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Lines of communication 

by City of Winston-Salem's Frank Elliott

With relations between police departments and citizens challenged in the post-Ferguson media environment, it is more important now than ever for departments to cultivate positive community relations.

During a recent session at the 2015 conference of North Carolina Black Elected Municipal Officials, two police chiefs shared their thoughts on how any department – big or small – can attend to this vital task.

Winston-Salem, population 240,000, is a typical metropolitan agency with 560 sworn officers serving in patrol and the full range of specialized units, such as traffic enforcement (motorcycles), SWAT, crime prevention, gang and special-victims units and more. Reidsville is a typical small-town agency. It has 50 sworn officers, most of who serve in patrol.

Winston-Salem Police Chief Barry Rountree and Reidsville’s Robert Hassell agree that community relations and outreach is an integral part of their approach to community safety.

"It’s important to create situations where citizens can interact with police officers outside of a law-enforcement context," Rountree said. "A lot of times what you see in the media about law enforcement will be negative, and for some people, that’s the only impression they get. So it’s very important that we show we’re people, too, and we give them an opportunity to have an encounter with an officer that is not related to crime or a crisis.

Hassell said these conversations create an opportunity for police to better serve their community.

"Sometimes in law enforcement we think we know what the community needs. We think we know how to solve problems. But if we don’t ask the community what they feel are the problems and the resolutions to them, how do we know that what we are doing is the right thing and is what they want us to do?" he said.

Both departments pursue these ends with a mix of structured and informal programs. Structured programs include such initiatives as a Citizens Police Academy, organized community forums and programs for youth such as Police Explorers.

Since 2011, the Winston-Salem police have partnered with the city’s Human Relations Department to hold "trust talks," a structured program that allows police officers to meet with citizens to discuss issues of mutual concern. Each trust talk opens with a general session, after which the participants break into smaller groups for more effective give-and-take. Some trust talks are tailored to a specific constituency, such as a separate trust talks held with the students at Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University, Rountree said.

"A lot of times the college-age population is the group out front in protests and leading marches, so we wanted to have a meeting where it’s only college-age in the conversation," he said.

Both departments have a Citizens Police Academy, a multi-week program held once or twice a year that shows citizens police department organization, policies and procedures. The first academy was an eye-opener for citizens in Reidsville, Hassell said, particularly after the ride-alongs.

"Some have come back and said, ‘Chief, now I see what you have to deal with in the community,’" he said.

Winston-Salem also has a similar program in the summer, Youth Police Academy, for high-school students.

"We show them what we do and why we do it. We let them see some of the equipment we use to get them comfortable being around a police officer in a normal, everyday setting," Rountree said.

Informal programs include the national Coffee with a Cop movement, where police officers hang out at a restaurant to visit with the patrons.

"We usually have three or four," Hassell said, "both police officers and command staff, just to be there to answer questions and talk with those who come in. There’s no set agenda. It’s from 7 to 9 a.m. and we’ve had upwards of 75 people who come through."

Other informal programs include "Kool-Aid with a Cop," an adaptation of Coffee with a Cop that Reidsville is starting on Saturday afternoons. In Winston-Salem, the department partnered with a local law firm to give away school supplies the week before school starts.

"You can’t do just one thing," Rountree said. "There are different dynamics and different cultures within a city, and to reach them you have to take different approaches."

Doing this mostly takes will power, rather than money, Hassell said.

"No matter the resources you have, there are things you can do that do not require a lot of expense," he said. "It doesn’t cost us anything other than our time to get out and talk with people or set up a community forum, or to partner with businesses that are providing the coffee for free to have people come in their restaurant and talk with us."

Many corporations offer grants, Rountree added. Winston-Salem approached Wal-Mart, which provided a grant to buy school supplies. Likewise, Target Corporation underwrites Shop with a Cop, which pairs police officers with underprivileged children to go Christmas shopping.

"And of course, meeting with a group doesn’t cost any money," Rountree said. "You can use a recreation facility or a local church so you don’t have any rental expense. And you can use social media to get information out to the community about what you are doing, and that doesn’t cost anything."

"No matter what you do," Hassell said, "it shows the community that you are genuinely interested. Just examine the things that your department is doing that can build community relations and trust. And if they are not working, get to the table and talk with the stakeholders and come up with something different."