I was speaking with some police officials in Florida earlier this year about community policing and the types of complaints they receive. They referenced traffic noise, homeless individuals, graffiti…and turtle lighting.

Turtle lighting?

Spending my life in the Chicago area, I had never heard of such a thing. It did not take long to learn from those Chiefs that turtle lighting is a policing issue that is important to residents in their communities. In short, artificial lighting interferes with sea turtle behavior. Too much light can cause adult and hatchling sea turtles to become disoriented and unable to find their way back to the ocean, increasing their risk of death.

Residents in beach communities often call the police about inappropriate lighting and the police respond to remedy the situation. In turn, this beach community’s priority becomes a priority for a police agency that strives to provide great service to its residents, and the turtles become a symbol of community policing on their way back to the ocean.

Peeking Under the Shell for Your Community Policing Strategies

This sea turtle vignette is an apt reflection of the unique role police officers play in their various communities. While people often think about police catching criminals, many police calls involve service activities, such as addressing parking grievances, complaints about barking dogs, premise checks, reports of speeding vehicles or people locked out of their cars.

Serving the communities that they’re also charged with protecting has become an even more important facet of officers’ duties as many agencies shift back toward more service-focused policing programs. When residents see a problem and don’t know who to call, they call the police and the police respond, helping point a resident in the right direction for a solution.

Sea turtles also remind us that while there are a lot of similarities in police practices throughout the country, every community has its own unique concerns. In some neighborhoods, responding to complaints of a gardeners’ use of noisy leaf blowing machines can lock up community meetings for weeks, while in others, the focus is alleged drug trafficking on a street corner.

As I learned in Florida, some police help to enforce sea turtle lighting restrictions. In fact, police in these communities go so far as to protect and rescue the little reptiles. Go ahead: search the internet. You will find many stories about police standing guard to protect baby sea turtles crossing the road.

What Is Your Agency’s Ability to Balance Service with Protection?

Evidence shows that community-oriented policing helps strengthen ties with residents and can make police efforts more effective. But before implementing a community policing strategy, you have to assess how and where your officers spend their time today. What kinds of activities do your officers engage in? How much of their work is spent apprehending criminals and how much is focused on delivering services?

Naturally, the protection of life and prevention of violent crime are among the most important priorities for any law enforcement agency. But also important is addressing community concerns that, on their face, may seem to be of lesser priority for law enforcement officials, particularly those from a different community with different constituents.

We know from firsthand experience – as retired law enforcement leaders and law enforcement consultants today – that responding to such community concerns goes a long way in humanizing police officers in the eyes of the community. It’s like a marriage or any healthy relationship. The small acts of care and kindness – from simply listening to protecting the baby turtle – build trust and convey integrity. And, over time, these are the traits that build the community’s trust and confidence in your law enforcement officers.

When your officers lend the community their ears, the community begins to lend your officers theirs. As trust and confidence in your agency grows, the community invests itself more deeply in supporting law enforcement goals – by tipping officers to illegal activities or highlighting opportunities to intervene before a crime occurs.

Maybe you should look to the sea turtles in your community. Protecting them can indeed be a law enforcement priority.


Want to learn more best practices for creating a community policing strategy? Download our Championing Community Policing: Collaboration, Change and a “Can-Do” Culture Executive Briefing.