How citizen surveys improve community engagement with police
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Fort Collins Police Services is part of a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award-winning city with collaborative leadership centered on citizen involvement

Five years ago, potential traffic and crowd problems dominated headlines during intense public debate over Colorado State University’s proposed new stadium for its Fort Collins urban campus.

After the first game this year, the reviews were good. City leaders, including interim Chief of Police Terry Jones, were not surprised. The public had been heard, and their concerns were given weight during the planning process.

This example of successful citizen interaction illustrates why the City of Fort Collins earned the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Malcolm Baldrige was a businessman who served as the Secretary of Commerce in the 1980s. The award is earned by applicants who demonstrate outstanding quality as defined by the exacting standards of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.

Fort Collins' community policing officers build trust by developing one-on-one relationships with citizens through programs such as “Shop with a Cop” and “ride-alongs.” (Photo/Fort Collins Police Services)
Fort Collins' community policing officers build trust by developing one-on-one relationships with citizens through programs such as “Shop with a Cop” and “ride-alongs.” (Photo/Fort Collins Police Services)

Integrated approach to service delivery

Fort Collins Police Services Interim Chief Terry Jones credits getting citizen feedback from a variety of sources as a way for the city’s leadership team to focus on an agenda of specific issues within a context of long-term goals that align with the city’s values.

With this and other data, the city’s executive leadership team knows what everybody else is doing, reflecting an integrated approach to service delivery.

Fort Collins conducts a survey every two years and has a history of nine surveys since 2008 to compare longitudinal data. The survey is designed, conducted and analyzed by an outside vendor. The survey reaches out to all demographic groups, and is available in Spanish.

The surveys are just one part of gathering community information. “Data-driven analysis is more than chasing red dots on the map. You get a tremendous amount of information by just walking around,” said Jones.

Law enforcement is a part of city services

Many police departments find that they are alienated from other city departments or even feel that city leadership is adversarial to the law enforcement function. The inclusion of police services in the overall survey may feel different than a survey developed internally just to look at a police department.

The overlap of citizen concerns whose solutions lie in more than one city bureaucracy is more easily addressed with a comprehensive survey covering all city services. For example, a crime reduction solution may reside as much in the parks or public works department as with the police. Leaving crime and quality of life issue solely in the hands of law enforcement can result in biased and skewed perceptions guiding decision-making.

Why police leaders may be surprised by community comments

But even if the survey is developed internally and conducted by a police department, rather than professionals using the tool to assess city-wide service, the results can be valuable.

The department will get some community relations value from the mere fact that they are asking questions and listening to the citizens.

In 2014, Fort Collins Police Services implemented a citizen survey process about their experiences when interacting with police officers. Acting on this feedback, the agency increased its emphasis on Community-Oriented Policing (COPS) as the preferred means of addressing community needs. Community policing officers build trust by developing one-on-one relationships with citizens through programs such as “Shop with a Cop” and “ride-alongs.” The COPS program has contributed to resident survey scores on crime prevention that outperform both regional and national comparisons.

Jones says that asking the public for input generates more positive comments than you might expect. He also noted that the top concerns voiced by citizens were not about the police department, but other quality of life issues like bus service. It was nice, Jones remarked, to know his department was not at the top of the complaint list!

Jones says he is fortunate to work in a vibrant city and community, which includes the university with its annual influx of young people. Various city and campus leaders, including Jones and his university police counterparts, walk around during orientation events and have spontaneous, casual conversations with the campus community. The city even has a civic engagement liaison to give special attention to bringing diverse interests into decision-making.

The Baldrige award provides a roadmap to improvement processes similar to what a police department would go through in applying for CALEA accreditation. The application and competition provide an incentive for innovation and excellence.

“I can’t imagine a law enforcement agency not doing a survey. If you’re not taking the temperature of your community, you’re missing the boat,” said Chief Jones.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

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