In 1995, fresh out of a big-city police academy in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, my focus was on arresting bad guys to make my community a better place to live. I had been “programmed” to seek out offenders and bring them to justice by any means necessary. I was taught that the word “no” was not a suitable response and there was no reason to try and communicate with anyone who refused to cooperate with my demands. By the time I began to patrol the streets with my training officer, I was amped up and ready to kick in doors and heroically dive through windows to save a damsel in distress.
That way of thinking didn’t last long at all. My “superhero” mindset landed me in an endless string of physical battles with people on the streets for the simplest of infractions. And although my arrest numbers were above average for a rookie officer, so too were the bumps, bruises and scrapes that seemed to come along with it.
As I continued to gain experience as a beat officer working in a high-crime area, I began to settle down and readjust my thinking. I started to meet veteran police officers and I studied how they went about patrolling their beats and interacting with the community. I quickly learned that by having brief conversations with people in the community, we could accomplish our goal of peace in the neighborhood. By simply acknowledging a person and wishing them a good day, I saw the veterans gaining trust and respect.
I recall working on the midnight shift during one brutally cold winter, and we were experiencing late-night burglaries in an apartment complex. We were getting information that several teenage boys were breaking into apartments and stealing valuables while the residents slept in their beds. But we couldn’t figure out who the suspects were. Because there were numerous apartment buildings in my beat, the suspects seemed to focus their attention in my area. And my sergeant wouldn’t let me forget it during squad roll call.
I remember sitting in the parking lot for hours at a time with my lights out and my windows down. I was freezing cold, but in my mind, I was doing what was necessary to catch the suspects. At 4:45 a.m., the only person I would see moving around was the newspaper deliveryman. I spent almost a week in stealth mode until it finally occurred to me to have a conversation with him.
“It’s a group of boys at the 7-Eleven almost every morning when I’m dropping off the papers,” he told me. “They’re always stealing from the clerk and running to the apartments.”
After having a simple conversation with the deliveryman, I was able to speak with the clerk at the 7-Eleven. Shortly afterward, detectives reviewed 7-Eleven surveillance tapes and linked the petty thefts with the burglaries. And just like that, the case was solved.
I began introducing myself to business owners and residents in my beat. I would even take the time to get to know the guys hanging out on the corners and interact with them in situations when police intervention wasn’t necessary, something I would never have seen myself doing. And after getting to know some of the community, they would pass on information about criminal activity in my beat and in surrounding areas. Even the guys from the corner would pass on tips about serious criminal activity. Little did I know, by communicating with openness and honesty and by listening to what they had to say, I was developing important sources. In a very short time, there were veteran detectives reaching out to me and requesting my assistance in their investigations. I was assisting with situations involving petty vandalism, as well as street robbery investigations and attempted homicide cases.
With less than three years of experience as a beat officer, I was promoted to an investigative position within an extremely busy robbery unit. Early on in my investigative career, we experienced a record number of commercial and residential robberies throughout the area. It was almost impossible to investigate a case because we were being called to another new crime scene. But once I became accustomed to the high volume of cases that were being reported, I began to make the necessary adjustments.
I was successful very early on because I learned to communicate with the community. I understood how to develop trust and respect through conversation. I routinely met with community members and business owners, even if they hadn’t called for police service.
With less than eight years of police experience, and having successfully closed several high-profile robbery cases, I began investigating homicides. The community contacts that I had established since 1995 truly came in handy. Some of the old contacts that I made introduced me to new contacts, which allowed my pool of sources to expand.
My very first homicide investigation involved the shooting death of a young girl barely in her teens. She and three male friends decided to cut class and hang out away from school grounds. The shooter, who was in his late teens, shot the young girl after she refused his sexual advances. The shooter and the other young boys then left the victim in the house, where she later died. After a short investigation, we located the young boys, and their parents brought them in for interviews.
Being a father of young kids myself, I realized that the parents were in total control of how the interview would turn out. It was apparent to me that the young boys didn’t want to cooperate, and if their parents decided to end the interview, we may lose our chance at the shooter. So I focused my interview on the parents. I spent the first two hours or so establishing rapport with the parents of both kids and slowly gaining their trust. I explained to them that their parenting wasn’t the reason that the victim was killed. I also promised them that I would be up front and completely honest with them throughout the process. I even sat and listened to each story of how their kids didn’t listen and how they’ve tried everything in their power to get their kids on the right track. By spending valuable time with the parents, listening to their experiences and gaining their respect, it took less than 10 minutes for the kids to identify the shooter. And once we had our arrest warrant, one of the parents helped locate the shooter, who’d been hiding out three states away.
Throughout my law enforcement career, with more than 20 years as a major crimes investigator, I established and maintained positive relationships with community members, business owners, members of the media, court officials and members of other law enforcement agencies. These important relationships were vital in the successful closures of numerous high-profile investigations. I’ve also trained newly appointed detectives, and I’ve stressed the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships in the communities that we serve, often through the simple act of conversation.
Policing is still about getting the bad guys and keeping communities safe, but what experience shows is that knocking heads doesn’t get us anywhere. Communicating with the community gets us where we need to be. Having conversations, building relationships and learning about people’s lives establishes trust and respect. With trust and respect, we build solid community partnerships, which is what we need now more than ever.