Thursday, April 9, 2015

Public Trust and the Role of Law Enforcement

Lynn Rhodes
April 9, 2015

The responsibility of law enforcement to society is under close examination due to converging societal conditions that are not new. Recent shooting in the back of an unarmed black man in South Carolina and grand jury decisions not to indict officers involved in law enforcement related deaths of unarmed black men, amplify this convergence and resulting break-down of public trust.

Enforcement agencies are searching for better ways to build trust in their communities and many use community policing programs and strategies. After all, law enforcement is a public-trust-protection program, there to provide public and resource protection. It works best when conducted in a collaborative manner; Community-Public-Trust Policing 101.

One such program worth examining for its approach and policies is the California State Parks Department and their State Park Rangers (State Park Peace Officers). It is a unique department under the California Natural Resources Agency and includes a sizeable law enforcement function having mutual or concurrent policing jurisdiction with cities, counties, state and federal jurisdictions. Their peace officers have full enforcement authority that extends throughout the state. They provide public safety and resource protection to over 68 million annual visitors throughout approximately 1,600,000 acres; 1,658 miles of ocean and waterfront including 1/3rd of California’s coastline.

A peace office’s role is much larger than enforcing laws.  The spirit of the law and use of discretion when weighing the totality of circumstances are fundamental. California State Park Officers are privileged to be considered as Guardians by a majority of the public. A Guardian is an ally, someone that watches, protects and takes action.  Discretion and trust, essential to their role.

When basic values of providing public-trust protection are formally built into an organization’s policies, their practices generally follow those values. California State Parks has written policies that define expectations for their peace officers:
Law Enforcement is, after all, a positive and necessary public service and a natural complement to the role as guardians and protectors.  With defined values, State Park Rangers are charged with the responsibility for protecting and preserving that which has been entrusted to their care.
Rising crime and various social impacts now encroach upon places which have long been considered sanctuaries for peace and enjoyment. Regardless of the increased use and rising crime rate in parks (public places), all park visitors (community members) have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be dealt with in a courteous and cordial manner.
Law enforcement powers are only tools to achieve the goal of compliance.  In many cases, simply informing people that their behavior is illegal will result in compliance.  In other cases the reason for the law must be explained or written warnings issued to offenders.  For others, the threat of law enforcement action will be necessary, and there are cases in which the behavior of the violator is so serious/dangerous as to require immediate arrest or escalated force. The key to a successful law enforcement program therefore rests with the intelligence, judgment, and discretion of each officer.

The Department’s Community Policing policy provides additional direction:
Reinforcing collaboration with the public; one in which its primary jurisdiction and the “community” do not exist independently.  Both are interdependent parts of a larger, more complex social economic and environmental system.  Community policing requires a fundamental change in responsibility for policing by law enforcement agencies alone, to a collaborative, community based system.
Using the community, public-trust policing model, State Park Peace Officers and other department personnel are empowered to develop and maintain relationships with public agencies, community organizations, and businesses, to identify and solve/prevent problems of mutual concern.  Rather than focusing only on visible symptoms of crime, all partners work together, to address public safety, law enforcement and resource protection concerns.  With all parties participating, community members are better able to prevent or solve problems that erode society and public trust.

Law enforcement agencies with defined values, policy and respect, reinforced by continuous training, are best positioned to build real trust in their communities, for society and civilization.

Lynn Rhodes is an international consultant and the former Chief of California State Parks Law Enforcement Division. She can be reached at

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