The Shaker Heights Police Department is working to build positive relationships throughout the community. Its goal is to make sure residents can see and feel that connecting with the community – in everything from hiring new recruits to interactions with youth – is at the heart of police work in Shaker.
By Jennifer Kuhel
When Shaker Heights Police Chief Jeffrey DeMuth was sworn in last year, he did so against the national backdrop of a growing anti-police sentiment and waning confidence in law enforcement.
He knew that Shaker Heights wasn’t immune to those feelings. “If someone called the police and then had a bad experience, that experience sticks in their minds,” DeMuth says. “We accept responsibility for that.”
He also understands that the first step to improving a relationship and rebuilding trust is to confront issues honestly and to engage in the often uncomfortable conversations that demand listening and open-mindedness from both sides. It’s hard, but necessary, he says.
And it’s what’s driving DeMuth and the police department towards something better for the community and for police: adopting a mindset that values customer service and emphasizes communication, cooperation, and legitimacy over commands, compliance, and authority.
The department’s goal is to ensure residents can see, feel, and know that connecting with the community—in everything from hiring new recruits to social media postings to interactions with youth—is at the heart of better police work in Shaker.
A New Mission
Last fall, DeMuth assembled the department’s supervisors and asked them to help him draft an updated mission statement. “The old one was very long. No one knew it, lived it, or understood it,” he explains. “We wanted to create one that was impactful and memorable.” In the new mission statement, the words “partnership with the community” are front and center. The emphasis on education and development for officers is unmistakable. By the end of last year, the mission statement was printed and hung in poster-sized frames all around the department.
Making sure everyone in the department understood and internalized the mission was the first step. The next step was to craft a hiring process that attracted applicants who were simpatico with that mission.
The Right Hires
All sworn Shaker Heights police officers (and Fire Department employees, with some exceptions) are hired and promoted by the City’s Civil Service Commission, a three member commission whose members reflect the diversity of the City. Each member is appointed by the mayor to a six-year term. Current commission members are Ronald Fountain, Sandra Kiely Kolb, and Lee Trotter.
The hiring process begins with a public announcement of openings. Applicants must bring their completed applications in person to City Hall. The City accepts the first 50 completed applications and submits that list to the Civil Service Commission for approval. Approved applicants are tested and ranked for hiring, based on their scores.
Historically, these tests weren’t always as helpful as the police department had hoped because they evaluated cognitive abilities, without assessing the emotional intelligence required of good police officers. The tests failed to give a complete picture of an applicant and presented a considerable obstacle to the department’s desire to hire the most diverse, multi-skilled police force possible.
So last year, DeMuth reached out to the City’s Human Resource Manager, Sandra Middleton, for help in finding a test that would provide a better measure of a candidate’s emotional maturity to handle police work.
“An applicant might be good at math, but that’s not always a skill that will translate to being a good police officer. We wanted to learn about an applicant’s practical police skills,” explains Middleton. “We need quick thinkers, critical thinkers, and applicants who could make good decisions under pressure. And they needed to have solid communication skills because we want officers who can engage with the community.”
After a month-long search, Middleton found a company that offered a structured interview format in which a specially trained, three-person panel of community stakeholders, residents, and police officers would ask applicants the same seven pre-scripted questions, many about race relations. The test was labor intensive, with an interview time of 30 minutes per applicant, which meant 25 hours of interviews. However, the upside was clear: Questions on the test would provide the interview panel with a better idea how an applicant would respond to a situation encountered as an officer in Shaker.
Middleton and DeMuth presented the test option to the Civil Service Commission last September and it was approved, making the SHPD the first police agency in the state to use a structured interview test for new officer candidates.
The police department announced a call for applicants in November and was hopeful the new test would provide better insights into the candidates. About 75 applicants responded to the call, many of them lining up at City Hall at midnight on the day applications were accepted.
“We were getting people in the door, but we didn’t know if we had the right people taking the test,” DeMuth says. The department assembled the interview panels, which included residents, Shaker Schools officials, and police officers, trained them on the process, and set off to answer the Chief’s lingering question.
Jim Norris, a 30-year Shaker resident and graduate of the Citizens Police Academy, served as a citizen panelist. (All citizen panelists are members of the Shaker Heights Citizens Police Alumni.) Norris recalls one applicant in particular who was pleasant and bright. “But after the interview, I wasn’t sure that he could handle the types of confrontations he might see on the force. He certainly may be able to develop those skills, but he doesn’t have them yet.” Christine Bretz, who participated in five interviews and is the Citizens Police Academy liaison to the City, said the interview process was well-defined with good results. Despite the time the interviews took, “we achieved the goal of getting the candidates we wanted,” says Bretz. “I applaud the fact that SHPD wanted citizen involvement because, after all, we’re the end-consumers of their service.”
With a ranked list of passing applicants in hand, Middleton says that last November’s candidate pool submitted for approval by the Civil Service Commission was among the most diverse in recent years, ensuring that the force would be made up of men and women from a range of races and ethnicities, just like the community itself. She concedes the process is rigorous, especially when compared to other communities, but adds that it’s necessary if the police force is going to reflect the values and demographic makeup of Shaker’s residents. “This is the Shaker way,” Middleton explains. “We want top-notch officers.”
(Social) Media Savvy
A 2015 social media survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police revealed that 96 percent of all participating law enforcement agencies utilize social media. The most common use: assistance in criminal investigations. SHPD is no exception. Last year alone, more than half of all crime-related SHPD Facebook posts led to tips that helped solve the posted crime.
SHPD created its Facebook page in 2014, under the direction of late Police Chief D. Scott Lee. Lee wanted to use social media as a tool to fight crime, educate residents, and more importantly, to put a human face on the force. He appointed Sgt. Marvin Lamielle, who also leads the Adult Investigative Unit, to create and populate the page.
Since then, Lamielle has grown the number of followers on the SHPD Facebook page to more than 3,400 and adds an estimated 30 new followers weekly. In the year since Lamielle took over the department’s Twitter account, he’s also increased the department’s followers to 850, from fewer than 400. “Social media is here to stay. Now, it’s a matter of finding a way for it to fit into our community and then developing engagement around it,” Lamielle says.
Scroll through the posts from the Department’s Facebook page and there’s a mix of photos of officer visits to schools, alerts that inform residents on crime prevention, and requests for crime-solving tips.
“With social media, we can reach a much larger and more diverse community,” says Commander John Cole, who oversees the Investigative Bureau. “And it enables us to be much more transparent and far more reachable. In law enforcement, there are sensitive issues that require discretion—certain things we can share and certain things we just can’t. Being a professional as well as progressive agency, we are determined to find that happy medium.”
So far, resident response has been largely positive and enables police to interact with residents in ways not previously possible. “We’re humanizing our police officers,” says Uniform Patrol Commander Mike Rowe, “But we’re also throwing in messages that educate our customers because the better educated they are, the less crime we have. They’re more eyes and ears for us.”
Connecting with Youth
Last fall, members of the Police Department met with officials from the Shaker Heights School District to discuss development of a joint police-Schools program called Police Awareness and Student Safety (PASS). PASS fosters relationships and improves interactions with students, faculty, and staff at all levels, but with a particular focus on high school students.
Keith Langford, coordinator of Family and Community Engagement for the District, hosted an open conversation at the high school in January, inviting all students to a discussion with school officials and police on building a stronger relationship.
“We understand in our City that there’s a real divide between the police department and younger people,” says DeMuth. “We want students to share their feelings and we want them to talk to us. To keep that communication open, we need to be less intimidating and more approachable.”
The discussion was a success, with more than 50 students of different grade levels and 10 police officers in attendance. Most of the students submitted questions anonymously on notecards or asked in person. “We had terrific engagement from both the students and police,” says Langford. “I think both parties came away with a better understanding of how each can improve the relationships moving forward.”
Many of the questions revealed students’ concerns with current events, including use of force and the Black Lives Matter movement. “We were able to see things through their eyes,” DeMuth says. “Part of our job was to dispel some of the myths about law enforcement generated by the media, and some of it was to acknowledge what’s been happening. But for an hour-long discussion, it was a great first step. We really want to continue to meet with a cross-section of students so that we can build these relationships and tear down any walls.”
Next, Langford has plans to start a PASS student advisory committee. He says about 20 students at the January meeting took applications to be on the advisory committee. The committee will work with SHPD and the Schools to bring about change that will make for a better relationship.
Moving Forward Together
DeMuth says that noticeable change for residents is going to occur over time. While much of it involves intangibles, like improved relationships, some of it can be seen already. For example, all new police vehicles ordered are silver, not black and white. “It’s softer and more approachable,” he explains. “And it’s a visual cue that tells people we’re not like all other police departments. We want people to see that we’re doing things differently.”
If this all sounds like marketing, DeMuth says that’s exactly what it is, but it’s hardly smoke and mirrors. The department is committed to delivering a product that’s better for residents.
“We understand that our message isn’t always going to hit a resident directly,” says the chief. “But if it starts at the top and we live and breathe our mission, vision, and values, and it works its way through the ranks, then the folks who need to experience it are going to see that change.”