, how will any police department know how it is doing? In the business world, customer feedback is essential. It should be no different in a police agency. How else will police know what their citizens think of their services? But more critical, how else will police know what services or functions need to be improved?
“I decided I needed to have this kind of feedback. I wanted to hear from those with whom we had actual contact; not those who just have an opinion about us. I wanted to know how we were doing from those with whom we actually had dealt face to face. If I was requiring department leaders to get feedback from each other and their employees, why not from those who used our services?…
“I also made it clear to both officers and the citizens who received the surveys that they wouldn’t be used to initiate disciplinary action against any officer. There was another way to do that. If a citizen had a complaint against a particular officer, they were directed to contact our Internal Affairs Unit. I had to make it clear this survey wasn’t about discipline, but about gathering important information as to how we were doing.
“We had a very respectable return rate of 35 to 40 percent. I used the results to report to the mayor and city council how the department was doing in personal hands-on contacts. During the seven years I used the survey, we made steady progress in improving overall citizen satisfaction each and every year. I put together and published a line graph showing the rate of citizen satisfaction officers were achieving. It was a clear, visual indication that Madison officers were continuously improving. And they did it on the street with all types of people and in all kinds of situations.