Community Policing and Customer Service

One of the nice things about getting higher up on the food chain in the command staff is that you do not have to get involved in what seem to be the "flavor of the week" trainings and presentations that are offered to police departments. One of the bad things about getting higher up in the food chain in the command staff is that when an offering or idea crosses the chief's desk that he thinks is a great idea but just cannot seem to fit it in his schedule, guess who gets the call to represent the department?

And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in a seminar with a group of business professionals, brainstorming on the subject of customer services. Now I am a proponent of community policing, as I truly feel that practicing it makes an effective way to get things done. It also helps to build a good relationship with your community for fighting crime, and that is what were are here to do. The idea that our community members were actually customers was not one that I heavily considered in my concept of policing.

As we moved through the session, I was starting to enjoy myself. I was getting to offer opinions on ways that all these people could run their business customer services operations better. It was a trip because as I told them as far as most of my community felt, we had the easiest job in the world, because as far as I could see, everybody had a better way to do it than we did. I should have known that it was too good to last, because as the wheel churned around to me, I said that while I was really enjoying the class, I did not feel that we had customers per se to deal with.

As you can imagine, that did not go over well Even my attempt to cloud the issue by using the expression per se did not work. I was now faced with the prospect of being helped by non-law enforcement types to define what our service was, and to identify the customers we serviced. It was a task the smugly-smiling little individual who was running our group seemed to relish, and I made a mental note to mention his name to our traffic enforcement units.

Over the next hour, we went through several exercises that, while they were not fun, did open my eyes to several issues. The work process we went through brought to light several issues. First was the fact that, even though our business is law enforcement, we do in fact have customers and that our product is service. I knew we provide services and such, but the fact that our communities were consumers of it was not something I really grasped. Secondly, I was not aware of how many different groups we serviced and how wide ranging the services were. It became apparent that we provide customer service to at least four different groups.

Obviously, we service our respective communities. I have read and seen hundreds of mission statements over the years. I do not think I have seen one yet that does not have the statement "serving the community," or words to that effect, in it. It is part of the mantra of community policing that we all are or were deeply involved in, at least, when there was federal money around. Now, this was a surprise to me in some ways, but we also serve violators of the law. If you had asked me this back when I first came on the job, I would have readily agreed that we did; it was just a matter of how we cooked them--but that is another story. In serving the violators we are representing the communities we protect by making sure that the criminal's rights are protected and that our community's interests are safeguarded. We serve other agencies by assisting them on calls, providing back-up in cases, delivering mutual training, and all the other hundreds of things we do to make sure we are protecting our communities. Last, and definitely not the least, is we serve the other officers and parts of our departments. When you apply this concept across the board, it really becomes obvious that the people we employ or supervise are our customers, and we are theirs. All of our departments want cooperation between the various units; we also want respect and acknowledgement that goes in both directions. It is imperative that we be seen as a team, and not a collection of parts moving mostly in the same direction.

After digesting this education, I learned several other things about customer service that will help us to help improve our fledgling customer service efforts. Customer service is designed around the communities you service and the people who deliver it. There is no specific tactic or template for it, meaning that one size does not fit all, and you will have to design an organization-specific way of doing it. Implementing a customer service concept is not going to be an easy task. While I am fairly open to trying new stuff and concepts, let us just say that thinking outside the box as a collective group in law enforcement is not one of our strong points. We often have difficulty in recognizing the need for change in the way we deliver our services. One of the things I have come to accept is that it is difficult to change institutional culture in the police field, as we tend to resist change. We are suspicious in nature. However, it is a viable concept that everyone who comes into contact with our agencies should be provided with quality service, no matter how they that contact is made with us. Developing and implementing a customer service concept within our community policing philosophy will hopefully make our communities a better, safer place to live and work in for all of us. At the least, maybe some of our community members will start to wave with all their fingers, instead of using the "Hawaiian good luck sign."

Editor's Note: If the phrase "Remember the Pueblo" doesn't mean anything to you, that last reference won't, either.