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SBPD aims to strengthen trust amongst community

| Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why would you call the police?

It’s an important question that South Bend Police Chief Ron Teachman and his department face, as they seek to stimulate civic engagement and strengthen relationships between police and the community.

The answer is a simple word, but it expresses a state of confidence difficult to achieve — trust.

“Trust is our goal,” Teachman says. “It’s our destination.”

Developing positive relationships that lead to trust in a community can be challenging when most of the department’s contact with citizens involves responding to crisis and conflict.

“Most people don’t engage with us in a positive way, and we need to find ways to amplify those positive or at least non-adversarial contacts because most of our contact is adversarial,” Teachman said. “We pull you over for a traffic violation. We go to your house and do a drug raid. We go to Notre Dame houses to squelch loud parties.”

That last relationship, at least, has started to change in recent years, Teachman said.

“Before I came here, there was a shift in our relationship between this department and the Notre Dame students that live off campus,” Teachman said. “I’m told it was rather adversarial, confrontational, not long ago.”

Teachman and other representatives of the department meet with student government officials and campus police to have “conversations about our expectations of each other” in an effort to better interact with students, Teachman said.

Strengthening trust remains an ongoing process for the department. When people don’t trust the police, they won’t consistently call to report certain crimes.

People tend to report property crimes because of the insurance incentive to do so, Teachman said.

“The relationship the individual victim has with the police department is almost irrelevant because you have an insurance motivator that requires you to report,” Teachman said. “You could hate the police. You could hate the chief. … But in order to get your insurance premium, you have to file a police report.”

But with other crimes, that’s often not the case. In instances of assault or rape, a victim’s perception of the police matters, particularly when the assault was committed by someone the victim knew, Teachman said.

“You’re just going to see a male uniform, and he’s going to ask you these very personal questions about your relationship with this guy, and maybe you’ve had intimate relations before, so why is it rape tonight?” Teachman said. “And society’s judging you, and what were you wearing, and what did you do and were you drinking, were you leading this guy on? And all that stuff going through your head, why would you call?

“If you didn’t believe that the police department was empathetic, professional and competent, why would you call?”

Because of this, the department has worked with organizations such as the YWCA to improve its response to such incidents, Teachman said.

Gun violence also often goes unreported. After the department installed ShotSpotter, a program that uses an acoustic system to detect gunfire, it discovered that instances of gunshots recorded by ShotSpotter often weren’t reported by the public.

Teachman describes four reasons why people wouldn’t report gunfire: recognition (unsure whether they heard a gunshot), redundancy (they think someone else will call), retaliation (they fear retribution for being a “snitch”) and resignation (they are desensitized to gunfire).

In an effort to combat these problems, the South Bend Police Department has engaged in “collaborative policing,” efforts to better serve and protect by increasing community involvement.

“There’s never going to be enough money to effectively police a community without community involvement,” Teachman said. “There can never be enough police officers, and we’re never going to arrest our way out of this. The answer is that the community engages in its own public safety program.”

The department has adopted a number of strategies to ignite this kind of community engagement. For example, in schools, the department has sought to increase positive, “non-adversarial contact” by taking time to read with kids or play sports at recess.

“When kids see the officer who comes to school, whether it’s the police chief or a captain or the officer on that beat, regularly comes to school and engages with them, now when they see that same uniform after school and out of school, it’s not an adversary, but it’s a friend,” Teachman said. “It’s a supporter. It’s someone who cares about them. We think that translates. That’s why we wear a uniform in the first place.”

A change in departmental practice — the regionalization of beats — has played a key role in the collaborative policing strategy, Teachman said. Officers are assigned to beats based on geography rather than time of day so that they become familiar with the areas they police. Knowing neighborhoods keeps officers safe and helps residents get to know their police.

“You get to have a relationship,” Teachman said. “You’re not just some guy driving by in a squad car with tinted windows, [and] you never get out of the car unless you’re going to arrest somebody or yell at them.”

Quantitatively measuring the success of such measures can be difficult. The crime rate might even seem to increase as people feel more comfortable reporting crimes they wouldn’t have before, Teachman said.

But so far, the department has seen positive outcomes, including an increase in citizens reporting gunfire. Public reporting of gunfire has increased to over 25 percent, more than the national average, Teachman said.

Strengthening trust in a community requires participation from all its parts, and Notre Dame students can contribute as well, according to Teachman.

“Regardless of your field of study, citizenship requires community engagement,” Teachman said. “There are innumerable opportunities to volunteer here in South Bend. There are also unlimited possibilities of expanding your study field by using South Bend as a petri dish, as a laboratory, whether it’s entrepreneurship, whether it’s working with a nonprofit to help with their business model.

“… If you want to say, ‘Let me prove my model, let me experiment, let me do some research, let me volunteer,’ lend your expertise and your skill sets to the city, and I think you can find a way to engage.”

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