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Why cops need to get out of their cars: Strategies for community engagement

If you can’t name and recognize your city council members and community religious leaders, you may have a problem lying in wait


Can you name and recognize your city council members and community religious leaders? Are you meeting members of your community for the first time before or after a major event?

Depending on how you answered these questions you may have a problem lying in wait according to risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham, who recently hosted a webinar on how to make community/police engagement a reality.  

“When we don’t know who is in our community, that is a problem lying in wait,” said Graham, who, during his 33-year career as a CHP officer and attorney, made sure he had contact with important community members.

“As a lawyer, I handle tragedies after they occur, but what can we do in front? If you don’t know the community you protect and serve, you don’t know key contacts and leaders,” said Graham.

While media reports often depict the police and public as pitted against one another, with a chasm of distrust separating them, many law enforcement agencies are achieving significant successes in community/police engagement, said Graham.

One of Graham’s guests on the webinar was Chief Robert Jonsen of the Menlo Park Police Department in California, whose agency received the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Cisco Systems Community Policing Award in 2016, which recognizes outstanding community policing initiatives by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Chief Jonsen, who began his career in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1986, took over the reins at the Menlo Park Police Department in 2013 after working in several agencies in southern California.

“I came from Los Angeles where resources were unlimited, from an organization with 18,000 employees to one with 70 employees. While we are a small community of 32,000 residents, the town – which is home to Facebook – is both culturally and economically diverse.”

Jonsen notes that when he first arrived in Menlo one of the most pressing problems he had to tackle was gang-related violence in the Belle Haven neighborhood, which had been an issue for many years. While the level of gang violence was not what he had seen in Los Angeles, it was notable in this small town.

“The neighborhood was experiencing 10-12 gang-related shootings a year, which was really significant for the location. One of the first things I had to address was to reduce the fear in the community, but my challenge was that I knew nobody, so I put together a Community Advisory Group to build partnerships with residents, key community leaders and other law enforcement agencies.”

Jonsen used the social media platform Nextdoor – which was relatively new at the time – to assist in pulling together the advisory group. As the Nextdoor app maps out your city into distinct neighborhoods, Jonsen could select a representative from each particular district to ensure all residents were represented.

“The advisory group started meeting once a month, during which time we identified the primary concerns for the 21 neighborhoods that make up Menlo Park. It was a very effective way for us to develop and coordinate plans to help the neighborhoods,” said Jonsen.

At the same time that Jonsen started as chief, the City of Menlo Park had implemented the Belle Haven visioning process to develop a strategic plan for the neighborhood and create the groundwork for future community capacity building. The Menlo Park Police Department then began an extensive community engagement process to coincide with the visioning process.

Top concerns and issues identified were gangs, violence and the lack of a cohesive program for involving the community in the public safety strategy. The outcome of the Belle Haven analysis regarding crime in that neighborhood was relatively shocking, said Jonsen.

“We found that the vast majority of the gang shootings were connected in one capacity or another with just three distinct properties, where the residents were victims or were connected to the suspects. The landlords were out of state, so they were oblivious to what was going on. We assigned personnel to those properties to work with the landlords and tenants and, by the end of 2013, we had resolved a lot of incidents. We have not had a gang-related shooting in the city since November 2013,” said Jonsen.

In addition to resolving the housing issue, several other key developments occurred:

  1. A new highly visible and accessible substation, funded by a private/public partnership with Facebook, was built in the neighborhood;
  2. The police department installed surveillance cameras, which were endorsed by the Community Advisory Group;
  3. License plate readers were implemented, also approved by the Community Advisory Group.

“While it is nearly impossible to say what contributed to the reduction of crime in that neighborhood – some proactive enforcement, some deterrents – what we found was that by reducing fear, our partnership with the community expanded tremendously, and folks worked much better with us as far as addressing issues and becoming involved in their neighborhoods,” said Jonsen.

“The role of the Community Advisory Group role has expanded dramatically since then to where they vet almost every decision we make in regard to what we roll out into the community. We even had them review our body-worn camera policy and provide input and recommendations. We were the first agency within our region to have every police officer, detective and code enforcement officer wear BWCs.”

The results are compelling:

  • A 47% decrease in crime in Belle Haven;
  • No gang-related shootings for the first time in more than a decade;
  • Marked increase in community member involvement.

“A lot of funding has been through partnership with businesses, specifically Facebook, who was very much involved in the building and design of our new substation, as well as funding a school resource officer for us and contributing $12 million to fund six additional police officers,” said Jonsen.

“While I recognize that not every community has an organization like Facebook, agencies can look at developing private/public partnerships in their jurisdictions. I want to let smaller agencies know that you can do a lot even with limited resources. It is the partnership with the community that really makes the difference."

The webinar  – How to Make Police/Community Engagement a Reality: Approaches from 3 Agencies – is now available for on-demand viewing. Sample community relations policies can also be downloaded. 

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