The Value of Building Relationships in Ordinary Moments: How Informal Conversations with Citizens Improve Public Safety

Police Officer Shaking Hands

October 4, 2017

In the early days of my term as chief of police for the Fayetteville Police Department, I attended a weekend roll call to speak with the officers. At that time, members of my department admitted there wasn’t a strong relationship with citizens and openly acknowledged a feeling of disrespect and not being liked. I wanted to do something to help them feel more supported in their jobs and increase morale.     

Remembering my experiences decades earlier as a police officer in the Charlotte Police Department, when my time not answering calls for service was spent being proactive and checking on people, I wanted to institute informal information exchanges as part of the Fayetteville Police Department culture. I felt casual interactions with citizens would increase officer job satisfaction and provide officers with more insight on ways to reduce crime and increase community safety.

My quota for them on that Saturday in 2013 was this: meet 10 people in their respective patrol assignments. “Meeting” did not include issuing a citation, making an arrest or investigating a complaint or crime. The intent was to meet folks in their yard, washing a car, walking a dog, etc. 

While my quota was met initially with some resistance, the following Monday I was told all but two officers fulfilled the quota, and the two officers who didn’t, met eight citizens each. The sergeants also reported that the officers seemed to be in a better mood at the end of their shift. This was the first step in our department’s journey in building a positive, trusting relationship with our citizens. This community engagement began to improve our ability to exchange public information and strengthened our standing with the community in ordinary moments.

While this was a seemingly insignificant step in building trust, it was important for my officers to understand how I valued positive community relationships. We developed permanent shifts and geographic assignments, and I emphasized non-enforcement officer and citizen interaction. Our officers began to see appreciation from our citizens as a result of their efforts and began to have greater job satisfaction. In this context, we experienced three years of overall reductions in crime and nearly doubled the number of neighborhood watch programs across our city.

Police leaders must expect officers to get to know the citizens they serve. When we begin to know one another, trust can be established. With a solid trusting relationship, it becomes less intimidating to be transparent and to garner cooperation in efforts to reduce violent and other serious crime. 

Informal conversations with community members can provide patrol officers with insight into the neighborhood and knowledge of “problem houses” or people who often contribute to the crime or disorder in the neighborhood. Armed with this information, officers are better able to develop strategies to solve problems before they manifest themselves, which improves public safety.

To learn more, read about Fayetteville’s Community Policing and the Rebuilding Community Trust Through Community Policing Case Study.