Building Community Trust

By:  Chief Mark Yokoyama, Alhambra Police Department


I recently spoke to a graduating class of police recruits about the importance of building community trust. I emphasized trust being a priority for each and every one of them as they prepare for the most challenging profession in the world. I’d like to share these words with you as seasoned police professionals in the hopes that you can create the same opportunities to build a trusting relationship with your communities. In doing so, you will start a momentum of change in policing during a time where it is desperately needed. California is certainly dealing with a water drought, and policing is dealing with a drought of its own: trust in policing. Each and every one of us must play a part in adjusting policing philosophies and police cultures to develop the trust needed in order to properly, efficiently and safely police our communities.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and congratulations to the recruits of class 149. It is a great pleasure to be here with all of you today and to be part of the experience with this graduating class. What gives me even more pleasure is to have this last opportunity to provide the class with “closing arguments” so to speak, or to provide them their last Learning Domain instruction for this academy. I have spent many hours talking to the class about community policing, ethics and career survival. I want to take this final opportunity to bring it all together. The only difference today is that I will give them their last LD instruction, but their last LD test or the “final exam” on this topic isn’t going to be proctored by me or the academy. It will be proctored, graded and judged by the community they serve.

There is no doubt in my mind that today’s police officer is working in the most challenging and difficult of any profession in the world. I am not talking about a police chief or its administrators that are protected by station walls. I am talking about our brave young men and woman who handle calls for service and are at the front line, facing a wall that separates good from evil. These police officers not only see a part of society that is walled off from the general public as part of their role as guardians, but they interact with a part of society that includes people at their worst time, “baddest” time, meanest time, most embarrassing time or saddest time. That is the nature of the policing business. They get called by the public to handle the most difficult of situations. They are called to be the ones to stand between good and bad; the strong and weak. They are called because they are the last line of defense. They are the true guardians of our communities. They guard us while we sleep, while we work, while we eat and while we play. We get to enjoy the pleasures of life because our guardian police officers are shielding us from evil and are doing what they have sworn an oath to do. We see no evil because the guardians protect us from it.

Being a police officer is the most difficult and challenging profession because they are policing in the most difficult and challenging time in the history of policing. Yes, the history of policing. To be clear, I didn’t say the most dangerous time, or the most crime ridden time. I said the most challenging time. It is the most challenging time because of the very high expectations placed upon them today by the communities they serve. It is the most challenging time because of the diversity of people they serve. It is the most challenging time because of the complexities of issues they have to deal with today. Today’s police officer knows they don’t just handle calls or enforce laws by writing tickets or making arrests as a form of problem resolution. It is more complex than that. They astutely and professionally know that the expectation of them is to solve problems with their intellect and good decision making. But look at the issues they are faced with today: homelessness, poverty, truancy, unemployment, drug use, mental illness, decriminalization of crimes, more criminals on the street, more guns and high powered weaponry on the street, threats of terrorism, civil unrest, and did I mention they still have to go out and protect lives and property, fight crime and prevent crime? These complex issues cannot be resolved by our police officers alone, yet they are often tasked to deal with it alone.

This feeling of being alone to deal with these problems is only amplified when they read and hear about how corrupt they are, how mean they are, and how abusive they are. And then, the civil unrest, the protests in our streets, and the anti-police rhetoric being spoken all around the country makes them wonder, where are their supporters?

When I stop to think and look around and truly listen, I know supporters are out there, but we HAVE to be better and smarter at how we gain that support and trust. I shouldn’t have to stop and think about it. The support for police should be much more visible and apparent than it is.

To make your profession more challenging, I am challenging all of you to generate a momentum of support for policing in your communities. You HAVE to go out there and develop relationships with your community. You HAVE to gain the trust of your community. You HAVE to make it a priority. Policing today is not about making arrests, writing tickets and enforcing the law. It might be part of it, but it is not what defines it. Nor is it what society expects. What defines it is the relationships you build and the trust you earn.

Back in the day, we cared more about the number of tickets we wrote than the number of relationships we built. My measurement of success today is reversed.

Just a few weeks ago a police officer received a radio call of an illegally parked car at a restaurant. The police officer arrived on scene and found the illegally parked car. He could have easily written a ticket, been on his way in a matter of minutes and had an enforcement “stat” for the evening. This police officer however, took the time to get out of his car, walk in the restaurant, find the car owner, engage in conversation and educate the car owner of the violation. The owner then moved his car and in the end, didn’t receive a ticket. This police officer did not leave that call without a “stat.” He had a “stat.” The “stat” was the relationship he built on that call. To me, it was a much better outcome.

How else do we build relationships and trust in our communities? Well, it starts with each and every police officer being well in tune with their behavior. They should  know how they talk to people, how they treat people, how fair they are to people, how empathetic and caring they are to people, and so on. It is about having a policing philosophy that we treat the public in the same way we would want any one of our family members treated by the police in a similar set of circumstances. Research and practice has shown us that the public cares just as much about how police interact with them as they care about the outcomes that enforcement actions produce. We have to pay acute attention to our behaviors and our people skills and make adjustments where needed. The communities we serve expect that of us.

What else can you do to build relationships and trust in our communities? You can build relationships and trust by going out of your way to aggressively hunt down a member of the community and engage them… in a friendly conversation. You build relationships when you are standing in line at Starbucks waiting for your coffee and actually talking to people, as opposed to looking at or talking on your iPhone. You use sound discretion in your enforcement action to turn a negative encounter into a positive one. You smile and wave to people just like you would to your mom and dad or friend. You give a high five to a kid like you would your son or daughter. You find the opportunity. You create the opportunity if you have to. There are ample opportunities to do this. You just have to be willing to accept this leadership challenge, as you have in dealing with all the other challenges I mentioned you are faced with, which are much more complex.

You see, by doing this every day, you are making an investment in the future of policing across America. You are making an investment in the future of police-community relations in the community you serve and are responsible for. It is truly an investment. I can assure you that the day will come when you will need to make a withdrawal on that investment – when there is some ugly, critical incident and you need your community to support you. If you don’t want to be alone in a time of crisis, if you need your supporters to come out and rally behind you, then you have to invest in community relationships. The “return on investment” is trust and support from your community in the time of need. Let us not forget what the father of modern day law enforcement, Sir Robert Peel said on this topic. He said, “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.”  As Robert Eckert, CEO of Mattel Corporation once said, “As you go to work, your top responsibility should be to build trust.”

Ladies and gentleman of class 149, this is your final learning domain. Your final test will be on a yet to be determined date, but you will know when you see it and you will know it if you pass or fail.


Author:  Chief Mark Yokoyama, Alhambra Police Department

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