Scratching the Surface of Police and Community Engagement: A Starting Point for Online Dialogue

Regardless of where an individual, community, or department stands in the national dialogue related to police, there is much to be learned from some of the online community engagement efforts, initiated by police agencies, to date.

Many departments already have a robust communication platform full of social media updates ranging from recruitment of staff to daily statistics provided to the public.  What is newer, and mostly untested in the United States, is a robust interactive online space for police and community dialogue.  Some of the reform underways will most likely lead to organizations moving towards a more open, two-way model of communication and dialogue.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) offers guidelines to departments regarding aspects of community policing and managing community relations.  IACP recommends “listening first”. A community should be thoroughly engaged, rather than simply informed. Listen to community safety concerns, policy, high-profile community incidents, agency technology changes, and day-to-day interactions with staff; both civilian and sworn.  The examples below have begun to meaningfully prioritize “listening first.” A more robust approach is to look at these examples collectively and then create multiple deliberation opportunities at the same time, on the same site.

Budget Changes and Police Reform

The City of Austin, Texas has created a survey through which participants are provided multiple scenarios to imagine police interactions. They are then asked to share ideas about how those scenarios might be handled differently with current or additional community resources, instead of through the police department.  This is an alternative to the public listening sessions being organized virtually, as well. The virtual sessions involve individuals interacting in groups with one another while answering the same or similar questions.  As individuals begin to gather in small bubbles again, the city is providing a discussion toolkit to record information to be shared back after the event.  The scenarios vary from people in need, traffic incidents, incidents involving low-level drug and alcohol use, property issues, beat cop interactions, mental health episodes, weapons, and an open-ended topic area for the participant to fill in as they wish.  The city then asks the public to ruminate on the words: policing, safety, and reimagining for more creative, additional information.

austin survey

The City of Austin is at the initial stages of this type of public dialogue. They have created a “blue sky,” an open-ended set of scenarios.  There is a lot of opportunity throughout the survey/listening session to have stakeholders write-in original thoughts and new ideas.  Because access and participation are priorities for the City of Austin, the survey is open to all participants without registration.  However, demographics are critical to the analysis of these listening sessions. There are required demographic questions at the end of the survey:  age, race, gender, district, and evaluation for the tool itself.  The only improvement needed may be an optional name and email for follow up to suggestions that gain momentum, as well as potential participation in future groups or committees that may develop from this process.

Data Provided to the Public

A useful amount of data is provided by Austin Police Department, along with each scenario: the total number of calls for service that are related to the issue in the scenario and a percentage of how that particular type of call contributes to the overall amount of calls for service.  For example, there were 73,588 incidents representing either actual or perceived property threats (described in the survey as burglary, alarm response, trespassing, and theft) which was 14.2% of the overall calls for service to Austin Police Department in 2019.  This data helps community members understand the number of calls and context to help them brainstorm how to possibly move away from police responses to other solutions. Providing data to the public has become a more common practice, increasing transparency, helping the public to be involved in crime prevention in their community.

Policy Debate and Dialogue

The City of Edina, Minnesota, used their city’s engagement platform to discuss emerging policy and practice related to body-worn cameras for police officers. A timeline was provided to help community members stay informed regarding policy development with regular updates.

Integration with In-Person Events

Many cities host ongoing weekly or monthly meetings with community members to update them on police department strategies, decisions, and policies. The Police Chief in Edina kicked off a four-part series for city officials to connect with community members on a more personal level.  In non-COVID times, these sessions are typically held at coffee shops or in public spaces.  What COVID-19 has done is to encourage hosting these events, even if still hosted in-person with safety measures in place, digitally as well.  This is usually done through simultaneous broadcast or as a follow-up with video recording.  The key aspect with this dynamic is to also turn on engagement tools to allow those viewing online to comment, ask questions, and actually participate in a reasonable timeframe.

Community Involvement in Police Oversight

Creating committees and task forces to evaluate policies within police departments is a common response to the nationwide dialogue.  Some departments have done this for years, while it is a new concept for others.  Some only engage regarding deadly use of force and then modify the community’s role in oversight, in most cases, as an expanded role.  The City of Tigard, Washington, has created an information page about their new Public Safety Advisory Board which will be mirrored for other city departments.  It is a part of their city’s overall Anti-Racism Action Plan.  The application is provided in both English and Spanish, directly from the page.  In addition to the application, there is a question and answer opportunity accompanied by an open-ended tool for collecting community ideas for a more equitable community moving forward.

Open Public Forum

Nixa forum

The City of Nixa, Missouri created an open public forum space for residents to communicate issues and ideas related to their public safety programs last January.  The topics range from emergency preparedness, traffic, to pedestrian safety with opportunity for general comments and ideas.

Many departments already have a robust communication platform full of social media updates ranging from recruitment of staff to daily statistics.  These examples provide a glimpse into the possibility of using online resources in a robust and continuous manner for police departments to truly partner with the public; moving away from a didactic-only model of communication and toward an open two-way dialogue.

Want to hear more about digital engagement and bringing police engagement to your community? Contact us to learn more.

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