I came across a nifty story by AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan on how criminal justice agencies are putting retired race horses to work.
According to the story, retired racehorses are purchased by rescue groups and placed with police agencies for use by mounted patrols. Others, the story says, are re-homed in prisons and cared for by the inmates. Although the cost of maintaining a horse is anything but insignificant, the return in good public relations is almost incalculable.
Think about it: Police dogs aren't for general petting. In fact, it's normally discouraged. But few things produce commonality like animals do. People want to touch the animal, ask questions, open a dialogue with those who hold the leash — or in this case, the reins.
Before I started writing this column, I read some of the most recent police-related stories in the news. There were reports of law enforcement officers (LEOs) being arrested and charged with crimes ranging from embezzlement to perjury to murder. Now I don't for a minute believe law enforcement officers are, by nature, worse people than the average Joe. I think because LEOs are in a position of authority and more visible than other professions when it comes to criminal activities, they get more than their fair share of bad publicity, and it's appropriate to spotlight criminal activity by those who are sworn to protect the citizenry and enforce the law. But I also believe law enforcement in general must constantly work on its image in the communities it serves in order to be viewed as someone to be respected.
We all know how some parents use police to intimidate their kids. Who hasn't heard an adult say to a child, "If you don't behave, that officer over there is going to take you to jail?" Dumb parenting for sure — and I used to like to clear that up on the spot, telling the adults they were building a fear and loathing of police in their child, and if the kid ever needed an officer, he or she would be too afraid to approach one. Hopefully it gave them food for thought.
With public relations battles like this to fight all of the time, police need to sow the seeds of good will whenever possible. Programs like a mounted patrol offer the perfect opportunity to raise visibility and encourage public interaction in a positive way. Naturally, not all departments can add horses to their rosters. My own community, for example, is much too spread out for mounted patrols. But there are other things chiefs can do to place the public squarely in their corner and purchase goodwill points against the day when scandal or hardship (such as budget cuts) force them against the wall:
- If you don't already use bike and foot patrols, find a place for them. Nothing works better than having officers in a position of both high visibility and approachability.
- Consider setting up small community substations — a concept the Japanese have been using for decades — where officers can write reports, keep their eyes open and get to know the residents.
- Encourage officers to become active in their communities. Why not sponsor a police softball or bowling team or dedicate a group of officers whenever a community effort begins (cleaning up a vacant lot, planting trees, working with youth, helping an elderly person with yard maintenance)?
- Never pass up an effort to speak to a group. In fact, seek out opportunities to talk to civic, religious and social groups.
By using unconventional, but community-friendly tactics, agencies can not only insulate their departments from some budget problems, but build up public good will that can be cashed in when, and if, the department hits a bump in the road.