My name is Sal Lejarza. My dear friend and high school classmate Mary invited me to serve as her guest blogger for today, and of course I am very honored and gratified to do so. As I have served over 23 years as a civilian administrator for a suburban New Orleans police department, Mary asked me to provide my views in light of recent police-related incidents around the country as well as from the last several months. A couple of those incidents happened over the summer in Baton Rouge, just about 70 miles from my home.
There is no need to rehash individual incidents as most of us know the circumstances. We do know the following: minority-group citizens (particularly African-Americans) as well as law enforcement officers both feel under siege. Too many of both are being killed or injured. Rather than point fingers of blame at one another, which solves nothing, law enforcement professionals and community leaders must seek dialogue to solve the problems at hand.
In the suburb where I work and live, this is exactly what we have been doing for years. Our city’s population (approximately 70,000) is about 65% white, 25% African-American, 8.5% Hispanic, and the remainder are Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Arab/Far Eastern), including a small but vibrant Muslim community. And with such a diverse citizenry, we had almost a 39% decrease in crime in 2015 compared to 2014! How does that happen today?
On the law enforcement end, our police department does three things right. First, we strongly vet our police officer applicants. Anyone with a remotely questionable background is not hired. This minimizes the probability of negative occurrences in the future.
Second, all of our police officers undergo constant and thorough training annually to brush up their skills as well as to learn new methods and issues that confront the law enforcement profession. The key is to keep that training as contemporary as possible. A well-prepared police officer is a very professional police officer!
Third, and just as vitally important, our department has a very active community relations bureau that communicates and interacts with various civic/community organizations, including but not limited to neighborhood organizations, churches, schools, and social service entities. Police officers can’t do it alone. Citizens must provide them with additional eyes and ears in order to keep their neighborhoods safe. This is why our chief and police officers frequently meet with these groups in order to get the public’s pulse on problems while finding ways to solve them. No police department can be successful without a community relations component. Our department also offers various programs for citizen involvement (Neighborhood Watch, Citizen’s Police Academy, and Women’s Self-Defense Classes, just to name some).
These are just some of the ways our police department has been successful in keeping crime down while (and I emphasize) building public trust. Yes, more police officers, equipment, and technology help, but building public trust as we have done makes keeping our community safer so much easier.
Some police departments around the nation may not have the resources to do what I’ve outlined above. Then what? This is where citizens can make a difference. Many have mobilized to form 501(c)3 non-profit organizations to raise funds and work with their local law enforcement agencies on various programs, including but not limited to the purchase of crime-fighting equipment, training, and community outreach. Working together in this fashion, law enforcement and the citizenry can build trust with one another while solving daily problems in a positive manner.
Another way citizens can become involved is more direct: becoming a police officer. After the terrible murders of police officers in Dallas, that city’s police chief challenged law enforcement protesters to effect change by becoming police officers; many of those protesters accepted the challenge and submitted their applications. Those individuals will now get a view from the other side.
Law enforcement and community leaders are better served when they talk to each other instead of at each other. Building mutual trust as I’ve outlined above will not happen overnight, but the process must start as soon as possible if we wish to solve the problems at hand. As the saying goes, “You can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”