Active Listening

Part of the job of a police chief should be that of an active listener. It’s important to know what is going on inside and outside the organization. This past week has been a time that has provided the opportunity to listen to a number of audiences about a number of issues that all applied to some degree, the method of how the criminal justice is viewed by many in our communities and what expectations are often communicated during discussions about community issues. Here’s a few sections from my notes from this past week.

There was a great deal of discussion of how increased enforcement of rental codes, blight ordinances, quality of life issues and conduct issues will stop the behavior deemed improper or identified as illegal as defined by statutes and ordinances.

The topic permeated council meetings, coffee group discussions, radio and newspaper spots as well as student unions and police squad rooms. Most of this information was conveyed by residents who have been established in neighborhoods that have seen an increase in rental properties, specifically multiple occupant dwellings converted from single family homes.

I also heard from property owners who feel that the courts do not provide them sufficient clout to expel tenants who are in violation of rental rules who landlords hear from other residents are problem renters.

I also heard from renters, mostly college students who are concerned that they are being singled out because of a few “bad apples” and that a “broad brush” is being used against many because of the actions of a few. Ironically, both students and long time residents have voiced their frustration with college administrators for their lack of guidance or involvement throughout the dialogue.

Today, I received an email from a college student concerned about a “new policy” whereby officers summoned to either Carleton or St. Olaf campuses on disturbance calls or medical calls issue tickets to those involved in illegal activities identified by the call: usually alcohol or drug related. The writer was quite direct that it would be us (the police), who would be responsible for deaths of students who would “shutter” themselves into isolation when they decided to binge drink rather than risk the chance of getting a citation for underage consumption of alcohol. I was also informed that the police were responsible for establishing a very negative relationship with the students on that particular campus because of our enforcement the law.

During the past week, I’ve also spoken to a number of individuals who are quite concerned that our officers are not writing enough alcohol-related citations both on and off campus and that we should not be so concerned about Fourth Amendment privacy rights and rules of evidence; simply plunge forward and write those tickets……that we are jeopardizing the goodwill of the residents by not “taking action.”

I also listened to a number of students who are very much committed to a positive dialogue to help bridge the gap of concern over what is perceived as a growing canyon of difference between the students and local residents.

Today, I attended a meeting that comprised those of us who work with or in the court system where concern has been expressed the past year that the number of judges, court staff and resources has remained essentially the same the past 10 years despite the escalation of the number of cases coming before the court because of the increase in police activity.

The backlog has resulted in officers being repeatedly called to court numerous days for court on overtime only to find out the case they were summoned for was continued or rescheduled.

Prosecutors and public defenders scramble each Monday to figure out which one of the 24 cases on the docket for that day will actually be tried and which will be pushed back to be considered for the next day or next session and judges try to participate in a process that still honors constitutional principles of fairness and justice.

I also hear from my staff who are frustrated having had 2 hours of sleep before being called into court to have the case continued: their frustration with the lack of their ability to get adequate rest, have a family life and still meet staffing needs. They tell me of their concern that they lack the resources to address the growing challenges of drug crimes and increasing demands on their time for quality of life issues and balancing them with increasing cases of identity theft and more violent crimes that involve possible abduction of children with no increase in police staffing since 2000.


Having reflected on the observations and words of this past week, we will continue to expand the dialogue between stakeholders. We will continue to work with prosecutors and the court to continue to bring more cases to court and manage the strain on our personnel and city coffers.

We will work to prevent and reduce criminal activity through sound crime prevention techniques and investigative techniques that actively will involve community participation to help provide more effective police response to needs and concerns, knowing that the bulk of what we deal with are symptoms of a larger social issue that requires our active participation with the community to identify and provide longer-term solutions.

Ultimately, it is a development of a deeper commitment to a level of customer service that involves timely feedback, education and follow-up. The City has pledged itself to this level of service. The members of our police department staff are determined to be leaders in this commitment. A big step forward is taking the time to listen and then to work together to solve the challenges before us.

About Gary Smith

Chief Smith has served over 31 years in the criminal justice field. He is currently a consultant assisting public and private organizations better establish community goals and ethical conduct with the members of their organizations. Chief Smith serves as a facilitator, lecturer, professor and other capacities both inside and outside the criminal justice field.
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