I always appreciate hearing from readers, and sometimes I find a message so good I need to share it. That's the case with the one I received from Chief Scott Gooding of the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office.
Chief Gooding commented on some of my suggestions for getting elected officials on the same page as your agency ("Clarifying misconceptions," February 2009) and stepped it up with some other excellent ideas that he has graciously agreed to share with you. I think his points have a lot of merit, especially in tough economic times when law enforcement is fighting for every penny. Gone, at least for now, are the days when police could legitimately expect most of budgetary needs to be financed by elected officials. Agencies are losing positions and are looking for cheaper ways to train and educate officers, putting fleet, equipment and facility needs on hold, which can be dangerous as well as hinder crime fighting capabilities. Having sympathetic public officials can tip the balance when every governmental department is going to the mat for budget money.
How can you keep your department's needs foremost in the minds of the people responsible for allocating tax dollars, and also build a positive and lasting relationship with elected officials? Here's what Gooding adds to my original column, in his own words with a wee bit of editing by me:
- Take your commissioners (councilmen, etc.) on a tour of the communications or dispatch center, especially the 911 call centers. It's inevitable that once elected, they will receive calls from residents complaining they couldn't get through to the police. These tours are enlightening; commissioners will now know exactly how every call is handled and routed.
- Have commissioners do ride-alongs. Of course the personnel chosen to take the official is always important. The chronic complainer is not a good choice.
- Get the elected officials involved in the Citizens Emergency Response Team. This is a civilian group that assists law enforcement before and after natural disasters. Having elected officials involved in this way also makes it easier to concentrate on your job during stressful events.
- Keep elected officials (including the city or county manager) informed of what's going on via e-mail. Short e-mails to each official prevent many phone calls (and can cut down on repetition). Just make sure ALL officials are included — don't leave anyone out of the loop.
By thoroughly familiarizing your elected officials with your department, how it operates, and letting them see your officers and support personnel for what they are — hardworking, honest, dedicated individuals who put their lives on the line for the taxpayers daily — will take much of the mystery out of policing. The old habit of building a barrier between the department and the outside only results in mutual mistrust and criticism.
Furthermore, Gooding suggests that by building a bridge between officials and your agency, you also lesson the impact of critical incidents. He says, "I have also found [it helps] prevent the shock and awe of duty deaths, killing of suspects and handling natural catastrophes."
I'd like to add that when you develop a rapport with your elected officials, you also amplify your chances for a better agency image. Those who understand your agency, its employees, its mission and challenges, will not only be better inclined to fund it, but to defend it, listen to its ideas and push for the right kinds of improvements.
Government that cloaks itself in secrecy or assumes a paternalistic role is neither successful nor trusted. Bring your elected officials onboard by being up-front with them. It's the stitch in time thing: Being proactive can help you avoid the need to be reactive.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.