What we need is trust

Strengthening ties between the public, the press, and law enforcement

Prepared remarks for the Rocky River Citizen Police Academy
April 16, 2019
Rocky River, Ohio

Mayor Bobst, Chief Stillman, Academy Graduates, Family and Neighbors,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on such a great day for our community.

Your commitment to this program is an investment in and celebration of civic life. You can choose to exercise citizenship in many ways, be it through politics, or faith-based outreach, or philanthropy, or through a multi-week program like this—demystifying police work a little, providing a space for education and discussion about some of the serious challenges our society faces, and more broadly encouraging communication and community.

These last activities I mentioned are some of the most important for me—creating a space for education and discussion, and encouraging communication and community. My remarks today will explore some ideas on doing this, and why they’re important to law enforcement, to journalists, and to all of us.

This kind of program resonates with me both personally and professionally.

On a personal level: I’m an Eagle Scout raised with civic responsibility and an active faith life as cornerstones of my identity. I’m also the son of a peace officer who worked for the California Department of Corrections for nearly two decades, which gave me a familiarity with law enforcement from a young age.

On a professional level: journalists at our core are supposed to be advocates and servants of the public. My duty is to ask questions, tell stories, and learn and share, so that the greater public can make informed decisions about their lives, and know more about the reality around them.

But it’s hard to foster communication and community when there are so many forces working against that covenant between the public and the press.

From the media business side, as we know from the decimation of The Plain Dealer’s news staff, it is harder to make money in the news business. Changes in technology, audience patterns, and the way politicians, governments, and companies control their messaging, and many other factors have all put pressure on the business of journalism. Some outlets shift toward click bait, or more extreme commentary packaged as straight news, in an attempt to keep some revenue, but at what cost?

Part of the cost is in even lower levels of trust and respect for journalists, and lower levels of trust for the work produced by those journalists. Then more people decry the press, which causes more distrust, and it creates a tougher and tougher situation to remedy.

What does this have to do with a citizen police academy? Well, distrust and suspicion are contagious. Insulation and isolation can be contagious. The more we distrust what the papers say, or the radio says, or our neighbors say, the harder it can be to strengthen our communities and tackle multifaceted and complex issues like opioid abuse, or recognize mental health issues and trends, or interact with first responders.

When we stop listening, it’s hard to hear the alarm bells.

So much of my job depends on trust to varying degrees.

It’s incredibly difficult to speak with someone about a challenging moment in their lives without their buy-in. It’s similar for law enforcement. For many people the most interactions they have with police are in times of stress, emotion, and/or trauma. That’s why it’s important to build bridges with the public before those traumatic events occur, and our community is fortunate to have those bridges made stronger by programs like this.

Not all communities have those connections, though the issues of communication and earning the benefit of the doubt in an interaction are somewhat common.

I believe giving the benefit of the doubt is an underrated and challenging aspect to our interactions with each other, both professionally and personally. In an interaction, if we begin from a place of distrust or suspicion, then everything that stems from the interaction will be influenced by that distrust.

On a practical level, when I need to speak with someone about a sensitive topic, or a run-of-the-mill update, I gauge the person’s comfort level usually first in dealing with me as a journalist with a big microphone, in dealing with me as a public radio journalist and what that person may know about public radio, and finally as me as a person. I offer little tidbits to show I’ve done my research, I offer anecdotes about me and my previous work to show the quality of my craft, and I try to be very transparent with the purpose of the interview and what the final product will be like. I don’t produce this work in secret because, well, it’s to serve the public first and foremost, but also because being transparent in this way helps to build that trust.

I’ve had a tendency in my time in Northeast Ohio to seek out difficult topics and try to produce series that present and challenge the diverse opinions within them.

For our purposes I’d like to talk briefly about a project called Our Land. In the wake of the death of Tamir Rice, also of a woman suffering a mental health episode Tanisha Anderson, and the consent decree for police reform, Cleveland was mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson or Baltimore.

How do you report on this without alienating huge portions of the public? How do you find a way to engage members of the community with vastly different experiences, concerns, and perceptions about these individual cases, but also the relationship more broadly between the public and law enforcement?

My attempt to do this rested in form and function. I focused the topic to community policing, because though it has many forms, it’s a proactive strategy meant to increase interactions between police and the public…just like we’re doing here.

I decided from the beginning that I wanted to talk with authentic and diverse individuals–the head of community policing with Cleveland PD; the head of the police union, the black officers association Black Shield, the Latino officers group; to residents of the Cudell neighborhood near where Tamir Rice was shot; inner city mothers; gang members; a pastor; an activist; a college student; high school students.

This is a very diverse list of types of people, but every interview started with the same two questions: what should community policing look like? And how far are we from it?

Not every person is going to be completely satisfied with my work as a journalist, but I take great pains to truly try to understand and convey someone’s perspective. In this project, I needed to try to build trust quickly, and show my ability to understand the perspectives. And the keys to my exchanges with the controversial head of the police union, or a former gang member, or a resident on their porch, were the same.

First, I listened.

And, I showed empathy–and tried to demonstrate something called cultural literacy, recognizing the individuals and their perspectives in context.

Also, I asked for clarification if I didn’t fully understand something. This seems like a very basic thing, but you may be surprised—or maybe you wouldn’t be—about the numbers of journalists and non-journalists who steam ahead without pausing to ask questions to get the fuller context.

One man I met Sulieman had once been a gang member, who now intervenes to bring kids out of gang life. His passion, pain, and hunger radiated from him. His neighborhood craves safety, opportunity, and hope, like ours or any others do. He told me he felt profiled by his dress, his taste in music, or the way he walks. He said: “I want the American pie, but just give me some of the crust…I’ll put it in the microwave, and do something with it.”

He laughed at that, but his point came across. He saw distrust of police contributing to a lack of safety, which leads to more suspicion, which leads to less openness, which leads to fewer jobs, which leads to the loss of the American dream.

Communicating is a two-way street, but sometimes you need to meet a person more on their ground than yours. It’s the exchange of ideas that is the purpose, or at least it’s supposed to be–it’s not an exercise in passing judgement.

You don’t have to agree on everything, but if the exchange is in good faith, then each interaction after that should be easier because a common language and bond are created.

This is especially important for first responders who face traumatic events and real danger every day—the hard work of bridge-building must happen before the blue and red lights start flashing.

What is important for quality journalism, is important for law enforcement, is important for our communities in general.

We need to listen more. We need to seek out and appreciate context of a complicated world. And we need to resist isolating ourselves from different opinions, different neighbors, or different professionals.

The stronger the communication is between the public and the press, and the public and law enforcement, and the press and law enforcement, the stronger our community will be as a whole.

So, congratulations on this investment in our community, and thank you.

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