The Community Immersion Program: building relationships.
The Austin Police Department (APD) shares the city's appreciation of diversity and strives to reflect this value at every level. It stresses to employees the importance of diversity, tolerance, and human and civil rights and understands that successful policing entails partnering with the citizens of the community.
To this end, in 2004, APD developed the Community Immersion Program in cooperation with the people of Austin to help the agency weave its new officers into the fabric of the community. The program requires prospective officers to engage citizens on a personal level, learn the history and values of the city's people, and, perhaps most important, share with their colleagues what they have learned. Interaction with the citizens of Austin helps officers appreciate and become part of the community as they build relationships with the people they serve.
HISTORY OF THE PROGRAM
APD serves a city that, like any community, holds its public servants to high standards. In fulfilling one basic expectation, officers must understand and respect the citizens they serve. To this end, the department has faced a challenge in that a large number of its officers and recruits live outside the greater-Austin area. Thus, APD began recognizing the need to ensure that its personnel obtain the knowledge they need to provide effective police service and protect the quality of life enjoyed by the community. APD strives for mutual understanding between its officers and citizens as this enables true community policing.
APD realized that its officers would need some sort of training to help them properly serve Austin's multifaceted population--all segments of it. Unfortunately, diversity education in APD and other law enforcement agencies has proven difficult due, perhaps, to both the methods of and the impetus for the training. The agency wanted its personnel to see such a learning opportunity as important and exciting.
The department searched outside sources for a program to meet its needs and purposes but did not find one suitable, certainly not a product capable of teaching its officers about values unique to Austin. During this search process, citizens began to tell APD through advocacy groups, community meetings, and the media that they wanted a stronger connection to the agency and increased understanding by officers of their values. They expressed interest in helping APD teach its officers about Austin. The department accepted the offer, recognizing that the community knows best what it needs and serves as the most powerful tool available to impact the agency's attitudes, beliefs, and ideals. APD understood that learning about Austin directly from community members would encourage understanding between officers and citizens, leading to better service.
Input from the Community
APD has an open-door policy that allows community members to tour the campus, observe training, interact with cadets and staff members, and provide input. Many groups and individuals, including interested and concerned citizens, students, and secular and faith-based community leaders, have accepted this offer. Recently, an editorial writer for the local daily newspaper spent many weeks observing cadet training and prepared a multipart series about how the department and the community built several officers. During this process, the agency learned a great deal more about what the community wants from its police.
The department routinely holds commander's forums in which it encourages people to meet with law enforcement personnel and discuss their needs and desires. APD recently sponsored a series of open forums in which civilians participated in discussions to help the department learn more about their needs. The agency spoke with various community leaders and advocacy groups to share their values regarding training, communication, and bridge building. APD also scoured the media (e.g., visual, print, radio, and foreign language) to determine the mood of the community regarding these issues.
APD's trainers are enthusiastic students themselves. They have used the vitality and richness of the Austin Community to learn what citizens, individuals, and groups expect from officers. The department has learned a great deal in this way: the most powerful message being that the community wants its police to understand and appreciate what makes Austin unique, which of course, is its people.
Backing of the Department
Certainly, in developing and implementing the program, APD has found it important to have the support of not only the community but the department. From the first proposal, all levels of leadership, including the chief have provided their encouragement. The agency also has backed the program with the necessary time and resources. Such support proves critical to the program's credibility and success.
OPERATION OF THE PROGRAM
Day 1: Classroom
The 56-hour program begins in the classroom where cadets have three main objectives: 1) learn about Austin's culture; 2) experience it firsthand; and 3) teach fellow classmates, academy staff, and the community about what they have learned. During this portion of the course, APD staff members stress the theme "everybody has value," regardless of their circumstances (e.g., perpetrator or victim of a crime).
In the morning, instructors continue to reinforce values introduced during cadet class. These include abandoning stereotypes and biases, recognizing culture beyond ethnicity, understanding how cultures are learned, and building social capital and public trust.
During the day, cadets participate in classroom discussions and complete group exercises. They also are introduced and assigned to their teaching groups. A critical part of the program entails student involvement in experiential learning activities, which include groups of cadets miming a nonethnic culture until the class can guess the group represented. Also, cadets, view the Community Immersion video, filmed in Austin and produced by APD staff; identify as many cultures in the short film as possible; and present their findings to the class. These assignments allow students to examine issues, such as whether people learn cultures or are born into them and why the agency's diversity should reflect that of the community. Officers look at how they may appreciate and benefit from other cultures, as well as what the citizens gain.
In the afternoon, instructors introduce the Community Immersion project to the officer candidates. With a better understanding of the importance of appreciating differences, students form 8 to 10 groups that reflect as much diversity as possible. Also, instructors encourage the students to evenly disperse persons with technical expertise (e.g., software and video downloading). Each self-selected group then must explain to the instructors and audience members how their group met the criteria. Then, APD personnel assign each group a culture (e.g., those with disabilities or from ethnic or socioeconomic groups) chosen from among those who may have felt disenfranchised in the community in the past.
Days 2 Through 5: Fieldwork
Over the next 4 days, each group of students conducts extensive research on the assigned culture in preparation of an oral and video presentation they give to the public during days 6 and 7. They also prepare an 8- to 10-page paper describing what they learned and how they met their learning objectives. APD staff members expect students to research their assigned culture specifically as it exists in Austin. Further, they must rely exclusively on the community when conducting their research. Cadets may refer to staff members only when seeking help with the use of the academy-issued video equipment or when requesting the presence of an APD officer while visiting an unsafe area.
The video presentation must feature participation by all group members and meet all key learning objectives. The video must feature an interview of six social or political leaders from the assigned culture. Cadets also conduct and film 10 on-the-street interviews with citizens of Austin, asking such questions as What are your expectations of me, a new police officer, over the next 23 years? What does our department do well with regard to your culture? and How can we do a better job interacting with your culture?
This fieldwork offers many benefits, the most important being the time that students spend in the community. It has the biggest impact on them as individuals and serves as effective diversity education because the cadets have positive experiences with cultures they may never have known or interacted with positively in the past. During these experiences, students confront their preconceived attitudes, biases, and stereotypes. Doing this with their peers encourages openness and emotional growth. Cadets have consistently praised this fieldwork.
Days 6 and 7: Presentations
During the final 2 days, students give their presentations about their assigned cultures to fellow cadets, staff members, invited guests, and the public. APD personnel choose a venue--usually rented conference space linked to a university--that reflects the expectation that students conduct professional presentations. Since the inception of the Community Immersion Program, the quality of these presentations has shown how the cadets have benefitted from the program and internalized ownership of the information about their community.
APD invites the public through different media outlets. The agency considers community support during the course and at the presentations critical to the success of the program. The feedback from citizens is vital in reinforcing the desired values of how officers should serve others. The credit for the success of this program really goes to the citizens who have participated and lent their support.
PRAISE FOR THE PROGRAM
From the beginning, APD understood that risk always accompanies the development and implementation of a program, particularly an unprecedented one, designed to encourage change. How would the community respond? The department? The media? Political leaders? And, attempts at extensive dialogue with these groups did not prove as informative as the agency had hoped. The department understood that taking risks and failing to build bridges could damage its relationship with the community. However, the success of the Community Immersion Program quickly alleviated those fears.
Relationships with the Community
Throughout this process, the citizens of Austin have volunteered their input, support, and praise. Overall, the cadets have encountered open arms from the community. And, APD has received positive feedback from community leaders. The program has helped officers to develop not only partnerships with citizens but lasting relationships.
Support from the Department Of course, the department has volunteered many of its resources. Hosting 70 or more students for 7 classroom days is a huge commitment by an agency and a good measure of its dedication. Further, APD has demonstrated its excitement with the program by approving purchases of technical equipment (e.g., video cameras and components) and renting high-end professional venues for presentations to the community.
From the beginning, the agency has provided its strong support in many ways. For instance, the chief of staff has discussed the program at city council meetings. Additionally, APD has issued press releases and invited political, media, and community leaders to participate in the program.
Acceptance from the Participants
Cadets who have participated in the program have offered positive comments and said that they learned important lessons. One cadet working with persons with physical disabilities stated, "We've noticed that people often go unnoticed. They don't want people to feel sorry for them. They want people to know they can lead a normal life, just with different obstacles." Another cadet said, "For me, exposing myself to these cultures, I'm becoming more aware of their customs and traditions, which will only help me in the end."
The program has gotten enthusiastic coverage by the media. And, it has earned formal recognition. For instance, APD received a certificate of recognition from the International Association of Chiefs of Police Civil Rights Committee. APD has greatly appreciated the support and recognition the program has acquired.
Recruiting, mentoring, and educating officers to serve a diverse and unique community presents a challenging but rewarding mission for any police department. The Community Immersion Program, designed by and intended for the city it serves, has helped the Austin Police Department build bridges and establish partnerships in the community. While the program is not a panacea, it represents the pinnacle of a value system the agency conveys to officers from the day they are recruited through the day they retire.
APD seeks to ensure protection of the human rights of Austin residents by training and mentoring its new officers in a variety of ways. However, the Community Immersion Program has a unique organic quality that not only teaches about value systems but builds bridges of understanding and develops lasting relationships with the people whose rights officers swear to protect. It has a powerful effect in that it requires participants to immerse themselves in a portion of the community, engage in dialogue with members of that group, learn about these individuals' motivations and values, and then teach what they have learned to their peers. In this manner, the program becomes not just an educational process but the beginning of relationships between officers and citizens.
Assistant Chief Adickes serves with the Austin, Texas, Police Department.