Deanna Cantrell is the San Luis Obispo Police Department chief of police. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News. This column is part of a series called Sincerely, SLO where San Luis Obispo leaders share their thoughts on certain topics.
Let’s go back to the basics; we are all humans. Flesh and blood. We all feel, we all hurt, we all bleed. We are all living here together with many differences, but all the same people. We all see life through our own lenses, based on our individual upbringing, education, friends, religion, personal perceptions, preferences and so on. We fear what is different from us and that causes us to tend to surround ourselves with what we like and what is like us, including people. But what if we got out of that comfort zone and got to know people that may not be like us, at least on the outside?
Remember your mother telling you not to judge a book by its cover? I found from years of being in law enforcement that we are much more alike than we are different. Let’s start there. Let’s start with the simple fact that we have things in common. Let’s start with our similarities and not our differences.
Let me talk about policing, since it is something I know and have done for more than 22 years.
What does it take to police a community of people that all want to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity, but at the same time are very different? I would be remiss if I did not say that police officers are people who also want to be treated with respect and dignity. People have different communication styles and different body language that may be specific to their culture; some suffer from mental illness and some from drug or alcohol addiction.
Police officers are in contact with every facet of our community on a daily basis. Because of this, we must continually change our own communication styles, body language, tone, pitch, volume, assertiveness and diffidence to be effective. Those who fail to do this or have not mastered the skill can create a divide between the police and the community.
Our community needs to understand we have no idea what we may be walking into on a domestic violence call, in a shoplifting incident or during a traffic stop. More recently, we must remain alert just sitting in a coffee shop in case the person approaching has bad intentions. Because we can’t know and because history has shown us we can die during any encounter, we tend to start out initial engagements with a heightened sense of awareness and command presence.
In milliseconds, a law enforcement officer is expected to assess a situation and a person to determine the threat level, then adjust their approach accordingly. They do this all while remaining prepared to escalate and deescalate at just the right time and by just the right amount. This is not easy. It is not a science, but it’s more of an art. We do not always get it right. Remember, we are human, we have sympathetic nervous systems controlling our bodies, we have emotions and we have issues at home.
In addition to having people understand us, we need to know the people that live in our community.
We need to understand who makes up the community and what different cultures there are so we can educate ourselves on how to interact with people without offending them. Are there people fromcultures who are not being dishonest, but may tend to avoid eye contact? People who are not being aggressive, but may communicate in a more boisterous way? People who would like us to ask what their pronoun is? I love the philosophy that we must know you before we need to know you and vice versa.
The community needs to know us and why we act the way we do. Law enforcement has been its own worst enemy by not being as transparent as we can be, by not admitting we have messed up, by not teaching our communities about all of the wonderful things we are doing, all of the training we go through and that every one of us entered this career because we love our community.
The San Luis Obispo Police Department is starting a program called Policing Education and Community Engagement (PEACE) in January 2017 and later in the year will start an explorer program. PEACE will consist of multiple two-hour discussions about topics the community would like to learn more about in regards to policing. The first discussion will be held in January, then every other month for the remainder of the year.
The first topic will be related to the police and community relationship. The second will be about use of force and will incorporate video along with discussion. The third will be a Q-&-A that will give the community a chance to ask a panel of police professionals questions about law enforcement.
Additionally, we would like to learn more about our community. Eventually, we will create a program called Police and Community Together (PACT) in which police officers will partner with a community member or family so each can learn about the other on a personal level. More information about these programs and others will be released soon. Please follow us on Facebook, Nixle and Twitter, @slopdchief, for more information.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must learn to come together as brothers, or perish as fools.” Let’s come together.