5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Building Police Community Outreach Programs

Police community outreach programs can improve relationships between public safety agencies and their communities, as well as officer morale and retention.

April 27, 2023

Article Highlights

Law enforcement agencies that want to improve community relations often find that police community outreach programs go a long way. Whether it's Coffee With A Cop, youth outreach programs, Police Athletic Leagues, or neighborhood watch, community-oriented policing can have a positive impact on how the public views your agency.

A 2019 study by Yale University found that “a single, positive, nonenforcement-related encounter enhanced the legitimacy of police officers and increased people’s willingness to cooperate with the police."

In the study, researchers found that pre-arranged, unannounced visits to New Haven, CT residents had long-term positive effects, especially among non-white residents and people who had held negative views of the police prior to the visits.

Clearly, police community outreach programs can make a difference in fostering positive feelings in the community. Of course, you want to ensure they're done correctly to avoid the pitfalls sometimes found in these programs.

This article will cover police community outreach, give a few examples of common outreach programs, share the goals of community outreach, and list the five pitfalls to avoid.

Importance of police community outreach

Community policing is a strategy that police departments employ when they proactively partner with their local community, rather than simply reacting to specific situations. The goal is to get to know citizens, as well as work with service providers and other agencies to reduce crime rates, protect police officers, and help those in crisis due to mental health issues and substance abuse.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, community outreach is "a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques between the police and the community."

A strategy of community-oriented policing (COP)

The Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services used similar language, calling community-oriented policing (COP) “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systemic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.” 

When law enforcement agencies engage with the communities they serve positively and collaboratively, they are engaging in community-oriented policing.

Examples of police community outreach programs

Police community outreach programs can take many forms, such as organizing community events, providing educational programs, conducting neighborhood patrols, and participating in community meetings. These can include:

  • Coffee with a Cop: This provides a casual, informal setting for community members to meet and talk with police officers over a cup of coffee, fostering positive relationships and dialogue.
  • Shop with a Cop: Police officers take disadvantaged children shopping during the holidays for toys and gifts. Children experience positive interactions with officers, the effects of which can continue throughout childhood.
  • Youth Outreach Programs: These programs focus on engaging with young people in the community, providing them with positive role models and activities that promote healthy decision-making and avoiding involvement in crime.
  • Police Athletic Leagues: After-school athletic programs that give youth a place to go after school to play sports and receive positive role modeling from officers.
  • Neighborhood Watch: This program encourages community members to work together with law enforcement to keep their neighborhoods safe by reporting suspicious activity and working collaboratively to prevent crime.

Goals of community outreach

Ultimately, the goals of a community outreach program are to build trust, foster positive relationships, extend the sense of community, and promote a mutual understanding between the community and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.

By creating opportunities for dialogue and interaction, police officers can learn about community members' needs and work with them to improve their safety and quality of life. Individuals become more likely to approach the police with their concerns, and the police can gain better insights and understanding into the issues people are facing.

Five pitfalls to avoid

Problems can arise when implementing police community outreach programs if they aren’t done thoughtfully and strategically. These problems can derail your efforts, leading to a negative experience and setting police-community relations back. Any efforts going forward would be spent undoing the damage rather than increasing the positive relationships. Avoid these five pitfalls from the start to implement a successful community outreach program.

Not getting community input

One of the key components of a successful community outreach program is ensuring that it is designed with input from community members. Rather than dictating what a community outreach program will look like, ask your community leaders and community members what they want to see included in the efforts. 

Failing to involve community members in the planning and implementation process can lead to programs that do not address their needs or priorities. They'll be focused on what the agency wants rather than what the community wants.

Not reflecting the diversity of your community

A community outreach program that reflects the diversity of the community it serves can be more effective and beneficial. It is important that outreach efforts are inclusive of all community members, including those from different racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This can be especially important as some neighborhoods and ethnic groups have different experiences and views of their local police department.

Not training police officers on community outreach

Police officers who engage with community members in outreach programs must be properly trained in communication and conflict resolution skills. Without adequate training, officers may struggle to engage effectively with community members and build positive relationships. It's important to know how to navigate cultural and racial nuances, as well as learn the best ways to interact with people with mental health issues, disabilities, or substance abuse issues.

Not being consistent and only planning one-off initiatives

Building positive relationships and trust with the community requires a sustained commitment over time. A community outreach program that is short-term or sporadic may not achieve its intended goals. Just hosting one event here and there won’t make a difference. It takes an ongoing, concerted effort so people see you actively and consistently engaging with the community.

Not following up or evaluating the success of your efforts

To ensure that community outreach programs are achieving their intended goals, it is important to have a system in place for follow-up and evaluation. Without regular evaluation, it can be difficult to know whether the program has a positive impact and where improvements can be made. 

Law enforcement agencies already have to track and measure reactive  crime-fighting efforts, so it makes sense to measure proactive community outreach efforts as well to get a full picture of your agency’s impact in the community. PowerEngage from PowerDMS can help you accomplish that by measuring the success of your outreach programs through different community satisfaction surveys.

Final Thoughts

Police community outreach programs can go a long way in improving relationships with your local citizens and community leaders. By hosting various programs that let police and citizens have positive, non-enforcement interactions, you can help each group understand the other better. This can help reduce crime, increase community involvement, and lighten the workload of the officers working on the streets.

Ultimately, community outreach programs can even improve officer morale and retention. Learn how PowerEngage can help you agency engage your community more effectively.

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