September 14, 2017 10:57:49 AM
The video of Columbus Police Department officer Keith Dowd berating and intimidating 20-year-old Joshua Hibbler during a routine traffic stop last month has been met with universal condemnation. The repercussions should go far beyond the fate of that single officer.
While it is important to avoid the error of ascribing to all officers the flaws of a single officer, I do sense something has changed in how police view citizens, which, of course, determines how citizens view cops.
Certainly, Hibbler's unfortunate encounter with this cop has struck a nerve in the community. The Dispatch's online version of the story has drawn almost 60,000 views while the Facebook version has been shared 228 times.
Among the many comments on the story, quite a few shared their own unpleasant encounters with cops. The black community appears to be upset, but not surprised, by the video. For black parents, "the talk" about how their children should react in encounters with police is viewed as topic of life-and-death importance.
Yet the public perception of police in this instance is not confined to race nor will every negative encounter be as abusive as the one Hibbler endured.
One reader, a middle-aged, white professional -- the sort of person who might be expected to pose the least threat to police and be most supportive of them -- made this point in private message, writing:
"Six months ago, I needed directions, so I walked up to a parked Columbus Police Department vehicle and stood by the window. The officer saw me approach, saw me lean down and wave as I asked, 'Hello. May I get some help?' He waited about 10 seconds, staring at me as if I were bothering him, before he rolled down his window. Then he didn't say anything, just stared at me. I thought, 'This guy is intentionally trying to make me feel uncomfortable.'
"Finally, I asked my question. He waited a moment and then said, 'I don't know,' as he simultaneously rolled up his window and turned away.
"The micro-expression on his face told me he was lying. He was just being a (jerk). After that, I made a decision to never again seek help from a local law enforcement officer."
I think that story cuts to the heart of the problem.
In my mind, what we are seeing represents a fundamental error in the way police leadership has considered these perceptions.
The CPD leadership is treating a customer relations problem as if it is a public relations problem. These are not interchangeable terms.
A great restaurant does not schedule events to demonstrate great customer service. That would be absurd. It is no less absurd for law enforcement to rely on scheduled public relations events such as "Coffee With a Cop" Or "Night Out Against Crime" to build relationships with citizens.
Police, not unlike restaurants, are judged by each and every interaction with the public. It cannot be otherwise.
Most citizens want to support the police and recognize the importance of their work and the dangers the job presents.
While cops may not consider us the enemy -- as if they are an occupying force in hostile territory -- many of us are getting the impression that cops don't like us very much, that we are a nuisance.
Public relations is just a formula. It won't fix that.
By contrast, customer relations is a culture that is established, cultivated and enforced by those in leadership. It can change things.
Whatever attitude about police Hibbler may have had before the afternoon of Aug. 18, it has been forever changed and not for the good. How many others, having heard his story, now share those feelings?
There may be two sides to any relationship, but in this case the burden falls squarely on the police.
Their conduct will determine how the community perceives them.
The leadership of our police department must understand this. They must make it clear to their officers that customer relations isn't just a good idea.
It's part of the job -- and a damn important part of the job at that.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.