We emphasize the importance of community engagement in our blogs and in national publications like the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Best Practices guide. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must engage in social distancing. The traditional community meetings and face-to-face discussions are no longer feasible, and law enforcement agencies must meet with stakeholders in their jurisdiction without any physical contact. Now more than ever, law enforcement leaders will be testing their ability to continue community policing when the public needs safety and security the most.

Social Media and Community Engagement

Even before the pandemic, law enforcement agencies were proactive in using social media to connect with their communities. Some have a simple Facebook presence, while others are effectively using Twitter, Instagram and other methods of reaching the public. Police departments all over the country are sending out messages through their social media channels about what it means to social distance and how stay-at-home orders work. This is an important use of social media and should continue. Some departments are moving beyond one-way communication and using Instagram Live to encourage interaction with the public.

However, many are not using available technology to truly engage with the community. In many respects, this is understandable in that the departments need to be focused on ensuring that they continue to provide full coverage to their area. For example, some departments are assigning sworn social media staff to patrol duties to cover shifts. Of course, in many small agencies, patrol officers have been responsible for social media as well as their patrol duties all along.

Virtual Meetings to Foster Discussions

True community engagement is not just sending information out to community members but having a discussion with them about their needs and their opinions. In the spirit of collaborative policing and the co-production of public safety and public health, departments can establish “virtual” focus groups and meetings to receive feedback. There are many platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, that can facilitate meaningful dialogue.

In many respects, virtual meetings are the same as in-person meetings. For example, well-run in-person and online meetings:

  • Start with pre-meeting preparation work by the facilitator
  • Begin with a goal in mind
  • Have an agenda
  • Provide everyone with the opportunity to participate
  • Start and end on time

And the facilitators of the meeting:

  • Recognize and limit the person who attempts to dominate the meeting
  • Ensure that the quiet participants are able to speak up without judgment
  • Prepare to resolve conflict
  • Provide constructive feedback

In addition to the general tips above, we have some tips for maximizing your meetings that exclusively happen online.

Nine Tips for Better Virtual Meetings

  • Know your platform. Once you have chosen a platform for your online meetings, understand its capabilities, such as how to use audio controls. These controls allow the organizer to control who can speak at any given time. Practice using the platform with an internal group of colleagues to ensure that you can operate it and it will meet your purposes.
  • Use the chat feature. Use the chat feature to allow participants to send in questions and comments so that the facilitator can monitor what is being asked or commented on. The organizer can synthesize similar questions.
  • Use video. Encourage participants to turn on their videos. Seeing the faces of all the participants, rather than just voices, improves their ability to connect.
  • Assign roles. Watch the room for non-verbal communication that indicates if someone was uncomfortable or troubled by something someone else said, looked like they had something to say or seemed not to be paying attention. These observations allow you to pivot or adjust the meeting to ensure that the person’s voice is heard or to bring the person back into the meeting. With online meetings where people are on camera, you may need a helper or co-facilitator to observe people and send you a note in the chat feature if someone looks like they want to participate – or should be questioned.
  • Ask questions. Be prepared with specific questions to ask and actively facilitate the conversation. This rule is similar to what a facilitator would do in person. Open questions are sometimes helpful but can lead to awkward silence. Be prepared with specific narrow questions to get conversations started.
  • Have a roll call and create an icebreaker. It is important for individuals in the meeting to have a chance to get to know each other before diving into the serious substance of the meeting. Setting some time aside early in the meeting for casual conversation, just like we do in person when we arrive before an in-person meeting, helps people develop rapport. For example, once the meeting starts, ask members to identify themselves and where they are from.
  • Agree on some rules of engagement. Every participant should be aware of and agree to certain rules of conduct. Simple rules include muting your microphone if you are not speaking and knowing how to virtually raise your hand when you want to participate.
  • Ensure that everyone participates. Just like with in-person meetings, sometimes a person does not participate, even though they have some thoughts about the topic at hand or the process. Take steps to call on everyone. Use the participant list included on most platforms to ensure that everyone has had a chance.
  • End the meeting on time and with an agreement on next steps.

Offline Methods for Outreach

Though social media and virtual meetings can be effective for many communities, many areas in the U.S. do not have access to an internet connection or the technology needed to facilitate online meetings. Moreover, older adults are less likely to feel comfortable using social media or a meeting platform.

Community engagement does not solely depend on online solutions, even in a pandemic. Phone calls and in-person visits, when safe and necessary to do so, are essential police work that should never be neglected for more high-tech methods.

Long-Term Solutions

We are confident that we will be having face-to-face interactions again, but even after this pandemic has ebbed, online engagement can help a police department have a broader reach, especially to those who cannot leave their houses or have great difficulty attending meetings. The tips above give you a starting point. Now is the time to virtually reach out to your communities to show that you care and want to hear their concerns.