Can you name and recognize your city council members and community religious leaders? Are you meeting members of your community for the first time before or after a major event?
Depending on how you answered these questions you may have a problem lying in wait according to risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham, who recently hosted a webinar on how to make community/police engagement a reality.
When we don’t know who is in our community, that is a problem lying in wait,” said Graham, who, during his 33-year career as a California Highway Patrol officer and attorney, made sure he had contact with important community members.
“As a lawyer, I handle tragedies after they occur, but what can we do in front? If you don’t know the community you protect and serve, you don’t know key contacts and leaders,” said Graham.
While media reports often depict the police and public as pitted against one another, with a chasm of distrust separating them, many law enforcement agencies are achieving significant successes in community/police engagement, said Graham.
Addressing Gang Violence in a Smaller Community
One of Graham’s guests on the webinar was Chief Robert Jonsen of the Menlo Park Police Department in California, whose agency received the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Cisco Systems Community Policing Award in 2016, which recognizes outstanding community policing initiatives by law enforcement agencies worldwide.
Chief Jonsen, who began his career in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1986, took over the reins at the Menlo Park Police Department in 2013 after working in several agencies in southern California.
“I came from Los Angeles where resources were unlimited, from an organization with 18,000 employees to one with 70 employees. While we are a small community of 32,000 residents, the town – which is home to Facebook – is both culturally and economically diverse.”
Jonsen notes that when he first arrived in Menlo one of the most pressing problems he had to tackle was gang-related violence in the Belle Haven neighborhood, which had been an issue for many years. While the level of gang violence was not what he had seen in Los Angeles, it was notable in this small town where 10-12 gang-related shootings were happening each year.
Using Three Key Community Engagement Tools
Jonsen first put together a Community Advisory Group to build partnerships with residents, key community leaders and other law enforcement agencies:
One of the first things I had to address was to reduce the fear in the community, but my challenge was that I knew nobody.”
He also used the social media platform Nextdoor – which was relatively new at the time – to assist in pulling together the advisory group. As the Nextdoor app maps out your city into distinct neighborhoods, Jonsen could select a representative from each particular district to ensure all residents were represented.
“The advisory group started meeting once a month, during which time we identified the primary concerns for the 21 neighborhoods that make up Menlo Park. It was a very effective way for us to develop and coordinate plans to help the neighborhoods,” said Jonsen.
Finally, to coincide with the city of Menlo Park’s Belle Haven visioning process, a strategic plan for the neighborhood, the Menlo Park Police Department began an extensive community engagement process.
Top concerns and issues identified were:
- The lack of a cohesive program for involving the community in the public safety strategy
4 Community Policing Strategies Address Top Concerns
The outcome of the Belle Haven analysis regarding crime in that neighborhood was relatively shocking, said Jonsen.
“We found that the vast majority of the gang shootings were connected in one capacity or another with just three distinct properties, where the residents were victims or were connected to the suspects. The landlords were out of state, so they were oblivious to what was going on.
Jonsen assigned personnel to those properties to work with the landlords and tenants. There has not been a gang-related shooting in the city since November 2013.
In addition to resolving the housing issue, three other key developments occurred:
- A new highly visible and accessible substation, funded by a private/public partnership with Facebook, was built in the neighborhood;
- The police department installed surveillance cameras, which were endorsed by the Community Advisory Group;
- License plate readers were implemented, also approved by the Community Advisory Group.
“What we found was that by reducing fear, our partnership with the community expanded tremendously, and folks worked much better with us as far as addressing issues and becoming involved in their neighborhoods,” said Jonsen.
Community Advisory Group Vets Police Strategies
The role of Menlo Park’s Community Advisory Group has since expanded.
“They vet almost every decision we make in regard to what we roll out into the community,” said Jonsen.
These decisions include a body-worn camera policy. After the group’s input and recommendations, Menlo Park Police became the first agency in its region to have every police officer, detective and code enforcement officer wearing them.
Menlo Park Community Policing Results
The results of the agency’s strategies are compelling:
- A 47 percent decrease in crime in Belle Haven;
- No gang-related shootings for the first time in more than a decade;
- Marked increase in community member involvement.
Funding Helps, But Partnership is Key for Community Policing
Jonsen said funding has often come through partnership with local businesses, specifically Facebook. The company supported building and design of a new substation, provided funding for a school resource officer and contributed $12 million to fund six additional police officers.
“While I recognize that not every community has an organization like Facebook, agencies can look at developing private/public partnerships in their jurisdictions. I want to let smaller agencies know that you can do a lot even with limited resources. It is the partnership with the community that really makes the difference.”
Review and downlaod the webinar slides:
About the Author
Nancy Perry is Editor-in-Chief of PoliceOne and CorrectionsOne, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Praetorian Group, Nancy served as an editor for emergency medical services publications and communities. She is based out of Santa Clarita, California.
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