Educating both agency employees and community members is important. But educating agency members should be the first priority. For departments with little funding, or in some cases, no funding for training, this may seem like the end of the road. It is not.
All law enforcement agencies have unique training opportunities. Learning from those who have "been there and done that" is sometimes better than learning from certified instructors who have limited street experience. Some agencies pool training assets, where one officer receives formal training then trains department employees. Later this employee may take his training on the road to employees of other departments. Rural agencies must tap into every available resource.
Preparing the community
Once the leader of the law enforcement organization garners the support of its employees, it is time to get the community involved. There are three simple steps departments can take to prepare the community. These include:
• Building media relations:
Unlike narcotics investigations in larger jurisdictions, rural investigations need to gain assistance from the media. Strong media ties can help garner public support by giving the department needed exposure. Local radio and newspapers crave law enforcement information. Should the agency begin a new program and neglect to inform the media, those entities will be banging on the door.
A gentle word of caution, however. Give the media enough information to realize what is happening, but not so much information as to jeopardize the investigation. Don't tell the media that a search warrant will be served at 123 Maple St.; instead tell the media that the department is taking a proactive role in narcotics investigations. By giving the media information, not only is the agency now transparent, it will become a trusted agency through this transparency. Rural agencies do not want to be cloaked in secrecy. The more open a small agency is, the more support community members will provide.
• Educating the community:
Thinking out-of-the-box, one agency taught its citizens about drug dangers, drug identification and signs and symptoms of use through a unique educational program. This agency had its employees — all five of them — hold informal meetings, also known as "coffees," to educate citizens. A few employees even received permission from the local school district to use available classrooms for the informational sessions.
Other forms of education which have proven successful involve the Internet. Some agencies use local Web pages to educate citizens.
• Encouraging citizen participation:
Though many departments neglect this, citizen participation that culminates in removing a drug dealer from the streets, or helping a user of controlled substances become a productive citizen, will assist law enforcement time and again. One of the greatest proactive approaches to controlled substance investigations involves the use of non-sworn agency personnel. Some years ago, the secretary of a small department was invited to participate in a proactive approach to narcotics investigation. The secretary held a "coffee" session at her residence and instructed citizens on how to report suspicious activity. The next day, a citizen notified dispatch of a suspicious activity. This information was enough for law enforcement to apply for and obtain an anticipatory search warrant. Due to the information provided by this citizen, police seized more than 500 grams of methamphetamine.
Once community information begins to flow into the law enforcement agency, it is an investigative and logistic matter to use the information and produce a quality case. While the agency has not increased its work force nor assigned officers to a specialized narcotics enforcement team, sworn employees can use community information to perform knock-and-talks, anticipatory search warrants, seize trash left at a curb side, or have citizens act as the eyes and ears of the department. The training of non-sworn employees helps them know exactly what information is needed by sworn members to conduct simple but effective investigations.