Localism in Law Enforcement: Creating Conversation in Your Communities

By Chief Chris Hsiung & PIO Katie Nelson, Mountain View (CA) PD  |   Jan 21, 2021

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, local law enforcement leaders began re-examining ways in which to connect with their communities to hyper focus on how issues in the national narrative were impacting their cities locally. 

Each community has its own set of individual needs, nuances, and personalities, which police chiefs know very well. These idiosyncrasies are what make each community so unique, and it is why so many choose to live — and serve — in the cities that they do. To be able to know the traits of your community, and how and why that connects to its members, has never been more pivotal.

With the overwhelming tidal wave of the national narrative, negative news coverage, and endless social media posts, many in our communities assumed the same must be true in our jurisdictions. Many asked how and why our agencies are different, how we can work to prevent what has made headlines across our state and our country and what we’re doing to effect change. 

In Mountain View, timing to allow for listening and growth together as a community was pivotal. In the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd, emotions were high. The national narrative surrounding law enforcement skewed heavily towards all the wrongs done by those who wear a badge. The trust that many of us worked so hard to build up through transparency efforts was practically zapped overnight. 

As the anger and concern strongly surged forward weeks after George Floyd’s death, elected officials and police chiefs alike were hounded with questions around defunding, the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, and more. The question of “How do we recover from this?” was on all of our minds. We all saw the same footage out of Minneapolis. We could feel the absolute horror, disgust, and fear from our communities. What could we do, at a grassroots level, to begin to get everyone to the table, to champion localism in law enforcement, and create moments of opportunity for thorough, honest, and transparent dialogue with those who call our cities home?

In Mountain View, we began to ruminate on the idea of a community academy, the bones bearing the multi-session tracks of a community academy, but with a mindset of listening, learning, and creating a safe environment to foster true dialogue; not on teaching necessarily the nuances of police work or trying to change their minds. By incorporating conversation as a key concept in the building of this new program, dubbed MVPDx: Partnering for the Future of Policing, we set ourselves with a standard not of teaching per se, but one of collaboration, listening, and true dialogue. 

The first cohort — many of whom were local police reform activists, concerned community members who had contacted us, local community leaders and more — honed in on themes that were sparking national dialogue — bias, community policing, the current state of law enforcement and its future. The program was also adaptable, particularly in the age of COVID-19, with modifications to allow us to be mostly virtual via Zoom with select in-person experiential days. With those parameters, officers within the department would join twice-weekly conversations, either from their office or from their home, to listen in with the group, a total of 10 residents to start, hear their concerns, and as allowable, share their own stories, feedback, and where applicable, apply teaching moments. 

Originally slated for seven sessions with the final day a marathon of discussion around three themes — bias in policing, policing presence, and police-community collaboration — the group quickly shifted to wanting to extensively discuss, and by extension highlight, how to begin to look at how the future of policing may adapt or change. We learned from our own cohort that more time wasn’t just needed, it was wanted. The group wanted the opportunity to continue to connect, to converse, and to collaborate. Despite all their differences, and all their varying mindsets and mentalities, something borne out of a desire to simply interface, to just get to the table, had blossomed into something more. 

And, as the group learned and absorbed information to grow their knowledge and understanding of who we were and the work we do, they began to have moments of recognition where they truly saw beyond the badge, behind the uniform, and learned that we were just as human as they were, with servant’s hearts and a desire to be what our community needs and wants. Comments like: “It’s like you’re not allowed to be human,” or “If this is what you see on any given shift, we aren’t doing enough to take care of our officers,” or “I came in wanting to hate you, but I just can’t” was just some of the feedback we’ve gotten so far. These “a ha” moments, where the true understanding of the difference between their local truths of policing versus the national headlines of law enforcement, are pivotal. But, they cannot happen in a vacuum. Opportunities exist in every call, every meeting, every conversation. We must seize on that. 

Our sense of duty to our communities is intrinsic. It is not something we necessarily choose. In each of us is this calling to serve. And, when we see the places and people we devote our lives to reeling from the impact of a decision that cost a man his life thousands of miles away, we too feel slighted, hurt, and betrayed. That is not who we are, and that is not what we do. 

So, we too are hearing the national narrative, and we, just as much as many in our communities, want to be able to listen, to learn, and to be better connected. Creating opportunities like MVPDx to do just that strips the national narrative of its vitriol, and it divests the national headlines from the local experiences, both good and bad. By being able to concentrate specifically on what can and should be done locally, we can begin to build a framework for our entire profession. We can lead one another by exceptional example. 

Transparency and trust can be rebuilt from this moment in our history, but we must make the effort to do so. We must create spaces that are safe for our residents to share with us their faith in or their fears of law enforcement. We must be open to hearing criticism and concern, because the only way for a meaningful paradigm shift forward is to acknowledge that we are willing and able to listen and that we will be present in doing so. And, in turn, we are also afforded the opportunity to finally begin to speak up, to share our truths, and to allow our communities in turn to hear about who we are and how and why we serve them. 

Localism” is a strategy to acknowledge the national narrative but to focus dialogue and discussion points on local, first hand experiences and issues. Localism has been our strategy in how we dialogue with our community and it’s made a huge difference as a foundation for genuine conversations and trust building. Do not let the opportunity slip away. There are those in your department who can and who want to help lead the effort to build better avenues of connection. Your communities are inevitably craving that — let them speak, let them be heard, and in turn, let them hear you.

Originally published in Winter 2020 issue of California Police Chief Magazine, page 22 and can be found here.