Solutions for a uniform malfunction

In the second part of this two-part series, I explore solutions to law enforcement’s public relations problem.

Matthew Hoy

I wrote briefly last week about a recent negative experience I had with Minneapolis police.

Ironically, since that column, I had another incident at work, and the police were extremely helpful and competent. It was as if some form of karma had decided to nest itself in the middle of my argument. It becomes a lot more difficult to point out widespread, institutionalized law enforcement problems when individual cops are so dissimilar to the stereotype.

Regardless of this exception, social media directed me to a number of videos on recent police brutality cases. It’s hard to get far from controversy when researching this topic.

And that’s the problem with covering police culture. For every nightmarish tale of cops in New York assaulting an innocent person of color, there is an uplifting story of an officer serving and protecting — even changing — their community.

This problem is so fraught with emotion that finding reason among the words is difficult. This only worsens with the added context of the violence, race relations and social hierarchy within the officer-citizen relationship.

With that qualification in tow, I would like to advance more cautiously than I did last week. I believe there are solutions on the end of police officers that can alleviate cop culture issues.

Minneapolis mayor-elect Betsy Hodges and two other Minneapolis City Council members have discussed one such solution. Her proposal, a body camera pilot program, would outfit 25 police officers with cameras for $25,000. This could create an unprecedented level of oversight among officers and the public.

As with every major public policy decision, there is controversy and inertia within the responsible parties. We can expect the government and the media to have privacy concerns. National Security Agency surveillance scandals polarized our country, so privacy concerns are bound to rear their head. But the program has a lot of potential.

When thinking about law enforcement controversy, racial profiling and police brutality are top of mind. While cameras will not cure these underlying problems, ensuring punishment or greater oversight for officers who act unethically could go a long way toward dissolving these issues.

If my premise that police need to redefine the way they interact and communicate is true, such a measure could be the first step toward a vastly improved public relations message.

The motif of the stone-cold officer is so pervasive that its use as an interrogation tactic has become one of modern storytelling’s most common tropes. But that same veneer has come to represent the tension between officers and the public. Ultimately, the police exist to serve and protect common people. This duty is distant from the discourse between officers and the public.

Cameras wouldn’t necessarily fix that. To repair the damage already done to law enforcement and the public’s relationship, there needs to be a new approach to public outreach.

Giving people opportunities to meet and talk with officers in non-hostile environments could yield huge benefits.

More broadly, police could make our relationship less adversarial by giving out fewer tickets and having more conversations with the public. Anything police can do to humanize the uniform would help alleviate tension.

After the recent string of major crimes on and around the University of Minnesota campus, I know I would feel safer if we had a more pronounced, warmer police presence.

In a twisted way, some in the University community now see law enforcement as part of the crime problem because of Minneapolis police’s perceived unresponsiveness. It’s crazy. As members of the University community, we may feel vulnerable because our campus seems to be the target of a progressively higher number of brazen crimes.

It doesn’t help that we all received texts last month alerting us to “shelter in place” because of an alleged armed robbery in Anderson Hall. I don’t mean to say I am ungrateful for the alerts — I mean quite the opposite. However, the alert served as reminder of campus security issues.

The police response has been less than some in the University community need. A student petition for increased police coverage is making the rounds on Facebook. We feel that police are abandoning, ignoring or not listening to us, so we’re reaching out to our peers online to help out.

This request should not be interpreted as implicit support of police. The
petition’s supporters and sharers have anger or animosity in their posts. It’s apparent some people feel as if their interests do not matter to the institution that is supposed to protect them. They feel like this should have been taken care of long ago. And most of all, they feel as if they shouldn’t have had to post a petition online.

We can mend this relationship. It can start with small, common-sense changes.

The proposed body camera program would help lessen negative police interaction. We also need more dedicated patrolling officers whose job is community outreach-focused and not necessarily ticket-focused. Safety is a communal effort, but it’s only when we have a positive relationship between police and the public that we can work together.