Park Forest Police Department, IL, have launched their Autism Awareness Summit in time for Autism Awareness Month, which launches on April 2nd.
Chief Christopher Mannino explains the thinking behind this work and shares his thoughts on the importance of community engagement when it comes to the vital role of communications in law enforcement.
You've been clear that one of the main priorities of Park Forest PD is community relations. When did you implement this policy and why do you feel it's important in modern policing?
I am fortunate to have come through the ranks at the Park Forest Police Department, and we have historically had a strong focus on community relations.
The work that I have done as Chief of Police over the nearly 4 years in that position is a continuation of legacies left before me. Part of our organizational culture has always been the understanding that we can only effectively fill our role when we have the trust and the support of the public.
Now, that is not to say that we have always been or always are perfect in that endeavor, but it does mean that the current focus on community relations is not new, and is instead building on foundations laid over generations. It is critical for law enforcement agencies to focus on community relations because as Sir Robert Peele, the Founding Father of law enforcement, noted, law enforcement power is predicated on the approval and support of the public.
Unless the public knows what we do, understands why we do it, and supports those efforts, our mission cannot be completely effective or sustainable.
Part of our organizational culture has always been the understanding that we can only effectively fill our role when we have the trust and the support of the public
Did you engage with the community before proactively changing the look of your vehicles for Autism Awareness? If so, what came out of it in terms of insight?
Yes, and it is something we have always done. As an example, pandemic aside, we hold neighborhood meetings each year with the department heads of the village government, elected officials, and members of the specific neighborhoods.
These meetings are designed to facilitate conversation and receive input from the members of the individual neighborhoods. We have a very extensive social media outreach, strategically using that communication tool to inform and engage the public.
We also have a media-friendly outlook and actively engage the media, especially in helping to tell our good news stories. An example of the effectiveness of our community outreach is that during the summer of 2020, as protests spread across the US after the death of George Floyd, two groups that wanted to hold peaceful protests chose Park Forest as the location to start or hold their protests, knowing that we would assist them as they exercised their freedom of speech rights guaranteed by our constitution.
We also assisted with a third peaceful protest in a neighboring community. We saw no violence or unrest, despite both being widespread throughout our region.
What do you think is the key to better community engagement?
The keys to better community engagement come through creating trust by embracing the principles of transparency and accountability, and by simply communicating relationally with people.
In other words, it’s a two-pronged approach, with both prongs equally important: trust and frequent, open communication. It’s the same recipe for any successful relationship, whether it be between two individuals or an organization and the public.
The keys to better community engagement come through creating trust by embracing the principles of transparency and accountability
Have you drawn inspiration from any other agencies, law enforcement or otherwise, in the US or further afield around your work relating to community policing?
Despite the prevalence of negative media stories about American policing, there are also many police departments doing an excellent job of connecting with their community.
For example, as we began to recognize the success of our social media outreach and began to pay attention to how other departments used social media, we noted the Sarasota Police Department in Florida had both exceptional community outreach, but then also communicated what they were doing via social media.
There are hundreds of agencies across the country who are effectively building relationships with the community by both in-person outreach and effective public communication online in the same manner. There are, unfortunately, also agencies whose efforts are lacking.
Would you agree with the theory that many people on the spectrum are drawn to policing? If so, how do you feel this is a benefit to law enforcement?
I haven’t seen the data on people on the spectrum being drawn to law enforcement so I can’t speak to that, but I would offer if that is the case, it is certainly a benefit to law enforcement, especially if this can be used to gain trust with persons on the spectrum when interacting with them.
One of the reasons we are holding an Autism Summit in April is to determine how we might have autism friendly events for families of autism, in addition to the events we already hold for the public in general.
In the modern era, strategic communication is not just important, it’s essential.
What is your hope around this type of community engagement?
Regarding our autism awareness police vehicle and patches, our hope it to raise awareness about persons with autism, raising that awareness both with the public, but also internally within the police department.
From an internal communications perspective, it sends the signal that getting this issue right is important to the leadership. It is also important to note that our community engagement is not just window dressing; all of our officers with more than 2 years of police service are trained in Crisis Intervention, which includes interacting with persons on the spectrum, and we have fulfilled the International Association of Chiefs of Police One Mind Campaign.
How important do you feel it is to ensure strategic communications or having a proactive media person or PIO is to the success of community engagement?
In the modern era, strategic communication is not just important, it’s essential. The vast majority of our citizens are digitally connected, and unless we connect with them through that world, we largely miss our audience.
Shopping, dating, entertainment, information gathering and news are increasingly consumed through smartphone screens, and we have to meet our citizens where they are at. Three out of every four Americans has a social media presence, and the numbers are similar throughout much of the world.
Regardless of whether this societal change is an improvement or at our collective detriment, the change has occurred and continues, and law enforcement must adapt if we are to build trust in our mission.
While I firmly believe that all police departments should be proactive in engaging the media and have a skilled person to engage the public through strategic communication, the policing landscape in America, with approximately 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies that range from one-officer departments to the NYPD, means that not all agencies have the ability to fund a full time PIO.
Where possible, it is best practice for a police department to have a professional PIO fulfill that role. The reality of American policing, however, is that many agencies must simply fill that role on a part-time basis with the best person available. This is one way in which European policing has an advantage over the American system.
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