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Trust me, I'm the police

"Trust me, I'm the police."

How is that statement working out for you in your community?

Some very profitable businesses are profitable only in the short run. They aren't built and managed for sustained profitability simply because they’re after short term results. Are those the companies that you want to do business with? Buy from? Return to? Recommend? Yeah, not so much.

The standard of trust is rising, for businesses and for government, police agencies no less so. Businesses that don’t heed that fact suffer punishment in the consumer market. There are not-so-confidential informants everywhere. The golden age of digital communications provides instant access to complain about a business (or a public safety agency). Web media allows them to talk a lot and to talk loud. For example, Marriott Hotels was recently slapped with a $600,000 fine for illegally jamming guests’ wifi hotspot devices in their hotels, forcing guests to use Marriott’s high-priced wifi access service. A loud backlash from customers and media reports reflected deeply slashed customer trust.

Police agencies that don’t recognize that the standard of public trust is rising may find their agencies featured on the evening news, experiencing unrest in the community, or the target of a Department of Justice investigation. Or all of the above.

Policing works best when the public grants trust to the police. That trust is inherently fragile. Law enforcers who discount or ignore the fragility of public trust do so at their great risk. Trust creates space for robust dialogue and paves the path for apologies when needed.

A few days ago, I was asked to testify before a legislative panel about how law enforcement agencies investigate use of deadly force and other critical incidents. The lawmakers wanted to hear about how independent investigations could lead to greater transparency and more trust. Many legislators wanted to talk about body worn cameras as tools to increase transparency for their communities’ police agencies (note: if that is a topic of concern for you, email me at kenwallentine@comcast.net and ask to be included on an upcoming webinar discussing body worn camera policies and practical challenges)..

The follow up conversation gravitated toward warrant service, including using body worn cameras to document knock-and-announce advisories, entries, searches and arrests and use of warrant execution risk assessment matrices. One police executive expressed alarm over a proposed legislative tweak to reporting warrant service and the underlying risk assessment. Another participant chimed in, "we can’t be talking about why some warrants require SWAT." The quick response from another: "why not? Why can’t we?"

What’s inherently wrong with showing the public how we conduct our business? When influential thought-leaders participate in citizen academies, often—almost always—those thought leaders become raving fans of public safety agencies. When community advocates participate in citizen academies, their criticisms of the police are frequently blunted. It isn’t just because they get to see the human face of law enforcement. They get a glimpse of why police do what they do and how they do it.

Sure, we still need exemptions from disclosure to protect personal security and community safety, truly private information, and interference with legal matters. We have the necessary tools that work most of the time. However, we’ve seen the pendulum swing too far as voter registration and other lists with our home addresses, dates of birth and other personal information, have been snapped up by commercial and political businesses wanting to make a buck off government-supplied data.

I recently reached out to my friend, Captain Charles "Chip" Huth of the Kansas City (Mo.) Police Department. Captain Huth and the great men and women of his agency have done tremendous work in crafting warrant service processes. Chip is the co-author of a wonderful book that illustrates how respect fosters trust. As a chief, I asked my command staff to read Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training (http://www.amazon.com/Unleashing-Power-Unconditional-Respect-Transforming/dp/1420099744). Chip and his co-author, Jack Colwell, illustrate how personal integrity practiced by line officers and administrators alike encourages the community to trust police. Moreover, the authors help cops understand how trust and personal integrity bring tactical benefits.

Transparency is something that law enforcement professionals can mostly control. As members of the executive branch, police administrators can lead out in opening the view to policing as broadly as is reasonable. If law enforcement executives erect too many barriers to transparency, we may find our political masters pulling them down. The legislative branch can step in and apply a microscope to what police do in and how we do it. Let’s anxiously engage in the dialogue of balancing transparency and disclosure with legitimate security concerns and in building trust through transparency

Most folks in our communities respond favorably when they perceive truth, trust and transparency in their local public safety agencies. Even so, cops can’t expect to be universally appreciated. As long as the sheepdogs are charged with protecting against the wolves, there will be detractors. It comes with the badge and the duty.

My precocious two year-old grandson is all about transparency when he comes to visit: "but grandpa, why can’t I . . . ." Responding "because I’m the boss and I say so" doesn’t work so well. Law enforcement leaders take note—the next time you hold back from being transparent, have a good answer for "why can’t we . . . ?"

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well: "Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great." How is your public safety agency is achieving trust in your community?