Community-oriented policing means business

Community-oriented policing means business – Merriam, Kansas, Police Department’s survey of businesses

Kenneth Sissom

Police departments across the country profess the value of community-oriented policing. Implementing this popular philosophy requires establishing a closer relationship with citizens. Still, the success and effectiveness of any police department’s community policing efforts also depend on maintaining a good working relationship with members of the business community.

Traditionally, police officers make two types of routine contacts with businesses: summoned police responses and visits to popular establishments. Summoned police responses represent the most common type. For example, thieves break into a local business, causing the owner to summon the police. Responding officers take a report, investigate the scene, and leave. Although this typically marks the end of the association, in certain retail businesses, a stronger, more established relationship develops. This occurs when the frequency of contacts escalates due to increased robberies, shoplifting, or disturbances.

The second most common police-business contacts are more personal than professional in nature. Every city has its share of businesses that patrol officers visit regularly, such as convenience stores, restaurants, and – the target of tasteless jokes about the police – doughnut shops. While these visits may improve relations between the department and the business community, these businesses represent only a small portion of the total number of establishments in any city.

What about the other businesses in the city? What type of relationship exists between the department and those businesses that have very little contact with the police? With its Business Survey Project, the Merriam, Kansas, Police Department set out to answer these questions.

THE BUSINESS SURVEY PROJECT

The police department in Merriam, a suburban city of 12,000 in the Kansas City metropolitan area, implemented community-oriented policing in 1992. Department managers decided to concentrate first on the business community, after meetings with the city administrator and the mayor revealed that several of Merriam’s nearly 600 business owners had voiced a desire for more positive contact with the police.

In the months that followed, the department developed a method that would compel line officers to make planned, official contacts with all city businesses. In doing so, officers would provide shopkeepers with information about the department, as well as solicit feedback in an effort to determine how they viewed the department and how the police could serve them better.

Phase One: Identification of All City Businesses

To ensure that the project included all local businesses, the department retrieved a computerized listing of licensed businesses from the city clerk’s office. Using computer-generated labels, the chief placed the name and address of each business on the back of a 3-by-5 index card. Then, officers used these cards to record their contacts with business owners or managers.

Phase Two: The Survey Tool

During this phase, the chief developed a mail-in survey form using a standard desktop publishing program and a personal computer. The department printed its address on the tri-fold form to facilitate responses. This design allowed business owners to complete the form, then fold it, seal it, and mail it.

The survey form first gave brief information about the police department, including its address, phone numbers, and contact persons. It described, in lay person’s terms, the department’s community-oriented policing philosophy and its relevance to the business community.

Then, a series of questions followed. The department designed questions that would be easy for business owners to answer. The first asked respondents to provide an overall rating (excellent, above average, average, below average, or poor) for the service that they had received from the department.

The second asked respondents to identify their biggest concern with regard to crime. Merriam’s experience has been that business owners’ perceptions of crime-related problems often differ from those of the police. For example, while the police may believe that business owners worry most about burglary or robbery, in reality, they may list abandoned cars or loitering juveniles as their primary concerns. Clearly, knowing business owners’ true concerns results in a more accurate and appropriate police response.

The third question requested suggestions for ways to improve the department’s level of service. The next, a four-part question, focused on any direct contact the businesses had with the police in the previous 12 months.

After inquiring about the reason for any contacts, the survey asked if the responding officers had been courteous and helpful and what the officers could have done to improve their performance. Finally, the survey acquainted businesses with the crime prevention analysis services the department provides and asked if they would like the department’s crime prevention officer to conduct an analysis of their business.

Phase Three: Education and Implementation

This phase of the project focused mainly on training first-line supervisors, although all officers received instruction on the department’s community-oriented policing philosophy and the workings of the survey. As with most new projects, the support of shift supervisors would help ensure the success of this program. Furthermore, the chief made it clear that first-line supervisors would share in the successes of the officers on their shifts. At the onset of the survey, supervisors received a written, detailed explanation of the project, including how it related to community-oriented policing.

The department placed more emphasis on the day shift, because more business owners and managers were available during this time, and because the day shift could accommodate the additional work more readily. As a result, day shift officers were tasked with contacting three businesses per shift, every workday. The day shift supervisor’s goal was one business per shift.

Officers on the evening shift needed to make one or two contacts, depending on police activity. Their supervisors did not have a set goal, but were encouraged to check a business when time permitted. Officers on the midnight shift, although omitted from the project, were required to make frequent routine contacts with those businesses open during their shift.

Supervisors reduced the goals of individual officers once the majority of community businesses had been contacted. At the end of the year, the department recognized the officer with the greatest number of contacts.

In sum, each regular district officer, working Monday through Friday on the day and evening shifts, chose businesses to contact during their shift, retrieving the businesses’ index cards from a file box in the squad room. The officers made contact with the business owners or managers and introduced themselves. They explained the department’s philosophy of community-oriented policing and the nature of the project. This served a two-fold purpose. It required that the officers gain a reasonable understanding of community-oriented policing, and it educated the public about the benefits of this philosophy.

During the contacts, officers inquired about the business owners’ problems or concerns. At the end of the meeting, the officer left a business card and a survey, asking the owner to complete the survey and mail it back to the department.(1)

Officers also completed the front of the index card with their name, shift, the date of the contact, the contact person, the business’ fax number, and the business type. At shift’s end, officers returned the index cards – whether completed or not – to the file box. This system gave officers credit for their contacts, while preventing duplication of visits.

Phase Four: Public Relations Considerations

Before implementing any program that might impact public relations either positively or negatively, police leaders should seek political support. From the start, the chief realized that business owners might contact city officials immediately, so he met with the mayor and the city administrator to gain their support. Both officials expressed gratitude for being informed in advance so that they could prepare a response to questions or comments that local business leaders might have.

In Merriam, an active chamber of commerce has long been an excellent forum for police personnel to meet with leaders of the business community. The police chief regularly attends the chamber’s monthly meetings. After meeting with the chief to discuss the survey project, the director of the chamber of commerce featured the program in an article in its monthly newsletter. Later that year, the chief gave a short presentation about the project at a chamber meeting.

Finally, the media can make or break a police program. In this case, the media provided positive public relations for the project. During the first month, the local newspapers ran features about the project. A local television station sent a reporter and camera person to follow a department officer while contacting local businesses.

Phase Five: Project Followup

When initiating a new program, department managers must incorporate steps to ensure its proper implementation. By conducting followup measures, department administrators communicate a strong message to line officers that their actions during this important project will be monitored.

Each month, Merriam department managers audited the business contact file in the squad room. As officers completed cards on the businesses they had contacted, it became clear which officers did not make regular contacts. Supervisors met with these officers to encourage them to get more involved. After a few monthly audits, most problems disappeared.

Phase Six: Compiling and Processing Returned Surveys

From January to December of 1993, officers of the Merriam Police Department contacted 534 businesses. Thirty-three percent of these businesses completed a survey.

The chief personally reviewed every completed survey. If a business owner rated the department below average or reported a past negative experience with the police, the chief immediately contacted the owner to resolve the problem.

On the survey, business owners listed their biggest crime concerns as robbery, burglary, theft, vandalism, and loitering. Shift supervisors received this information and responded with changes in routine patrol techniques. For example, although some businesses listed robbery as a primary concern, department records indicated that only a few actually had fallen victim to robbers.

This finding identified the real problem as one of perception and fear, not one based on the business’ history of robbery. After this discovery, officers targeted these businesses for frequent walk-in checks; soon, business owners reported feeling more confident in the police, and as a result, less fearful.

Some businesses voiced concern over traffic problems. Traffic officers handled any obvious problem. In cases where business owners only perceived a problem, department officers studied the situation and reported the results to the owners. This approach changed their perception.

Each business that took the time to complete and mail in a survey received a personal thank you letter from the chief. The crime prevention officer contacted each business that requested a crime prevention analysis, 81 in all. This officer also compiled survey responses, which administrative personnel studied in January 1994.

Results

The survey results revealed that, overall, the Merriam business community had a very favorable opinion of its police department. Forty-eight percent of respondents, rated the department excellent; 37 percent, above average; 7 percent, average; and 2 percent, below average. Six percent of the businesses did not provide a rating.

Although respondents’ answers most likely were influenced by the positive publicity the survey generated, the department still achieved its goal: to improve basic relations between the police and the business community by opening a line of communication. The survey became a tool to do just that. This enhanced relationship fostered an environment of cooperation that built upon the community-oriented policing philosophy.

As an added bonus, the officers involved in the project also discovered its value. Faced with the survey results, they changed their initial perception that business owners considered the police a hindrance instead of a help. In addition, officers believed that they were making a greater difference in the business community, rather than merely responding to calls for service. Indeed, their efficiency at routine patrol had increased with the new flow of information about criminal or suspicious activity now coming from their new business contacts.

FUTURE PLANS

The Merriam Police Department currently is conducting its second Business Survey Project. Results so far show not only a greater rate of return for the surveys but also higher ratings for the department. In the future, the department will conduct biennial business surveys, focusing on neighborhood programs in intervening years.

CONCLUSION

While this project was completed in a small suburban city, the concept can work in any community, large or small. As police departments institute community policing in their jurisdictions, many focus almost exclusively on programs aimed at residents. But, just as increased contact with citizens enhances the ability of a department to fulfill its mission, so too does a positive relationship with business owners. With its Business Survey Project, the Merriam Police Department proved that community policing also means business.

Endnote

Some departments may want to pay for postage to save the business the expense and to encourage a greater return. Due to budget constraints, the Merriam Police Department chose to let each business pay for postage.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation

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