Oak Creek Police Department’s Guiding Principles for Engaging the Community | Not in Our Town

Oak Creek Police Department’s Guiding Principles for Engaging the Community

Oak Creek Police Department
Kanwar Kaleka talks with Police Chief John Edwards and other officers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

The Oak Creek Police Department engaged its community in the aftermath of a fatal shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin that resulted in the death of six Sikh worshipers and the injury of four others—including Lt. Brian Murphy who was first on the scene.

These guiding principles are excerpted from the article, "Oak Creek: Leading a Community in the Aftermath of a Tragedy," published in Police Chief Magazine in October 2013. 

Prioritize education and training for officers. The men and women in uniform will be grateful that they have everything they need to effectively respond to incidents and to successfully work with members of the community. A smart, robust training program leaves a powerful legacy for officers many years down the line.

Be proactive about reaching out to and establishing positive working relationships with different cultural groups in the community. By establishing strong working relationships with diverse groups, the department greatly increases its intelligence about what is happening in the community and expands the capability for preventive action. Groups that might be targeted for hate crime attacks should be engaged to discuss potential increased security measures and the importance of reporting any incidents or suspicious behavior immediately.

Maintain a strong, visible leadership role in the aftermath of a hate crime or any public safety crisis. Support may come from regional or national agencies, but it is crucial that the community see local leaders standing together and taking action. Especially after a hate crime, victims and the targeted community need to feel supported, and all residents need to feel confident that the police department is taking a powerful stand against hate and protecting the safety of all residents.

Be transparent and share as much information about an incident as the department can without jeopardizing an investigation. Members of the community want to know what is being done to ensure their safety, and it is important to be up front with them. In addition, the media wants to be the first to report any activity, and rumors or misinformation quickly spread if they do not check their sources. The rise of social media has exacerbated this unproductive cycle.

Maintain a strong relationship with the media; “No comment” does not get you anywhere. When the media calls, from local to international press outlets, provide a comment and let them know how the department is handling a situation. Again, be as transparent as you can without compromising an investigation. This approach pays dividends, because media outlets will come to know that the department is honest and straightforward. In the future, if there is a need to get new information out, or to correct misinformation that has been circulating, you have established partners who can help.

Be approachable—agree to meet with anyone in the community. Especially after an incident, families and/or the targeted community may have tough questions to ask about the event and the department’s actions. Always agree to meet with them and answer their questions. This does not mean you have to meet in front of the media or the greater public; make time for candid, private conversations.

Establish a standard of meaningful community engagement that encourages residents to bring in new ideas. When residents see the department reaching out to groups in the community and proactively addressing problems, they will feel confident that they can approach the police as partners to address other public safety issues. This builds trust between police and the community, and encourages residents to take ownership of crime prevention activities.

Thoroughly investigate and accurately report every incident that might be a hate crime. By taking a strong stand against hate, police instill confidence in the community that they are making sure all residents are recognized and protected. By submitting accurate monthly reports to the FBI, local police make sure that everyone is counted.

Recognize that the police department is a community itself, and prioritize officer wellness. There is an expectation that officers treat people with respect and maintain control while they are out in the field; to promote this, it is essential that they are treated with respect and taken care of by their department. Especially after a major public safety incident, a chief needs to be aware of how hard people are working, send officers home to recuperate after a series of long days, and understand that officers and their families may need additional support, particularly if they were involved in the violence. As chief, take a high-level look at what decisions need to be made and what actions need to be taken, and be mindful about delegating what you can. You do not have to do it all, and the department and the entire community are counting on you to remain sharp and in good health. 

"Oak Creek: Leading a Community in the Aftermath of a Tragedy," was co-authored by Police Chief John Edwards. Edwards is featured, together with OCPD officers, members of Oak Creek’s Sikh community, and many other residents, in a new Not In Our Town film, which documents the powerful community actions that took place in the aftermath of the August 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. The film was produced as part of a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), to create new tools to help law enforcement and communitypartners work together to prevent hate crimes, improve hate crime reporting, and address underlying tensions that can lead to violence.