This past Saturday, October 6, 2007, I had the pleasure and honor of presenting our non-profit organization's annual Citizen Action award to a very special woman. On March 21, 2007, Ms. Lindsey Young observed a suspicious van parked on a dead-end fire road below her home. After two calls to 911, a sheriff's deputy arrived and upon having the suspect open the back of his van, the deputy found a woman who had been kidnapped from her home earlier that day, bound, hooded and gagged, and placed in a soundproof box constructed by the suspect, inside the van. Upon her safe release and the arrest of the suspect, evidence was found inside the van that contained the names of twelve more potential kidnapping victims for whom the suspect had also planned to kidnap for ransom. Ms. Young's determination and persistence in calling 911 twice and not giving up on her gut feeling saved this woman and perhaps twelve other victims. This is a wonderful story of how the public and above average citizens can make a difference to help law enforcement keep their communities safe however not all communities embrace this attitude.
Depending on where your agency is located, some members of the community may take a harsh stance towards speaking with the police and against those who do. This culture may be reinforced by well known rap musicians who glamorize the "Stop Snitchin'" culture with their music and outerwear with the words "Stop Snitchin'" boldly printed on them. With this mindset in place, trying to engage the citizens within these communities as volunteers for your agency can be difficult. While there are those within the community who will stand up for what is right, regardless of the backwards negative stereotype and potential backlash against them, the majority may be hesitant to step up and assist.
Think like an advertising executive, not a cop.
When attempting to engage members of your community to take the next step beyond simply sharing information and actually volunteering for your agency, depending on the attitudes within your community and the volunteers duties, thought should be given to how your volunteers with be perceived by their fellow citizens. As your volunteers integrate closer to the community, as in the case of a Citizens on Patrol program where your volunteers will be on the streets in uniform driving marked patrol vehicles, the need to "market" their efforts can be even more critical.
Common names for these types of programs used by many agencies that employ volunteers include; Citizens Patrol, Volunteers in Police Service, Citizen Observation Patrol, etc. and in fact accurately describe the units function. However using the words "patrol", "police", "observation", etc. within the unit name may create for some areas of your community, a sense of "us versus them." Instead of what it is really meant to be, a community partnership to help prevent crime , these names may discourage otherwise-willing citizens to participate.
When faced with troubled areas of your community, a different approach to marketing your volunteer unit to soften the perception could be as simple as a name change. Choosing a unit name such as Neighborhood Assistance Volunteers or Community Support Team removes what could be viewed as negative words. While it may be hard to understand this by just reading the unit names here in text, try visualizing the words large and in bold across the side of a patrol vehicle as it drives through a less-than-cooperative neighborhood. Words such as "assistance" and "support" certainly have more appeal to folks who, at best, may feel the police are not their friends and at worst case, their enemy. At some point, your volunteers will speak with their peers in the community, at which time they can explain their purpose. Sharing with them that they are volunteers with the "Community Support Team," or "Neighborhood Assistance Team," there to support and help them, is certainly more believable than sitting in a marked patrol car with the words "Citizen Observation Patrol" on the side in large bold letters, trying to explain how it is they are going to help by observing them.
Regardless of what you call your volunteer unit, if their purpose is to patrol and report suspicious activity and/or assist your officers with non-enforcement duties, they will in fact do so. However providing a softer and less threatening name can provide a certain level of credibility to the individuals who are performing the functions, which in turn leads to a certain level of respect, which in turn can help assist in the recognition and retention of the individuals. Not feeling singled out by their peers as "police in hiding" may also provide an incentive for members of the community to step up and perhaps join the team or at least pass on information that may help your agency to solve and prevent crimes.
When challenged with a community culture of "don't snitch," your goal should be to provide a name for you volunteer unit and volunteers that will help them integrate into the community without the fear of being labeled as "snitches" themselves, as much as that may be possible. Equally important when doing so is to help reinforce that name with substance by providing your volunteers with tools and resources that can in fact assist and support the community. Some simple resources to consider would be providing your volunteers with a list of community agencies that offer help to folks who may be having problems paying their utility bills, resolving disputes with neighbors and landlords, finding educational programs to increase their self-worth and more. Other ideas may include providing your volunteer units with donated child safety car seats, and/or bicycle helmets for families that may not otherwise be able to afford them. Other items to consider may be new donated basketballs, footballs and games to give children in the community something constructive to do, rather than just hanging out on the street corner. Doing so will help your volunteers "walk the walk" if challenged by their peers to demonstrate how they are "assisting and supporting" the community versus "working for the police." In the end, your volunteers can help to establish long term bonds that will help bridge the gap between your agency and the community.