Communities across the nation are struggling with fractured relationships between police departments and the communities they are charged with protecting. While the potential for conflict between police and community members is always present, building and maintaining trust between the public and police is essential for the health of a democratic society. One local police department has taken a proactive approach to developing trust and strengthening ties between their officers and the individuals they seek to serve.
The City of Sunrise Police Department has created multiple initiatives designed to build relationships, create pathways for open dialogue and promote partnerships with community members. Major Robert Voss, the officer charged with leading these initiatives, believes in the importance of community-oriented policing and notes the importance of trust between law enforcement and the community. In a recent interview he shared, “law enforcement and the community need each other. If one of the two entities fails to engage the other, it can have negative effects within the community. Police need the community to be our eyes and ears, and the community needs the police to provide that sense of safety and security to ensure the entire city — neighborhood by neighborhood — is safe.”
Community-oriented policing is rooted in a commitment to fostering mutual respect between police and community members that promotes a sense of trust and collaboration. Research demonstrates that it supports public safety by engaging all stakeholders in a community in addressing underlying issues, changing negative behavioral patterns and allocating resources. Below are some of the ways, the City of Sunrise Police Department is proactively working to develop trust and build partnerships.
On an ongoing basis, officers set up a BBQ grill, some tables and tents, fun music, and begin grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. It seems to be a hit. Voss notes that hundreds of neighborhood residents generally show up for these events.
“These BBQs allow for members of the community to speak with officers in a more relaxed setting and do a great job at breaking down the walls that sometimes exist between law enforcement and the community,” said Voss. “That is our ultimate goal with any of our events. We want our customers (public) to have faith and trust that their police department is not an occupying force but one of customer service.”
Citizen Police Academy
The Citizen Police Academy is an 11-week program in which City of Sunrise residents and business owners participate in weekly workshops designed to help individuals understand the work police are doing in the community. Participants gain experience in numerous aspects of policing, including the opportunity to ride along with police officers on patrol, participate in “shoot, don’t shoot” scenarios, and observe crime scene preservation. Some of the goals of this initiative are to promote transparency, build community partnerships, and promote understanding of common scenarios and experiences police encounter in promoting public safety.
Bike patrols allow officers to connect with members of the communities they serve in a more relaxed manner. While patrolling parks, apartment complexes and business centers, they often stop to play a quick game of pick-up basketball, answer questions or discuss issues and ideas residents wish to share. Major Voss shared that oftentimes residents want to take pictures with the officers and the officers enjoy those moments with the residents.
Elementary School Connections
This is a new event designed to bring uniformed officers into elementary classes for story time. During their time in the class room, the officers read a few books to the students and answer questions. Voss commented, “boy do they have some good questions.” Afterward, the officers have lunch with the students in the lunchroom to continue the dialogue. At the end of the day, Sunrise officers set up an old-fashioned lemonade stand and hand out free lemonade to the students walking or riding their bikes home. The goal is to create a positive relationship between young residents so they see police as individuals they can trust.
In addition to the initiatives discussed above, the department collaborates with faith-based organizations to promote positive partnerships and coordinates a Police Explorers program to give teenagers hands-on experience working alongside officers to understand the work police do in the community.
Making a Difference
The collaborative relationships that are emerging through these efforts have resulted in positive outcomes for the Sunrise community. Major Voss shared numerous stories of the progress being made toward strengthening relationships between residents and officers, changing negative perceptions of police and increasing public safety. One of the most recent occurred at one of the community BBQs. After spending time chatting with officers and enjoying a hot dog, an individual who had information on a serious crime that had gone unsolved shared information needed to solve the case. She had previously not trusted law enforcement, but after connecting with the officers in a relaxed, informal setting, she felt comfortable sharing what she knew, which resulted in increased safety for that community.
Building and maintaining a strong and healthy relationship between the police and the public requires ongoing dialogue about how all stakeholders can use their knowledge, expertise and relationships to promote community safety and flourishing. Public involvement in this conversation is a core element of a healthy and strong democracy. The City of Sunrise has taken a proactive approach to building relationships, encouraging conversation, and building community partnerships.
For more information about the work the City of Sunrise Police Department is doing in their community, follow them on twitter @SunrisePoliceFl or go to their Facebook page at sunrisepolicefl.
Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected].