By Hassan Aden, Chief of Police, Greenville, North Carolina
here is a growing conversation around the issue of police legitimacy and the impact of public support, trust, and cooperation on the police’s ability to ensure public safety. Most of the research focus in this area is on officer behavior, citizen satisfaction, and police activities in neighborhoods. However, law enforcement leaders should recognize that legitimacy in policing begins at a much earlier stage than that; it begins in the strategic planning process, specifically with community inclusion in the process to assist in determining what activities the police should conduct. Inclusion of the community in a meaningful way in the strategic planning process provides an agency with an avenue for establishing, regaining, or increasing police legitimacy.
Identifying the Challenge
The City of Greenville is located in eastern North Carolina and is part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area of 180,000 residents. Greenville’s Part 1 crime numbers totaled 4,300 for 2012 and included reporting districts encompassing 35 square miles.
When the author was appointed chief of police in November 2012, he began a series of community dialogue sessions, as well as a comprehensive review of management and research studies on the city and the police department, to gauge the areas of priority for his administration. One particular research paper and survey caught his attention. The study was conducted by the University of East Carolina’s Criminal Justice Department and focused on citizens’ perception of crime and their satisfaction with police services. This survey provided him with insight on how the Greenville Police Department was perceived. Most of the survey was consistent with the information the author received from the community dialogue, including the fact that satisfaction with policing services was divided among racial demographics. The African-American population’s response to the survey indicated less satisfaction with police service and specifically focused on the lack of customer service as the main issue, not lack of service—an important distinction. However, it was clear that a history of division in the community and the perception of a low level of trust between the African-American citizens and the police department existed. This distrust was negatively impacting the department’s ability to provide for the safety of all citizens of Greenville, and was a situation that needed to be addressed.
In his assessment of the Greenville Police Department, the author determined that it was a progressive, ethical, and efficient agency. He found that the department was primarily operating under the professional model of policing and had not fully transitioned to the community policing model. This is not a criticism, but rather an observation; this long transition period exists in many U.S. law enforcement agencies. The author’s assessment of the policing model in Greenville was based on his continuous study of police management and numerous assessments as a CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.) team leader. Having a more robust community policing model in place could contribute to an enhanced perception of customer service and trust among certain populations in the community.
Community Partners as Part of the Solution
Repairing relationships that have deteriorated over many years, or even generations, in a community takes a lot of time and effort; these relationships cannot be mended overnight. However, taking steps to break down past barriers to community partnership and collaboration can go a long way to reinforcing a police department’s dedication to its community.
In light of the research into how the Greenville Police Department was perceived by an important segment of the community, it seemed clear that the Greenville Police Department would benefit the most by reaching out directly to the leaders of the community. The timing for this opportunity was ideal, since the author was a new leader in the community and would be conducting a strategic planning session with the department anyway, and he wanted to demonstrate internally and externally that he expected collaboration, community-oriented service, and trust and transparency to be priorities for him and the police department.
In seeking guidance on how to most appropriately incorporate the community in the planning process, it was revealed that very few police departments across the United States have worked very closely with the community to guide the department through its mission and strategic plan development. Some agencies included the community by way of survey feedback; while that is a step forward, it is by its very nature a static and one-sided means of communication, not as productive or impactful as a dialogue.
Typically, the strategic planning process for police departments is an internal administrative process, which may include some feedback from elected or governing officials. However, there is the potential for immense benefit to an agency by inviting community stakeholders into the planning process. The relationships that are built and or strengthened through the strategic planning process when community stakeholders are actively engaged far outweigh the logistical hurdles of bringing everyone to the table.
How to Make It a Success
The People: As the chief, the author personally invited various citizen stakeholder groups that had not traditionally worked with each other and historically had not worked collaboratively with the police department. This activity was intended to build ownership and buy-in from the community for the activities of the police department. Most of these community stakeholders expressed shock when their assistance was requested in developing the new police department mission and working with the Greenville Police Department to establish goals for its strategic plan. Since they had never been asked to participate in something like this with the police department, the author spent time talking individually with the stakeholders about why he was asking for their participation, explaining how he valued their perspective, and emphasizing the impact that their voices would have on shaping the future of their police department.
The community stakeholders who actively contributed to the strategic planning process included the following:
- The Greenville Chamber of Commerce
- East Carolina University students and administrators (representing approximately 30,000 people)
- Vidant Medical Center (the largest shock trauma center in eastern North Carolina)
- Neighborhood Association Board (representing approximately 30 neighborhood associations in the city)
- Greenville Property Management Association (The city’s housing market is composed of approximately 65 percent rental properties.)
- NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
- Southern Christian Leadership Council
- The Human Relations Council
- Several non-profit organizations
Agencies considering inviting the community into their strategic planning process ought to invest significant time in identifying who the key stakeholders are in their communities. These stakeholders could be formal or informal leaders. Think beyond your typical go-to groups.
The Place: The venue for the session is critically important and should be comfortable, neutral, and accessible by all who are invited to participate. A location that was central and accessible by public transportation was selected. A venue was intentionally chosen that was non-governmental so the physical space did not convey any unspoken implications of favoritism toward any of the stakeholders represented. A very welcoming environment was deliberately created, and, because time is so valuable, breakfast and lunch were catered so participants could work right through the day.
The Work: The strategic planning session was professionally facilitated to keep participants on task and ensure that the process was delivering the desired outcomes. The facilitator, a highly regarded community member, donated her services when she learned about the significance of what was being done. Having an independent facilitator also helped the process feel more equitable among the stakeholder groups, including the police department. The role of the facilitator is critical. Some conflict likely will arise during the dialogue, and how the facilitator manages the conflict will either enable or disable the conversation.
The facilitator began the day with a series of exercises with the group to pick out key words about the police department, the community, and the relationship between the two. Once that was accomplished, a pictorial representation of the strengths and weaknesses was available. The facilitator used the factors that the group identified to guide the group through a consensus building process to develop a new Greenville Police Department mission statement and, from there, the goals and actions necessary to achieve it. Once all of the stakeholders are assembled, there is a risk that the meeting could devolve into a frustrating complaint session that neither builds partnerships nor helps to establish a collaborative plan. For Greenville, the very structured nature of the process enabled everyone to effectively exchange ideas, address conflict, and build a plan together.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the community stakeholders who had expressed shock and, in some cases skepticism, at being invited to participate in the strategic planning process expressed support for the process and the department. Proactively including the community helped to build their buy-in and ownership of the direction of the police department and helped to break down some of the previous barriers to trust and collaboration. Additionally, this process resulted in new partnerships and new advocates for the department in the community.
The new Greenville Police Department mission statement, as developed through a genuine partnership between the citizens of Greenville and the Greenville Police Department states, “The Greenville Police Department exists to enhance public safety and quality of life, in partnership with ALL people in OUR community, by preventing crime with honor and integrity.” To arrive at those 28 words—the words that guide each individual officer and the Greenville Police Department as a whole on a daily basis—was a remarkable and somewhat challenging process that took a lot of work and presented considerable risk. However, having gone through the process together, the community and the police department now share in the responsibility to uphold the mission.
The three-year strategic plan is designed as a “living” document that will serve as a roadmap for the Greenville Police Department’s actions. The goals are very specific and have timelines and assigned points of contact who are responsible for development and implementation. The goals are realistic and based on citizen input and dialogue. Based on the strategic planning session, the goals will focus on career development, organizational alignment, crime reduction, crash reduction, leadership and ethics, community engagement, and playing an active role in economic development. These goals will be reviewed and actively discussed annually with stakeholders to gauge progress and direction.
The benefits of this process were almost immediately noticeable, as citizen complaints began to go down, despite explicit changes to simplify the procedures to report misconduct and the intake of complaints. Community groups that previously would not speak to the police now have regularly scheduled meetings with the department to keep communications open. The overall relationship between the police department and the community in Greenville is changing for the better, and the community is partnering with the department to resolve complex crimes as well as matters pertaining to public order and quality of life.
This kind of outreach and deliberate engagement of community groups, which do not traditionally engage with each other—or with the police—is a very different type of organizational behavior for a police agency. When dealing with police legitimacy issues, it is commonly held that the behavior of individual officers defines what good policing is or should be. However, based on the experience in Greenville, organizational behavior, whether it is a community-based mission-development session or a full strategic planning process, helps set the tone and the stage for individual officer’s actions, conduct, and behaviors to be better received and accepted.
A community-inclusive strategic planning process will likely expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of an agency, but will also help build a unified plan that has community support in order to move the agency forward. Agencies seeking to improve their relationships with their communities, and ultimately to increase their legitimacy within their communities, ought to consider this as part of their comprehensive community partnership and engagement strategy. If the process is managed properly, it can have a significant, positive impact on community relations and partnerships. ♦
|Hassan Aden is the chief of police for the Greenville Police Department in North Carolina, where he was appointed in 2012. Prior to that, he served as deputy chief in the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department. Chief Aden has more than 25 years of law enforcement service and has extensive experience in the administrative, investigative, and operational aspects of policing. He has demonstrable success in such areas as crime control policies and strategic planning and was inducted into George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy’s “Evidence-Based Policing Hall of Fame.” He holds a master of public administration degree from American University’s School of Public Affairs. Contact Chief Aden via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
Please cite as:
Hassan Aden, "Inviting the Community into the Police Strategic Planning Process," The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 28–31.