Tag Archives: washington

Citizens academy – intensive community engagement

WA Co Oregon sheriff logoLast year, I wrote a blog in defense of police departments involving volunteers while also affirming that many police departments need drastic overhauls to be more transparent, better serve their communities and to cultivate trust with the communities they serve.

Since moving back to the USA in 2009, I’ve seen several notices from various police agencies offering a citizens academy. These aren’t mere open houses, where members of the public come in to meet a few officers, take a tour of a station, have some snacks and take a selfie with a uniformed officer. These academies take place over several weeks, with citizens receiving detailed presentations about individual programs within the department – tactical teams, narcotics investigation teams, crisis response teams, patrol, robotics, incarceration, arrests processing, etc. – and these presentations aren’t by interns or admin assistants but the officers running those programs and working on the front lines. Attendees ask questions, sometimes contentious questions (yeah, me, as usual), and officers are on-the-spot to respond.

I signed up for such a citizen’s academy by the Washington County, Oregon sheriff’s department. It’s 14 sessions, over more than two months – every Tuesday night, and also all day on three Saturdays. There are almost 30 people in the academy; by my estimation, about a third in my academy are young people wanting to be police officers, more than half are retired people interested in how the police work and who have lots of time on their hands, and the rest of us, probably just six or so people, are what I would characterize as people who want to learn more because of both or professional work and our personal politics: a mental health professional, an advocate for the mentally ill, an employee at a school, a counselor in training and… me! We’re more than halfway through the academy.

I’m taking the academy for two specific reasons: first, as a consultant and researcher regarding volunteer engagement and communications, I’m talking to organizations about community engagement. While these academies are not volunteer engagement, they are most certainly community engagement, and I wanted to see such a model up close, first hand, to see how it works and to think about ways the idea might be exported to other, non-law enforcement agencies and even overseas. I think this model of community engagement forces a level of transparency across an agency, something in which many programs are great need. It’s not something that could be instituted overnight – it would require a cultural change at most agencies to institute something like this. I also would like to see police departments in transitional countries in particular, with reputations for police corruption and abuses, instituting their own citizen academies, jail tours, job shadows and ridealongs, but I can’t advocate for that in my work overseas if I haven’t experienced it myself.

Secondly, I’m a human rights advocate, and when I look at what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in particular, I am outraged. And I think about, and sometimes see, police abuses worldwide – corruption in police departments, under the guise of fees, fines, and law enforcement (like forfeiture), happens in many places globally. Reflecting a theme I said in a blog earlier, I would love to see Black Lives Matter advocates and police reform advocates signing up for these citizen academies at police and sheriff’s departments across the USA, as well signing up for jail tours and job shadows and ride alongs with patrol officers – I think it could create more understanding and change for both the police and the community.

I am really enjoying this academy, but there are two things missing: first, there should have been a survey of participants at the very first session about their perceptions of both the sheriff’s department and police and jails in general. Then, at our last class, they should give us that survey again. It would be fascinating to see if perceptions are changed. Secondly, the problems with the sheriff’s department regarding its own officers and other staff, such as this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this or this, or this – all happening in the last three years – have not been mentioned – just a comment about “We’ve taken a beating in the media.” We really should have heard from someone in charge of internal investigations and about efforts to create a culture of respect within the department for women, teens, immigrants, etc.

Presenters should also keep in mind that they are talking to a diverse group in terms of feelings about the police and government. For instance, a few people in the class have had incarcerated family members and others on the other side of the criminal justice system; jokes about people in the throes of a drug aren’t always appreciated by such. Presenters are certainly entitled to share their opinions – I really like knowing where they stand – but they might not want to assume the silence of some people in the room means agreement.

I’d also like to see a similar academy for officers and jail staff themselves, done by various nonprofit and government agencies that serve crime victims (and those frequently targeted by criminals), such as domestic violence shelters, mental health providers, rape counseling centers, nonprofits working with immigrants, etc., that serve those that have been arrested and incarcerated, such as nonprofits working with gang members, programs serving people with alcohol and drug abuse problems, etc., and those that are engaged in local human rights and racial justice issues  That would force a level of face-to-face detail and discussion and even debate that’s very much needed in many communities.

All that said – HUGE kudos to the Washington County, Oregon’s Sheriff’s Department for doing this academy. It’s very well done, it’s a model for other police departments looking to do something like this, I’ve really enjoyed it so far, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the presentations and experiences, and I highly recommend it.

In case you are wondering, yes, I did a ride along with a deputy. I went on a shift from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. It was fascinating. I hope I wasn’t too annoying with my many, many questions.

Update April 10, 2016: The Oregonian today published a profile of the death in 2014 of an inmate in the Washington County jail.

Update August 10, 2016: The first known citizen’s police academy held in the USA was established in Orlando in 1985, according to a report from the Criminal Justice Institute. Last year, the International Association for Chiefs of Police listed such academies as an integral way to improve community relations. Establishing these courses was also named as an action item in the final report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The National Citizens Police Academy Association explains the importance of the courses on its website.

Also see this info and resources regarding police corruption in other countries:

Handbook on police accountability, oversight and integrity from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Policy Briefing Paper: Gender Sensitive Police Reform in Post Conflict Societies from United Nations Women.

Ukraine replaces entire police force to beat corruption

Corrupt Mexico Police Concentrated in 10 States

Bulgaria Launches Ambitious Plan to Curb Police Corruption

Nigeria Police Extortion: Buhari Warns Against Corruption In National Force

Volunteer Engagement the Roller Derby Way

logoSunday, I did an intensive, advanced training (as opposed to an introductory/basic training) for representatives from the roller derby leagues in Portland (the Rose City Rollers) and Seattle (Rat City Rollers) regarding volunteer management. These leagues involve several hundred volunteers – and have done so, quite effectively, for a few years now. Volunteers don’t just help at games; women’s roller derby has a particular focus on empowering women and girls, and most meets include fundraising components for a charity, which means volunteers are engaged in a huge range of activities.

But the rapid growth of these leagues – which shows no signs of abating – means that they don’t always have the procedures and policies in place to handle volunteer management challenges as they arise, or even how to identify issues long before they become bigger problems for the organizations. I hope that my training helped them to be able to access the resources they need to deal with specialized volunteer recruitment, board recruitment, volunteer conflict, keeping volunteers motivated, tracking volunteer information and contributions, and anticipate and address issues regarding volunteer engagement long before such becomes a program killer.

But with a staff made up of paid employees and volunteers, most of whom have NO training in working with volunteers, these leagues have done a remarkable job of engaging volunteers already.

What are people at these roller derby organizations doing that many traditional organizations that involve volunteers are not?

  • They have organizational-wide commitments to volunteers being satisfied with their experiences. Supporting and honoring volunteers is EVERYONE’S job. It never dawned on them that this should be just one person’s job at an organization, or that an employee could refuse to work with volunteers.
  • All staff work with volunteers. ALL STAFF. That means all staff — every paid person and all volunteers — create assignments for volunteers and/or work with volunteers. That means, even though there were just two organizations represented at this training, I wasn’t speaking to just two people: the designated volunteer coordinators. Instead, I was also talking to paid staff, volunteer staff, players, event volunteers, committee chairs, skating officials and on and on.
  • It never dawned on them to value volunteers purely by an hourly monetary amount, and some of them were actually offended by the idea. They acknowledge that it’s sometimes necessary for a grant application, but otherwise, they have much better reasons for saying they involve volunteers, and why volunteers are necessary to the organization.
  • They use every Internet tool and software tool they can find to work with and support volunteers – the value of such is obvious to them, with no need for a virtual volunteering workshop to convince them (as is with most traditional organizations).
  • Volunteers go to the same meetings as employees, and take leadership roles in coordinating events, reaching out to sponsors, selling merchandise, and representing the organization. You can’t tell who is or isn’t a volunteer just by a person’s title!
  • They didn’t blink over the phrase, “If a task can be done by a human, it can be done by a volunteer.” When I use that statement in a training for traditional organizations, there is often an uproar (which is why I use it – how I love stirring things up!). The Roller Derby reps reaction: “yes, and?”
  • They don’t look for ways to thank volunteers with regards to mugs and pins, or posters that say things like, “Volunteers are our angels!” They know what their volunteers want: real, sincere appreciation that permeates the organization, that doesn’t happen just on a volunteer appreciation luncheon that, at many other organizations, the board nor the Executive Director would even bother attending.
  • While they want to be great at handling conflict among staff, including volunteers, they completely accept that conflict and criticisms happen and have no fear of such (most orgs I work with want to know how to prevent all conflict and criticism).
  • They embrace the idea of most volunteers joining up because they want to have fun. They don’t think that’s a bad idea for volunteering.
  • They have an organization that welcomes people of all ages and all walks of life, and these organizations could probably lead their own workshop on how to creating a welcoming environment for teen volunteers, LGBT volunteers, low-income volunteers, homeless volunteers, volunteers with disabilities and various other groups that are under-represented at so many other organizations. It’s a workshop I would LOVE to attend!
  • Not once did I ever hear, “Oh, we’re not allowed to do that.” I hear that at least twice during presentations to other organizations. Not that these organizations don’t know and follow rules, like how to screen and supervise volunteers that will work with teens – but when it comes to ideas about new ways to work with volunteers, they never come from a place of fear.
  • They laughed heartily at my story of a certain online discussion group for volunteer managers in the USA that shall remain nameless having constant discussions about where to find examples of forms and policies (“Don’t they know how to use Google?”) or how to ban volunteers that have tattoos (I can’t repeat what was said re: this).

I got this gig because I did a presentation earlier this year for the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA) on trends in volunteer engagement. NOVAA serves the greater Portland metropolitan area, including Vancouver, Washington. Afterwards, a woman came up, handed me a card, lauded me for my presentation and said, “You are soooo roller derby.”

As I learned from attending two match nights, roller derby players leave everything on the track during a game, and I left everything in that conference room for this training on Sunday; I have never been more exhausted after a training, so determined was I to win these folks over and point them to the resources they need to be even more successful at engaging with volunteers. And one of my favorite comments afterwards was this:

“Srsly, this was awesome. I have a very low tolerance for BS facilitated meetings about hypothetical nonsense. This was none of that.”

Almost made me want to cry… a high compliment, indeed.

If you are putting together a volunteer management conference, listen up: I’m happy to train, and I really hope you will invite me to do so. But invite someone from a roller derby league too – I recommend the Portland league in particular, of course. Because it’s long overdue for these conferences to get a shake up. And I think roller derby may be just the org to do it!

I have seen the future of volunteer engagement and IT’S ROLLER DERBY.

Here’s a photo on Facebook that sums up just what an amazing experience matches can be, btw.