Advancing a Free Society

Police, Social Networking, and Regime Change

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Importance of the Police Image

The recent wave of international network-inspired protest demonstrations, and regime change in Egypt, have significant implications not only for United States foreign policy, they also have important consequences for U.S. domestic efforts in shaping police strategies to deal with anti-government crowd protests. Clearly, the influence of the internet in enabling and encouraging huge, potentially violent gatherings is just as relevant in Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and freer societies such as Great Britain and the United States.

The anti-globalization riots in 1999 overwhelmed Seattle police, resulted in the crowd trashing of downtown, and caused former President Bill Clinton, who was in attendance at the Free Trade Conference, to be whisked away under heavy protection. The London uprising that damaged Piccadilly in 2011 also had common elements with the uprisings currently spreading throughout the Arab world. Police actions in all of the instances were both causative and consequential in handling the protest. Regardless of ideology or whether the central governments were totalitarian or democratic, the ability of the police to comprehend and interact with the distinctive cultures at work can and does influence outcomes.

My training many years ago in the New York City Police Academy emphasized treating everyone fairly and avoiding discriminatory conduct.  Nevertheless, after graduation, as a 21-year-old rookie patrolman in New York’s Harlem I suffered culture shock observing the poverty, crime, violence, and unofficial segregation surrounding the police, things not mentioned during our training.

One day, an attractive, well-dressed, 30-year-old African-American woman bleeding from a head wound ran up to me on my foot beat.  “Officer,” she said, “I know you’re terribly busy, but I’ve just been robbed!”  Actually, I hadn’t been busy at all, simply standing on a street corner.

The criminal had escaped, and a number of witnesses, although sympathetic to the victim, declined to give me information which would have led to the capture of the armed robber.

What image did this innocent woman, who had been viciously attacked, have of the police to compel her to apologize for reporting a brutal crime?  What view of the police did the witnesses hold that kept them from alerting a nearby policeman who could have prevented the crime?  During the rest of my 35-year career in policing, I never forgot that incident.

The lesson I took away from that incident was that police departments, in order to prevent crime, have to understand and work within the cultures of the communities they serve.  Somehow, despite fine training and many good police officers, the New York City Police

Department(NYPD) hadn’t convinced highly victimized, personally law-abiding people that the police really wanted to keep them from harm, and that a partnership between the community and police was the best way of protecting them, their families and their property.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the NYPD rules actually specified that “Members of the force shall not engage in unnecessary conversation with the public.”  Little wonder that people regarded the police as aloof and indifferent to their problems.

Community Cultures: Building Trust

In 1973, I was appointed police chief of Kansas City,

Missouri, a Midwestern city of half a million population.  The same lack of public and police partnership that existed in New York haunted Kansas City.  As a result, we reached out with a number of new approaches to convince neighborhood people that the men and women of

the department were dedicated to protecting them, even at the risk of police lives.  The department recruited leaders from the high-crime neighborhoods to conduct cultural awareness classes to help police officers understand the nuances of different cultures that shaped their citizens’ responses to crime and the police.  At the same time, the department began to have beat officers and district sergeants interact with neighborhood people, with school and parent organizations during community meetings of homeowners, and with apartment renters and other groups. The value of these approaches was quickly apparent.

Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and La Raza, representing the African-American and Latino communities, began to participate with the police in positive crime-prevention efforts.  Personal contact between officers and those they served provided invaluable intelligence for the police on what crime problems existed, and the needs of citizens.  Officers soon realized that the overwhelming majority of people were supportive.

The people wanted more good policing, not less.  For the first time, localities saw officers as individuals eager to protect them rather than aloof strangers--outsiders occupying their neighborhoods who existed simply to give them traffic citations, or arrest them for minor violations.

After a year or so, crime began to decrease.  Improved relations with minority groups made people more willing to report crime to the police, provide information as witnesses and, when they sat on a jury, to believe police testimony. In 1974, Newspaper Enterprises named the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) the best in the nation. In addition to the decline in crime, the KCPD began to significantly succeed in recruiting more women, African Americans and Latinos to the force, which in turn reinforced the idea of a police and communitypartnership.

In 1976, I moved west to become police chief of San Jose, California, now a city of more than a million people with a majority of the inhabitants members of minority groups embracing a wide variety of cultures and languages.

Besides introducing the cultural awareness training and outreach programs that had succeeded in Kansas City, in San Jose we had to find ways to respond to, and deal with, other challenges as well.  More than fifty thousand Vietnamese had relocated almost overnight to San Jose following the fall of Saigon in 1975.  They were overwhelmingly good, law-abiding citizens who quickly assimilated into the community.

The newest arrivals were gratified to enjoy freedoms Americans take for granted and their strong, family-oriented culture enabled them to quickly move into businesses and seek personal advancement through public education. But like other immigrant groups, past and present, the Vietnamese also experienced some problems.

Many of these respectable immigrants had suffered at the hands of the police and government in the country they had fled.  A number of young males drifted into criminal gangs that were quick to exploit the reluctance of other Vietnamese immigrants to trust the police and seek protection from gangsters.  Home invasion robberies and extortion of businesses became serious problems in the Vietnamese neighborhoods.

The San Jose Police Department began a major effort to reach out to the Vietnamese immigrants to convince them to partner with police officers against criminals. Our first efforts were similar to those that had worked in Kansas City, with cultural awareness training classes, beat officers leaving their patrol cars to visit business and neighborhood groups, and distribution of police crime-prevention literature in both Vietnamese and English explaining how and when to call the police and how the American criminal justice system functions. Outreach efforts through Vietnamese language radio, television and print media were also effective in educating the new arrivals on how to improve their safety by working with the police.

The department was fortunate to receive a great deal of assistance from the U.S. Defense Language Institute in nearby Monterey, which volunteered to provide a 24-hour translation service in Vietnamese and other languages.

Within a couple of years, these outreach efforts succeeded to a point where San Jose became the safest large city in the United States.

Police Culture: Challenging Mythology:

Learning about the cultures of the communities police serve is not enough. Police departments also have cultures that need to be learned about—and sometimes changed.

The historical myth of policing is that tough, alert cops prevent crime despite public indifference or hostility.  This misconception has to yield to research findings showing that most crimes are solved, and convictions obtained, when ordinary people call 911 in a timely fashion, serve as witnesses, and are not biased against police testimony when they serve on a jury.

In response to our early management efforts in 1977, the police union issued an official reprimand to me because, “The police chief had tried to please the public.” Obviously, cops too, had to be persuaded that outreach programs were not merely superficial public relations efforts coming from police headquarters.

Outreach is, in reality, a valuable tool of beat officers in achieving their primary duty of protecting life and property.  The best police department is a police department that is, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln, “Of the people, by the people, and for the people.”


Police forces in tyrannical governments exist to protect the ruling class not the people. It is self-evident that such police forces are incapable of respecting and successfully interacting with the various cultures they police. It is equally clear, that superficial pretenses of reform or mere regime changes themselves do not themselves result in police and cultural changes that will assuage the hunger for increased liberty fueling the current forces of insurrection.

The western democracies, however, would be well served to avoid regarding the growing widespread public uprisings as a solely phenomenon of the Arab World. Somewhere in the mix of responses by the freer nations is the need to improve domestic police and political adaptability in dealing with mass protests. It is additionally imperative that the United States and its allies develop clear and consistent policies on how to respond to foreign uprisings.

(photo credit: Marcos Vasconcelos)