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Community sensitivity.

The 1990s present law enforcement with significant challenges. While police administrators in major cities face the reality of inner-city turmoil similar to that experienced in Los Angeles, those in small, rural jurisdictions must not conclude that this situation will escape them.

In fact, our isolation and relatively infrequent involvement with racial, ethnic, and alternative lifestyles can evolve into a more serious situation than most of us expect. However, small departments can avoid these confrontations by promoting increased levels of community sensitivity to police duties, combined with practices promoting an "absence of harm" policy.

An absence of harm policy reflects the decision by police administrators to recognize the tensions that place communities in peril. With such a policy, agency administrators ensure that their officers exercise moderation and restraint when performing police duties, in order to alleviate these tensions.

While police personnel in small departments today infrequently encounter negative community feelings regarding racial, ethnic, or alternate lifestyle groups, this will undoubtedly not be the case in the future. In fact, two important factors will most likely guarantee that such avoidance becomes an improbability. These factors are the media and the movement of minority and ethnic groups into small communities.

Given the daily media coverage of inner-city confrontations in news briefs and the enormous ongoing change in national ethnic dynamics, even the most isolated areas will probably experience tension in the years to come. Because of this, citizens need to cooperate with local law enforcement to prevent such incidents from erupting in their neighborhoods.

Racial Confrontation

The dynamics of confrontation among racial, ethnic, and alternative lifestyle groups in small communities are, by their very nature, profound. The circumstances that foster crisis, and the scars and wounds that result, tend to linger for months and even years. When this occurs, the community fabric is torn by raging debates, and questions are left unanswered. Intense emotion creates the potential for a media frenzy that places municipal growth and economic viability in danger, leaving little chance for healing.

The riots in Los Angeles sparked a significant increase in ethnic intimidation, ethnic-directed crime, selected hate crimes, and hate group activity. Both small and large agencies may view this situation as one that calls for training solely in "ethical intimidation." The diversity of contemporary America, however, paired with the unique factors that can cause even minor disturbances to escalate, creates a need for a mind-set adjustment in American policing. The small agency administrator must translate responses to this intense issue into carefully defined areas and prepare appropriately.

Ways of Healing: Education, Community Involvement, and Planning

Intense instruction beyond the awareness level is necessary to ensure officer and department sensitivity when interacting with different groups. This makes education and understanding concerning values, problems, and threats--both perceived and real--necessary.

Those in charge must coach and re-coach officers on the levels of apprehension, outrage, and socioeconomic dismay existing in society. While the current economic conditions affect all our communities, officers must understand that segments of our population were disenfranchised at birth, marooned in an economic void, and face little likelihood of a change in status, regardless of where the economy stands.

Education and community-wide programs are essential if public perception of police service is to change. As law enforcement personnel, we must present what we are, as well as how and why we do what we do, to the public as often as possible.

Communities that have a sufficient minority base to support houses of worship, social or benevolent associations, or support groups should be contacted for outreach, delivery of information, and control of inaccurate information. Police administrators must know the leadership within these groups and establish a relationship with them based on trust, understanding, and cooperation.

Successful preplanning also requires that administrators carefully study officer safety issues, equipment, department logistics, and administrative needs--making adjustments where needed. Small agencies should consider taking internal and interagency action to accomplish these tasks.

Agencies can enter into agreements with local agencies, such as utility companies, hospitals, and other police departments. These agreements should be sufficiently complete and organized to ensure levels of response and policies relating to command of personnel.

Another consideration is communication during crisis situations, which is vital. During these times, demands for use of both radio and telephone time by field personnel and supervisors will escalate. Often, an insufficient number of frequencies and out-of-date equipment hamper the exchange of information. Car phones, either portable or unit mounted, can be used to avoid delays. This also ensures that emergency medical and fire service personnel can communicate with police units.

Personnel must also conduct a complete review of officer safety equipment. Supervisors should post directives requiring helmets, boots, gloves, vests, etc., and conduct preduty inspections. Equipment deemed unsafe should be repaired or replaced as needed.

Patrol units must be prepared for extended deployment in emergency situations. This requires a review of maintenance files, which helps departments to prepare accordingly. Fuel, oil, and minor replacement parts must be available, and first-aid and support items should be stored in trunks of department vehicles. An ample stock of spare tires is critical, as is availability of a towing service.

Personnel should review all call-out and notification lists for accuracy. These lists should include the district attorney, hospital administration, public service management (gas, electric, water, etc.), schools, municipal support services, and others that unique circumstances may require.

Departments must also be prepared to release information, make public service announcements, and issue citizen safety advisories. Rumor control will keep administrators posted on street information, correct inaccurate information, and alert them to any change in community emotions.


The clock runs on for American policing. The critical issues that confront us today dictate the need for innovative, new police strategies and approaches. If the walls in Europe can come down, then the walls that exist between the police and communities here at home can also come down.

However, society's leaders and policymakers have yet to face an ultimate truth. That is, just as administrative remedies are exhausted, viable police alternatives may be diminishing as well. Neither group can accomplish the job on its own. In order to avoid racial discord, communities, the media, police departments, and minority groups must work together to maintain a policy that provides for a peaceful, cohesive environment.

Chief Maddox commands the Penn Township Police Department in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:preventing racial and ethnic violence in rural communities
Author:Maddox, Joseph H.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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