Even before you become a chief or sheriff, you will have to attend the dreaded community meeting. It is our nemesis, and many careers have taken a nose dive due to a faulty public meeting performance. I don’t care how well you can delegate others, sooner or later you have to attend. There is a tactical science in preparing for and surviving these things. I have been going since the days of community policing and still do. There are no boiler plate directions to get you through this, but I will offer you some lessons learned.
Wear your uniform. I was taught that if you've messed up, go “dress up and 'fess up.” Not that we mess up all of the time and have to face the fire, but this old saying has some solid points. As a young lieutenant I was conducting a community meeting when a few folks came up to me asking where the chief was. In this case the new chief was in a business suit, as many chiefs and sheriffs wear one daily. One gentleman stated he could not tell the chief from an insurance salesman. This made me think. As a chief or sheriff you are paid good money, and wearing the uniform is not asking too much so citizens can recognize you. Personally, I have always been a uniform-wearing chief, the same one as my officers, in fact (no white shirt!). This exhibits that you are a member of the department, not just a stuffed shirt or salesman.
Knowledge is power. Do your homework and perform diligent research on the issues, the area or zone where the meeting is located. Know the history of the neighborhood. If this area has a tawdry past with criminality or has been overlooked by the local government (no road repairs), there will be identity issues. The pride of citizens and businesses in their neighborhood will be apparent if you do not recognize it. Additionally, perform research and have the data available with you or staff accompanying you. Recent criminality is not all Part 1 crimes. It could be one dysfunctional teenager creating quality of life complaints.
Know your strong points and weak points. Make sure you know and have a remedy for your failings or weak points. Do not soft shoe your way around them if everyone believes your department has a failing. Listen, and then respond logically to address the issue and turn it into a strength. When you go on about how wonderful your agency is and extol its good points (which they may know or don’t care about), this does nothing to address a failing. Instead this group wants to be assured that if there is a perceived fault, you see it and have addressed it.
Beat officer(s), have them there. These are the officers that the neighborhood knows, interacts with and probably trusts more than you. Praise your staff for their knowledge, skills and abilities. If there is a problem with beat or zone officers, they know who to complain to. Explain the process, but remind all they can compliment an officer, too, and then explain how you handle compliments and how much they mean to the officer.
Have other bureaus or division representatives present. It takes more than crime to create a neighborhood’s decline. I have attended several meetings where the police went unscathed, but the Public Works Bureau was crucified over snow removal or potholes. Potholes are often street maintenance’s number one failing. If the other bureaus do not attend, have their names and numbers available. Additionally, perform a proper referral for the person with a complaint. Tell them you are going to contact this person/desk the next day, and if it is not addressed by a call or visit and rectified, you will contact them again. Here you are their advocate (another win for the police).
The elected official who represents that district should be notified and invited. I don’t care what the title supervisor, alder person, council person or whatever; be sure they know about this. Key to political-police survival is for nobody to get blind-side. If the elected official has knowledge of an issue it is never the full story. Share information and strategies to address them.
Location. Most of these meetings are held in local churches, schools, libraries and other public venues. Do a quick visit to know the lay of the land, since you are on the visiting team. It is important to know the location of creature comforts (restrooms), fire exits, lighting and ADA accessibility. Have an officer in the area and parking lot to provide a sense of safety for attendees. Often seniors do not like to attend in the evening hours. Keep an officer outside; it is hard to explain why a car got broken into during a meeting. This officer can also provide a sense of security when they exit.
Timing. You need to be the first to arrive. Greet and speak to as many folks as you can. Often someone has a question you can address before the meeting, or if they have a point that you want to be raised in public then encourage them to do so. Have plenty of business cards ready. Often you can cool off a hothead with some personal attention…most just want to tell you their story. Be the last to leave—don’t hit the exit door until everyone else has gone. If you do have to go to another appointment, explain it. Closing conversations will garner information and also seal up any open questions. The biggest hint here is be personable and a good listener.
Watch your body language! We all know it is not what you say but how you say it. Never, ever smile when speaking about death or even grin when people are speaking about their victimization. The slightest grimace or sneer will set off all of the good you came there to do. Do not look at your watch, cellphone or exhibit uninterested behaviors. Show interest and energy in all of your actions. While we are on language, do not use police jargon or signals unless it is meant to explain a point. Keep the language contemporary to the audience.
Closing. Express your gratitude for their attendance. Give them the praise that they deserve. In some countries citizens do not associate with the police and are afraid to be with them. Here we are grateful for their input as customers.
Finally, if you say you are going to do something, do it. If you do not keep your promise to make a referral or check into a case and you don’t do it, you will regret it. The next time that you attend this meeting you will be portrayed as someone who does not keep their word. But if you do, they will defend you for taking up their issues. It's all about trust.
This is not an end-all list by any means. You cannot necessarily develop this skill by reading about it, sometimes it’s like learning to swim—you just have to get into the water. Good luck and keep your edge sharp.
William L. “Bill” Harvey is a native Virginian. He is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville and served for over 23 years with the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department. He served as the chief of police of the Lebanon City (Pa.) Police Department for over seven years and is chief of police at the Ephrata (Pa.) Police Department.