Community Outreach and Law Enforcement

Yesterday, I hung around late at work for a bit, then made a detour out of my way to attend the Saint Paul Police Department’s “open house” at the Eastern District station.

This is one of a handful of open-to-the-public events the SPPD do every year, in the guise of community outreach. The goal is a noble one, of course – develop a rapport with the local community, earn the trust and respect of people in the neighborhood, and be “good neighbors”. Like a lot of community outreach efforts, I have my doubts about how well they actually work.

The Eastern District station is an old brick building that was once part of the Hamm’s brewery, a major employer on Saint Paul’s east side for about a century, until it closed in the 1990s. The “open house” was held in their garage, a large and very spartan concrete space with not a lot of light and not a lot of ventilation. Arrayed for public viewing were examples of most of the vehicles the SPPD owns – from a mobile command post to an EOD disposal trailer to a motorcycle with sidecar to… one of four EOD robots. (If you’re a military history buff, you might also be interested in the department’s oldest actively serving vehicle – an ex-USAF armored car.) The SWAT team was there to show off their body armor and weapons (AR-15/MP-5/40mm grenade launchers/.40cal Glocks). A K9 officer was there with his partner.

I hung around for a few minutes, talked to a couple of people – the officers were all very friendly, and extremely happy to answer questions – took a few really blurry photos with my cellphone, and left.

Here’s what I observed in the thirty minutes or so I was there:

The nominal idea seems to have been “come out and meet the officers who serve and protect your neighborhood” (I quote from the announcement), but the reality seems to have been more like “come and socialize with the police officers you already know”. Seriously, aside from people’s kids, of which there were a few, I think I was the only one there who didn’t know somebody there. All fine and dandy, but catching up with people you already know, one way or another, isn’t exactly outreach.

The emphasis was very much on the department’s neat toys, which (IMO) detracts heavily from the whole get-to-know-people, Officer Friendly side of things that was advertised. Sure, the gun nuts get to fondle an MP-5, and everyone (including other officers…) gets to ask questions about the EOD robot, and the armored car is certainly impressive, but the people present were by-and-large specialists. Oh, they may multi-task (the nice EOD guy doesn’t do EOD stuff eight hours a day, five days a week) on duty, but they’re not quite your common rank-and-file, the “officers who serve and protect your neighborhood”. So, you know, the opportunity for the department to really develop a relationship with the community, out at the pointy end of thngs, was largely lost.

Even among the neat toys the department has (and they have many!), the selection that was trotted out was fairly predictable and mundane. All of it was current-issue; the SPPD has an extensive historical archive, and it would have been easy to do the whole “here’s what we have now, and here’s what we used fifty years ago” thing. But, no. Also, aside from the EOD robot, none of the more technical goodies the department owns were on display, which kind of bummed me out. (I’ve been kind of curious about the car-mounted automagic license-plate recognition cameras they have. What, me, a nerd?) And, even for the gun nuts (of which there were many present), surely an AR-15 is fairly mundane? The department has trained marksmen; I have no idea what they use, but I’m sure it’s more interesting to look at than a nearly-bog-standard AR-15.

I will never understand why the police inevitably bring along working dogs to events like these. Okay, everybody likes big, exuberant dogs, but the dogs don’t really get much out of the whole deal, and since you can’t pet them or whatever… what’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong – I commend the SPPD for making the effort to do community-outreach stuff, something they only started doing with any regularity a few years ago. I just can’t help but feel that – as with the ‘National Night Out’ involvement – the way they’re trying to engage the community is handicapping their effectiveness at doing so…

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on August 18th, 2010| Comments Off on Community Outreach and Law Enforcement

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