I recently did a ride-along with a Tampa police officer in her mid-20s with a few years of experience under her belt. She was very professional, competent and respectful. She asked about my background and I told her I had worked in largely rural areas, “Kind of like Mayberry,” I joked. I could have said “Kind of like the planet Mars” and would have gotten the same questioning look from my young driver.
Thinking I had failed in my attempt at humility and humor I explained, “You know, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea.” She could have replied with, “OK, boomer!” but at that point, we were interrupted by a man with a gun call so the conversation shifted, but I felt as though she should probably pull over at the next cemetery and just bury me.
The experience made me think about all the older guys (there weren’t any older women officers at the start of my career that I knew) who told me what a pup I was even through my 40s, that 25 years of marriage was just getting started (I’m on year 41 now and many of those wise-crackers are still paying for their second divorce), and that they had socks older than me (which I totally understand now – because I do).
During a visit to the National Law Enforcement Museum during Police Week this year I was a little stunned to see the tools I used to work with as artifacts on display. It seemed as though I should have been stuffed and propped up on exhibit among the antiques.
But what has really changed? I served with veteran cops who had to deal with paper driver licenses, walkie-talkies the size of a shoebox – if they were lucky enough to have that – and radar units that had to be set up on the roadside on a tripod. No one was carrying a pistol with 18 bullets in it. They also had tacit permission to conduct attitude adjustments in alleys, continue a pursuit until, by God, they caught you, and interrogate with intimidation. We’ve come a long way, baby. And if you recognize what cigarette commercial that was from (or remember when cigarette commercials were still allowed on TV), then you might be a boomer.
The current generation of cops on patrol have their own benefits and challenges. Obviously, technology cuts both ways. Social media, in particular, has been the vehicle for a lot of cop hate. In the tug of war for positive attention, police agencies and individual officers have turned to social media to counter the negativity with questionable success.
While these media platforms are an important way to engage with the public, they can not be the exclusive strategy. Some old school practices, like some of the warm socks at the bottom of my drawer, still have value. Here’s how we used to connect with communities before the advent of Twitter and Nextdoor:
Sometimes we forget that the best public relations strategy is to be outstanding at what we do. That means doing solid police work that prevents and solves crime. No amount of Instagram posts capturing cops doing good things will survive failing to catch criminals doing bad things.
People still read their local papers, watch the local news and listen to their local radio station. Police departments should not abandon these traditional outlets when adopting new media strategies. These outlets can reach a demographic that social media may not, and with a depth and context that exceeds what social media posts can convey.
Maximizing positivity in contacts
Personal interactions are important to counteract the impersonal messages that show up in new media. A professional contact, an attempt to inject positive messages, taking time to listen and providing follow up will create individual narratives that can counteract impersonal critical media messages.
Although officers deal largely with people at a difficult time in their lives – whether getting a traffic citation, reporting being a crime victim, or involved in a dispute – we have the opportunity to inject empathy, listening and gratitude (thank you for cooperating, thank you for making a statement, thank you for your attention) into most encounters.
Get on your feet
The value of getting out of that patrol car can’t be overstated. Especially when an officer is equipped with business cards, junior police badges, 911 stickers or anything that can give a reason to interact with the public as eye-to-eye contact and small talk goes a long way to build trust.
Maybe it’s my rural upbringing but giving a subtle wave has remained a great connector to other motorists for me, and I always looked for opportunities to justify that little gesture while in a patrol car.
Sure, it’s great to get likes, views and smiling emojis, but it’s also great to get a handshake, a thank you and a wave with all the right fingers.