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A cultural shift at the Sheriff's Office

Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls says he wants to improve public trust in his department and its officers before the public demands it — a commendable approach that is much better than waiting for mistrust to fester and boil over.

In general, Falls says, he wants to shift the department's culture from a "warrior" mentality to a "guardian" mentality. That means deputies seeing people they encounter less as a potential threat to their own safety than as individuals with legitimate concerns.

The changes Falls wants to encourage may sound like buzzwords without a lot of substance, and they can be if they aren't backed up with action. But the cultural shift he has in mind is real, and can have real benefits if his deputies approach the concept with open minds.

The ultimate goal is to change not only the department's culture but the public's perception of police as protectors, not adversaries.

Falls has posted on the Sheriff's Office website a report from the Police Executive Research Forum produced under the auspices of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a branch of the U.S. Justice Department. The report says an important component of public perception is whether citizens believe the police are acting legitimately and exercising their power in a just way.

For example, the report notes that police chiefs who want to talk to community groups about violent crime crimes often find residents, even in high-crime areas, are more interested in quality-of-life issues such as vandalism and speeding cars. Setting up speed enforcement patrols is a way to respond, but if officers explain to the drivers they stop that they are doing so because residents are concerned about safety, this shows the public that police are focusing on what matters to residents, not just spending time writing tickets when they could be handling more serious crimes.

The idea is to build trust with the people being served. This is especially important when it comes to investigating violent crime. If residents believe police are legitimately there to protect them, they will be more likely to help investigators with information.

The new approach involves training for sheriff's deputies that encourages them to acknowledge their own biases and to approach the people they encounter from a legally sound foundation rather than from preconceived notions — which also helps foster trust.

None of this means sheriff's deputies won't aggressively pursue lawbreakers or use force when it's warranted. Of course they will, and their safety is still a fundamental concern. But if Falls can help his officers think of themselves as guardians first and warriors only when necessary, that attitude may gradually change public perception, and that's good for everyone.