Hail to the chief
By Rick Henry
Controversial police shootings. Social media postings of police encounters. Protests. Police officers shot down in Dallas and Baton Rouge. It’s a difficult time for police departments and officers around the country.
It is against this backdrop that Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg begins his fourth year at the helm. Chief Goldberg, who has been in law enforcement for 38 years overall, says that while things like increased use of social media have changed the job considerably, many of the core tenets of law enforcement remain the same today as when he began his career.
In an interview at Takoma Park Police Headquarters on July 14, Chief Goldberg touched on those core tenets, the role of citizens, recruiting challenges and other concerns. What follows below is an edited transcript of the interview.
In your four years in Takoma Park, what do you feel is your top accomplishment?
The most immediate accomplishment is our continued effort to build relationships with regional partners. We have really tried to expand our capabilities there. We are a crossroads community with a lot of traffic from other jurisdictions coming through and into the city. To fight crime we need a regional approach that encompasses DC, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.
What are some specific actions you have undertaken to build those capabilities?
Technology, communication and Mutual Aid agreements are three. (Note: Mutual Aid agreements are voluntary written agreements between two or more law enforcement agencies, which permit voluntary cooperation and assistance of a routine law enforcement nature across jurisdictional lines.)
With technology we are able to share data to identify crime patterns across the jurisdictions. That’s allowed us to move from just creating pretty maps to intelligence led policing and strategic deployment. The key is constantly working to improve communication and relationships between departments. (To that end, Goldberg serves as the head of the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments Police Chiefs Subcommittee.)
Are there other areas of accomplishment that stand out?
I was very pleasantly surprised by the results of the customer satisfaction survey that was sent out to residents a couple years ago. We have very good relationships with all aspects of the community. People feel they can trust us. Most importantly we had our highest scores from people in the lower socio-economic category.
To what do you attribute this high level of customer satisfaction?
We try to be as transparent as we can be, and people appreciate that. We issue press releases almost every day about every arrest and our activities. We run a Community Police Academy twice a year where we bring in people and put them through a mini Police Academy experience that covers areas such as use of force and gives them a better understanding of why we do what we do. (Note: The next Community Police Academy will be held this fall).
What effect do things like body cameras and social media have on policing?
Our patrol officers now wear body cameras, but I stress to everyone that they are not a panacea. Whether they are being held by a citizen or an officer, they are two-dimensional and capture only a part of the story. They don’t show all the emotion of the situation or the decision making involved.
The concern with social media is that everyone is willing to jump to a conclusion without all the facts. People want instant answers, but the reality is answers can’t come right away. There has to be a thorough investigation because as I said, a video is two-dimensional and a lot of important information may not be included.
For us the cameras have been a good thing because though we have historically had very few complaints of any nature to include discourtesy, discrimination or abuse of authority or force. Since the officers got the cameras, we have had even less.
The reality is that an (unfortunate or highly charged) incident will happen. Our hope, and this relates to the customer satisfaction survey, is that the citizens trust us (Takoma Park police) enough that we will be able to do the job of investigating it properly.
In the aftermath of the Dallas police shootings, both Dallas Police Chief Brown and President Obama claimed that today’s police officers are being asked to do too much and take on too many roles and responsibilities. What is your reaction to those comments?
To some degree it’s no different than when I became an officer 38 years ago. I remember one of the first things I was told when I went to the academy was that being a counselor, parent and teacher was part of the job.
What’s different today is the degree to which we have to take on these other roles and the expectations from society. Take the mental health system, for example. Because of insurance, psycho-therapeutic medications and other factors, there are a lot less facilities available, and people are released earlier. Then they stop taking their meds, they have an incident with themselves or someone else, and now it’s left to the police to step in.
There are unrealistic standards being placed on police officers from people that don’t understand how our jobs work. An officer’s primary function is not to fix societal wrongs, but to protect individuals and society.
Do all of these issues we’ve discussed affect recruiting?
Most police officers join the force because they want to help people. No one joins because they want to get involved in a shooting. Those incidents change officers’ lives even if they are found to be justified. Many of them never rejoin the force.
When it comes to our specific recruiting situation, we have a few open positions that we have had trouble filling, but that’s more a case of competition. There are so many local jurisdictions—DC, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County—and they are all hiring, so it’s a challenge to put together an attractive hiring and recruitment package to entice a candidate to come to Takoma Park. We also don’t want to lower our standards just to fill positions.
What role do citizens play in the law enforcement process?
The Takoma Park Police Department only has 42 officers. That’s 84 eyes when everyone is on duty. There are approximately 17,000 residents in the city. That means there are 34,000 eyes who are looking out for the city and their neighbors. We need all of those extra eyes and ears to keep us all safe.
What are the biggest crime issues facing the city?
Most violent crime is down. We had a big spike last year in theft from auto. But because of the data sharing and the cross-jurisdictional relationships I referred to earlier, as well as an education campaign where we encouraged residents to lock their vehicles and remove valuables, we are able to arrest a lot of the thieves. We are seeing a little spike in aggravated assaults, especially between people who are related or know each other.
Tell me about your background.
I have been a police officer for 38 years. I spent the first 2.5 years of my career in DC and then came to Montgomery County where I grew up. I retired as a captain. I took a 10-month vacation then became the chief here in Takoma Park.
Why did you decide to take this job?
I had always wanted the opportunity to be the chief of a smaller department. I knew this area pretty well because I worked for a long time in Silver Spring. So when this opportunity became available, I decided to apply.
Any time table for retirement?
When they drag me out kicking and screaming (laughing). Seriously, I have no plans to leave any time soon. I enjoy doing what I do. The department and city are small enough that I can go out and be on the street and meet people and work with the officers rather than being an administrator all the time.
This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.