By Chaplain Terry L. Harrison
Palmdale/Lancaster/W. Hollywood Stations
THE VIEW FROM THE PASSENGER’S SEAT: PUBLIC RELATIONS
I always begin a ride-along with a deputy I’ve never ridden with before by asking if he’s ever had a chaplain ride with him. For those who haven’t, I then explain that I’m not there to preach or to convert them. My job is to be there if they would like to discuss what may be troubling them with someone “outside” the Department. (I usually explain my connection with ESSB, too.) If they don’t have anything to talk about, then my job is to stay out of their way, let them do their job and offer any support I can.
Well, I would like to offer some support in the form of an idea, even if in the beginning it sounds like a complaint. It’s an understatement to say that law enforcement all across the country is under intense scrutiny by the news media and by various activist groups, which, of course, has drawn the scrutiny (some might say unfair criticism) of the general public. On the one hand, we all know that law enforcement officers are public servants, and that means public accountability. On the other hand, we should be aware of the general public’s ignorance of exactly what law enforcement does or legally can do, as well as the sometimes false misrepresentation by the news media or an activist group. It doesn’t make the job any easier when the people you’re actually trying to serve and protect see you as a threat instead.
I’m proud to say that all the deputies I’ve ridden with have been well-disciplined professionals who take their jobs seriously. But here’s where the support may sound like a complaint: I’ve also noticed, at times, from my perspective, a jarring lack of communication with the public about what exactly the deputy or other peace officer is doing and why.
Are deputies pressed for time? Yes. Sometimes the “call box” on the patrol car’s computer is backed up worse than a bad toilet. And if that’s not pressing enough, there is plenty of paperwork — an ever-growing pile, it seems — that needs to be done. Added to that is the pressure to cover all the bases when conducting business, from following correct procedures during a routine traffic stop to being aware of so many details and consequences (both real and possible) when a deputy draws his weapon. And then, let’s be honest, the reasons for some of the calls turn out to be questionable and a waste of time. For example, some parents want a deputy to “discipline” their child for them, or some callers want to share a life story when just the facts of the immediate complaint will do. I understand all that. I see all that. But just as a matter of good public relations, it means a lot when a deputy takes a minute to explain “what’s next” to the involved people.
Obviously, the person wanted a deputy there or he wouldn’t have called in the first place. Often, the person has what he thinks is a legitimate legal matter he wants to resolve. So when a deputy shows up, that’s a good thing. But sometimes I’ve seen the public being left bewildered by what appears to them to be abrupt and even rude behavior by a deputy — for example, asking questions without explaining why the information is needed, or sometimes leaving a call without explaining what the outcome is or what comes next to the person who called. At the same time, I know it often seems like there isn’t enough time for these niceties. But what a difference they can make!
When responding to a call, does the deputy need a person’s full name and date of birth? Of course. However, saying something like, “Ma’am, may I have your full name and date of birth so I can correctly identify you in the report?” goes a long way in helping the person know why the information is needed. When a matter is a civil dispute rather than a legal one, offering a brief explanation instead of just saying, “There’s nothing I can do, sir. You’ll have to take it to court,” can leave a person with a sense of having been helped, even when you couldn’t solve their problem.
Is that a pain in the neck? Sometimes it is. But like it or not, a big part of public relations is keeping the public on our side. In other words, just taking a moment to inform the public can go a long way toward keeping the relationship smooth and assuring the public that their law enforcement servants really do give their best in any situation.
How can I contact a chaplain? Chaplains are available at their unit of assignment, or by calling the Employee Support Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500.