ORLEANS — Police Chief Scott MacDonald, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, remembers when “community policing” was more reactive.
“When a problem arose, we would connect with the community and try to solve that problem,” he said last week. “Community policing was always on the periphery, not part of the fundamental foundation of law enforcement.”
That had to change. “We can’t react after there’s a problem,” he said. “The key to successful community policing is fostering those positive community relations between the police and the community. If and when a problem arises, the relationship is there. Communication is there.”
The New England Association of Chiefs of Police recently gave the Orleans Police Department its first-place Community Policing Award for having the best program in the region among towns under 15,000 population.
“We were recognized through this award,” MacDonald said, “but citizens across the Cape would be very impressed with the community policing taking place on a daily basis. It’s remarkable.”
For the chief, a successful community policing program starts with “hiring the right people. You have to hire people willing and capable of buying into the concept. We have a very strong emphasis on community engagement. When we go through our hiring process, we really try to evaluate the individual candidate to see if they fit that need that we have, a requirement.”
In his letter of support for the department’s award application, Rick Francolini described how that process works. “I had the privilege of serving on the ‘interview team’ for the new recruit process,” he wrote. “I was the chosen ‘civilian’ – thanks to Scott's policy of keeping the community engaged. I, along with five other officers, interviewed 30-plus candidates over a three-day period. They were long days... Clearly, there was camaraderie, professionalism and a shared concern for the community which permeated each and every interview. Any candidate that fell short on the community element was no longer a candidate.”
With the right people in place, according to MacDonald, “we have to ensure that we have the internal framework systems to support community policing, one that’s really focusing on creating an atmosphere of teamwork.” The department has a communications team responsible for many aspects of community policing. The traditional methods employed include maintaining a professional appearance from the station to the cruisers to the uniforms and doing walking beats.
“We also embrace technology,” MacDonald said, including a variety of social media platforms from a website to a Facebook page and Instagram postings. Some of it is as serious as a video presentation on scams targeted at older members of the community, or as lighthearted as officers posting pictures of sunset at Rock Harbor while on patrol. “One of our staples is our antique 1946 police cruiser,” he said, which pops up around town in pictures tagged “Where’s the ‘46?”
One element of the plan was harder to execute during the pandemic: inviting citizens to use the commodious community room at the police station, both for department-sponsored programs such as the Citizens Police Academy (watch for its return this fall) and by outside organizations. The Homeless Prevention Council conducted its Backpack to School program in the community room.
“HPC is proud to partner with the Orleans Police Department on many fronts,” CEO Hadley Luddy wrote in an email. “They have delivered food boxes for us to share with our most isolated clients… and most important connect our neighbors in need to our team by showing compassion and respect. We greatly value their care for our community and are so proud of them for their well deserved community policing award!”
“We have established a wonderful relationship with this organization,” said MacDonald, who’s a member of the HPC board. “They understand we’re one phone call away… Because of the strong relationships we’ve built, when we run into situations after hours with someone in need, the goal is to get them help. So many times we’ve called Homeless Prevention after hours and they’re there to try to find a room in town, pay a bus ticket, or provide shelter.”
Another proactive step is MacDonald’s involvement with the Martin Luther King Action Team of the Nauset Interfaith Alliance. “One of the ideas discussed was how to connect with our youth,” he said, which led to a “great dialog” with middle schoolers. “Intellectually speaking, I was very impressed,” the chief said. “These are sharp young people with a clear understanding of current events. They asked very pointed questions, but at the same time there was a willingness to understand and learn from the police.”
In an email, Jeff Spalter, convener of the MLK Action Team’s “Conversations with Police Task Force,” wrote that MacDonald and the chiefs of the Brewster and Chatham departments have been meeting with the task force for the last year. “The objective of our discussions is to ensure a healthy relationship between the local police and communities of color,” he wrote. “There has been a lot of learning by all participants, and Chief MacDonald has been very open to discussing the challenging issues, many tied to events involving police and people of color across the US. Chief MacDonald talks about the importance of culture at a police department and has shared proactive steps taken by the Orleans Police to identify and address biased-based policing. We’re fortunate to have the Orleans Police as partners, willing to listen to concerns from a diverse group of local citizens.”
The department’s connection to its community was tested in June of last year when a demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter drew more than 1,000 people to march from the village green to the town windmill. “We believe so much in individual’s constitutional rights,” MacDonald said. “That took precedence over everything, protecting those rights. Our officers performed exceptionally well during those difficult times.”
“Instead of reacting and locking arms in defense, the OPD went out into the community and took a leadership role in supporting and protecting demonstrators exercising their civil rights,” John Ostman of Ostman Business Strategy wrote in a letter of support for the community policing award. “With the firm and supportive message from the chief to the community, the department walked with the protesters to provide protection, support and solidarity. They were embraced, not hated. It was the apex of the trust earned over years.”
Another letter of support came from the Orleans Chamber of Commerce. In an email, Executive Director Lisa Simundson wrote that the chamber and the department “have enjoyed a warm and mutually supportive relationship for many years… at the height of the pandemic last year, and knowing how many local businesses were facing unprecedented challenges, the Orleans Police Relief Association made a generous donation to the chamber, with funds to be dispersed to businesses in need throughout the community. We couldn’t do it without them!”
“This is about the team,” MacDonald said of the award. “This is about us as an organization achieving this wonderful goal. We couldn’t have done it without the community. We have tremendous support, from the select board and the community. That’s why we feel we are successful.”