Today’s Law Enforcement Challenges

by Kay C. Goss

Civil unrest in cities across the country challenges public servants to think analytically about how to restore public confidence and protect citizens from bad actors and events that threaten their safety and security. This article summarizes a four-hour roundtable that DomPrep and the Baltimore Police Department convened to share insights on tactics and approaches for success.

Kay C. Goss headshotOn 3 February 2017, the organizers brought together a rich mix of professionals from a variety of disciplines: law enforcement at all levels, emergency management (including former Federal Emergency Management Agency presidential appointee), public safety, homeland security, Maryland Governor’s Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, military, fire service, emergency medical services, crisis management, and academia. The collaboration of these practitioners is magical in times of testing, disturbances, disasters, and attacks, as well as during a roundtable such as this one. Discussing resource management and sharing lessons learned and best practices are key. Unfortunately, the public did not get a chance to hear the comments and passion that these public servants all possess and exhibit when addressing how to serve the public better and find new ways to outreach within communities.

Rebuilding a Community After Civil Unrest

The death of Trayvon Martin on 26 February 2012 was the beginning of large-scale protests of police nationwide. Five years later, that incident along with the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray and subsequent civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, continue to spur law enforcement agencies and community officials to seek ways to bridge public relations gaps. Like other cities affected by protests and civil unrest, the city of Baltimore will never be the same and is striving to effectively address concerns and adapt to a “new normal.” City law enforcement officers are careful to ensure that their responses are thoughtful and sensitive and that they engage young people in many ways, including sports and mentoring. However, the delicate balance between public safety and outreach is challenging.

Following the investigation into the Gray case, the Baltimore Police Department received a U.S. Department of Justice decree with a list of requirements, which they now incorporate as standards for their processes, trainings, and technology. Chief Melissa Hyatt, who moderated the roundtable discussion, manages the necessary training for required items in the decree and the underlying concern of how the police department can best relate to the public.

In November 2016, another challenge arose at the Army-Navy Game, when a large protest forced the Baltimore police department to split resources – half dealing with the protest and the other half working the game. That event demonstrated the need to recognize indicators of unrest as they develop in order to mitigate the potential consequences.

The Baltimore Police Department organizes regular sports events for community youth members, movie nights, and school visits. One officer shared how he gives youths plastic police badges to build relationships and awareness within the community. Such efforts ensure that residents engage police officers in roles other than arrests and provide opportunities to begin important conversations. This type of event, especially in problematic communities, helps to build better relationships with residents so that, if something does happen, it will be easier in the backend. In addition, following incidents, the police department sends officers to explain to residents the actions that were taken. Officers regularly visiting schools help to identify problematic students and to build positive relationships with youths.

After the trial of one of the Baltimore police officers in May 2016, the department received word of a large protest (a student walkout) through social media. Instead of dispatching a group of officers, one person (community collaboration officer) was sent to talk to the school via assembly, which was very responsive. One person versus a show of force was better for that group. In response to the fire hose that was cut and resulted in the destruction of a CVS pharmacy during the 2015 unrest, the Baltimore Fire Department recommended that the sentencing be community service rather than jail. Local officials found a person who was apologetic, a leader, and someone they could access to begin to build community trust. A number of officials opposed this recommendation, but one leader held fast to the view that community trust works both ways and was willing to stake his reputation on it. It became a significant breakthrough on all counts.

Today’s Law Enforcement Challenges

Challenges & Solutions

Unfortunately, children do not always go home and tell their families what they learn in school or in youth outreach efforts. In addition, community meetings are often not well attended, so it is difficult to measure outreach effectiveness. In the meantime, social media is a common method that community members use during an incident. So, if there is unrest, then the news quickly becomes about the unrest itself rather than about facts and issues. To combat these challenges, Baltimore law enforcement works with churches and seeks to reflect the guardianship role, rather than that of an occupying force. They work to communicate with everyone who is willing to work with them, including critics and even gang members. Some gang members are trusted with actionable information and have facilitated law enforcement messages to their members in ways that the law enforcement community alone could not have done.

The February roundtable highlighted that many agencies are available to collaborate and coordinate with local law enforcement. For example, DHS protective security advisors bring together the public and private sectors to educate and empower them to know what to do and how to coordinate a multiagency community. The underlying theme of the discussion was that showing respect increases the chance of receiving respect. Since it is almost impossible to control messages once they hit social media, the human element becomes critical. When community members know the people managing the issues, it changes the dynamics. This would be a good lesson to teach in police academies.

Other best practices include using de-escalation techniques to promote more positive outcomes and develop viable relationships before incidents occur to instill trust and move toward more positive resolutions. Police in Baltimore are extending that respect first. Some of the people involved in the protestors’ actions did not see the officers as humans, but instead as game-like “storm troopers,” thus distorting the real consequences of their actions.

In addition to building community relationships before an incident, each officer plays a critical role during an incident. As such, officers and their agencies have responsibility for the responders’ safety and well being throughout the incident. For example, when managing an effective response, officers need to be rested and have replacements available who also are ready to come in rested, fed, and hydrated.

Media wants to be engaged with facts and should be used more in time of crisis and potentially during planning, training, and exercises. When no or little information is provided from agency sources, the gaps may be filled with false information. For example, in 2015, following the unrest in Baltimore, a national news reporter inaccurately stated that a man was shot in the back by police. The news anchor issued an apology the following Monday for the erroneous report. The Baltimore Police Department quickly spoke with community members on the scene of the incident, including gang members, to dispel such rumors.

Officials indicated that they are seeing more sharing of knowledge and resources and it seems to be working well across the nation. For example, the 217th Legislature of New Jersey has emphasized information sharing and created a bill in 2016 that established the “New Jersey Criminal Justice Information Sharing Environment Coordinating Council” in the Division of State Police in the Department of Law and Public Safety. Emergency management also falls under New Jersey’s (and Michigan’s) state police:

The duty of this 15-member council is to establish a governance structure to guide the design, development, and implementation of a Statewide, integrated criminal justice environment that would enable automated information sharing in a common format between federal, State, county, and municipal criminal justice agencies.

Roundtable participants estimated that it will take a year or two for the various stakeholders in Baltimore to get past egos and go beyond these issues, but they are making great strides to collectively tackle problems.

Technological Assets & Lessons Learned

In today’s world, where incidents on video are viewed as factual, some roundtable participants worried that a time may come when events not captured on camera will not be considered true. Technology including body-worn cameras have been tested in Baltimore and are being fully implemented. However, questions remain about the recordings, access to them, use of them in court, etc. For example, participants questioned whether officers should be able to review the film to help trigger their memories because sometimes events happen so quickly, so they may not recall specific details.

The use of biometrics is also expanding rapidly across the country. One example is recognition technology, which is moving to standoff distances, but is still able to validate that people are who they say they are. Smart Cities advises being aware of what communities are investing in, and how these investments can be leveraged. Growing technological trends include mobile capabilities and Wi-Fi access points, which may manifest as kiosks and increase interaction between first responders, social workers, mental health professionals, and others. Smart Cities, such as Santa Cruz, California, are considering an alternative use of smart-city technology. Santa Cruz, where local authorities analyze historical crime data in order to predict police requirements and maximize police presence where it is required, generated a list of 10 places each day where property crimes are more likely to occur and then place police efforts there when they are not responding to other emergencies. This use of information and communication technology is different to the manner used outside the United States.

Hyatt indicated the following in a February 2017 DomPrep article:

As law enforcement agencies continue to move forward, many aspects in law enforcement will continue to change. Technological advances dictate the need for new computers, radios, software programs, and other related equipment. Society demands a different response from law enforcement than it required during the 1960s. Agencies must focus on image management, public relations, and the impression that appearance and actions make on the general public.

To accomplish the task of bridging public relation gaps, modern law enforcement agencies must be flexible and have adaptable leaders. Those who are still committed to “doing it like we’ve always done it” are rapidly becoming dinosaurs in a constantly evolving profession. The same is true for those managing civil unrest or protests. This new environment requires flexible and forward-thinking people to continue to transform with the times.

All points made during the roundtable discussion resonate with emergency management and can be summed up as follows:

  • Public communications are the key to success in each discipline.
  • Innovation in public outreach approaches is necessary.
  • Professional sharing of this sort around a high topic raises everyone’s frame of reference in a positive manner.
  • Building trust is everybody’s job and everyone has work to do.
  • Partnership is an over-used word, but it is a vital concept in formalizing our outreach in moment-to-moment basis.
  • Technology is a driving force and must be used as vigorously by law enforcement agencies as it is by the public. Technology can assist efforts to share actionable information and to accomplish the proper amount of transparency in efforts to build public trust.
  • Internal messaging is often as important as external messaging.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice decree in Baltimore challenged and then assisted the Baltimore Police Department in strengthening its efforts and in serving its constituents.

When distilling the outcomes and main takeaways, it was apparent that all of the participants at the roundtable discussion are committed to helping their neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and nation to become resilient and to grow that capability on every level. A future discussion on this topic is warranted in order to review the progress and challenges yet to come.

Special thanks go to the participants of the Baltimore roundtable on 3 February 2017. The dedication of these and other professionals around the country are helping to ensure the effective implementation of whole community action for emergency preparedness, response, and resilience.

Kay C. Goss, CEM®, is president of World Disaster Management, U.S. president of The International Emergency Management Society, president of the Council on Accreditation of Emergency Management Education. She is also part-time faculty online and Go-To-Meeting, as well as in person, in the Executive Master’s Program in Crisis and Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and in the Graduate Program in Emergency Management and Homeland Security at Metropolitan College of New York. Previous positions include: executive in residence at the University of Arkansas; senior principal and senior advisor of emergency management and continuity programs at SRA International (2007-2011); senior advisor of emergency management, homeland security, and business security at Electronic Data Systems (2001-2007); associate Federal Emergency Management Agency director in charge of national preparedness, training, and exercises, appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate (1993-2001); senior assistant to the governor for intergovernmental relations, Governor William Jefferson Clinton (1982-1993); chief deputy state auditor at the Arkansas State Capitol (1981-1982); project director at the Association of Arkansas Counties (1979-1981); research director at the Arkansas State Constitutional Convention, Arkansas State Capitol (1979); project director of the Educational Finance Study Commission, Arkansas General Assembly, Arkansas State Capitol (1977-1979).