The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unique circumstances most generations have never experienced before. Previously, when law enforcement used the term “shelter in place,” it typically involved an active shooter or ongoing violent situation. Currently, “shelter in place” has a completely different connotation – stay in your home in order to protect others, unless you really have to go out for essential activities. This is uncharted territory for anyone, including those of us in law enforcement.

At the San Diego Police Department, we have made it a point during these unprecedented times to communicate to the community that nothing for us has changed when it comes to protecting and serving. We want our communities to know, despite the challenges before us, we’re still here to do the job we’ve always done. What has been most helpful to us in conveying this message is our strong foundation of community relations.

The lifesaving impact of strong community relations

Strong relationships between the community and law enforcement are always important, but in times of a crisis, they are critical because we’re asking a lot of the general public. We’re asking them to stay inside their homes, wear face coverings if they’re working in an essential business, stay off the beaches – which in San Diego, with our near-perfect weather year-round, is difficult. When you’re asking people to drastically change their daily habits, you need some personal connection behind that request for people to take it to heart. Most people will understand it as a reasonable request, while others may not. Without the trust that builds from having a relationship, it’s difficult to make such a big ask of someone, which can lead to an uphill battle when the time comes to communicate serious initiatives and health directives like, “shelter in place” and “don’t go to the beach.” That is why cultivating healthy community relations is important to us, and it’s something we as a department have been developing over a long period of time in a variety of ways.

Why social media is more important than you think

One way we’ve been able to build strong community relations has been through our social media presence. Many law enforcement agencies rely on social media to keep people up to date on vital public safety information and to show the human side of officers through humorous and heartwarming interactions.

Now, with the pandemic and associated mandates to “stay inside unless it’s essential,” social media has helped us cultivate our audience to really hear and accept our message. Because so many people get their news from Facebook, Twitter and their online network of friends and family, it becomes very important to leverage social media as a way to show that you’re still here for them, assure them that the mission to serve has not changed and actively engage with them. This gives us the opportunity to interact regularly with the public, which helps to establish the relationship and build the relational capital we need so when we ask, they know we wouldn’t be doing so if it wasn’t important.

Doing good in times of crisis

By default, law enforcement officers usually don’t draw attention to the good deeds that go above and beyond their standard duties; often these deeds are just part of their normal, daily routine. Even so, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one small act of kindness managed to surface and get the public’s attention.

Our department received a welfare-check call from the caretaker of an elderly man. The caretaker was concerned, thought the man needed some help and wanted to know if the San Diego Police Department could go check on him. These types of welfare checks are routine for us, as we respond to calls like these all the time. When the officers arrived at the man’s home, they learned that his pantry was nearly bare and he didn’t have many groceries or other essential items. He’s 95-year-old widower lived alone and was in need of some help. Our officers went to the supermarket to buy him groceries and stopped on the way back to pick up his favorite takeout dinner so he could have a warm meal right away.

This particular story was picked up by national news and on the social media platform “Tik Tok” where it has garnered over 3 million views. All that coverage is rewarding, as it spreads the story further, but more importantly, at the local level of things, it helped us reach a wider audience within our community and demonstrated to them we truly are here to help them. This story serves as proof that just one act of kindness or compassion by a single person can make not only a lasting and positive impact to someone’s perspective of who we are, but can also do so for their friends, family and online associates – in this case we earned 3 million opportunities to spread this message.  

Paying it forward with kindness

Too often, what gets the attention are negative stories of law enforcement. But when our service to our communities is recognized positively, it inspires and encourages more positive action. As law enforcement officers, going above and beyond to serve our communities is what we do on a daily basis, but in order to reap the broader benefits we have to take the extra step of unapologetically telling our story and then engage in dialogue with the community when they respond.

Today, we not only have an even greater opportunity, but we have a captive audience with which we can interact. And when the time comes, though we hope it never comes this way again, we will again walk the road we are brought to, but find it paved with trust and mutual respect.

Author Bio: Matthew Botkin is a sergeant with the San Diego Police Department, California.