Corey Allen is now Inspector of Field Training at the Queensland Police Academy. Corey talked with Moya Sayer-Jones about the engagement practices he pioneered with community groups and at Brisbane City Station. —
I was in charge of a suburban station just outside Brisbane. It was an affluent suburb and I was all crime focused. We had these wonderful people on the community consultative committees and I’d go there regularly and report on things but after about the third meeting, I thought ‘They’re not really interested in this.’
I realised they were more interested in other things: how long it took police to get to their house, how they were treated by the police when they got there, noisy cars on their street.
The things they were asking of me were not the same things that we were focused on. This made we wonder ‘Are we a different kind of business than the people we work for want us to be?’
It was a pretty powerful group and I decided we should take their interest to another level by turning it into a problem solving group. ‘Instead of me coming to you with what we’ve done, I’m going to come to you with issues I have and see if we can work on them together,’ I told them.
We concentrated on a number of local issues and there were great outcomes especially working with partners like Main Roads and the Council. The police were simply fulfilling a leadership role here. Engaging people is not just about involving them or consulting with them, it’s putting some responsibility on them as well. Successful movements always work that way.
From Indooroopilly, I moved to a new role as officer in charge of Brisbane City station. I hadn’t been that keen on this idea. It was an extremely busy station with 158 police and one senior sergeant, and it had a reputation for being tough. As it turned out though, this was absolutely where I needed to go next.
Engaging others to better engage together
There’s a lot of homelessness around that station and we were on the front line. We dealt with the homeless more than anyone in a daily way and it struck me that we could be more a part of a solution. What if, instead of locking people up in the watch house for the night, we could involve services early? Our idea was for services and police to approach the problem by walking the streets together.
This idea wasn’t an easy sell to services because our relationship with some of them wasn’t great but we started by joining in on an outreach program. It was a survey to identify the most vulnerable and at risk and our guys joined in to observe and help. It was a fantastic learning experience for us.
Our police stood next to these experienced case workers on the street and learned a different way to engage. They watched the way workers sat and listened to the homeless and some of these skills started rubbing off.
Usually police on duty will stand and look down on someone to ask questions but quite quickly, officers were sitting down beside the person, just like the service workers did. And of course, once you sit down, you naturally ask different questions: ones that are not necessarily for your report.
Questions about the person’s health, their family, where they keep their stuff. The whole tone of the conversation changed with this shift in the physical dynamic. Empathy grew naturally. They were now talking to someone, not at them and the officers were amazed by the conversations they were having. ‘Oh I didn’t know that little old lady who lives in the mall was Italian’ one officer told me. ‘She used to be a teacher in Italy.’
As it turned out, the services we walked with actually saw we could be very helpful to their work as well. They were surprised that we knew the people, knew first names and remembered them. This project turned around the industry perception of the police relationship with homelessness. We saw by engaging more sincerely with the homeless, we could be part of a solution.
We extended this approach to youth workers and seeing us physically working together, created a very different impression. It disrupted people’s notion of what they could expect of the police. So many times the kids would look at the officer and the big Islander youth worker standing next to him and say to the worker, ‘Why you working with them?’ And the worker would say, ‘Because they asked me to come and they’re worried about you and I’m worried about you too.’ The officers would come across those kids at other times too, without the youth workers present, and the memory would diffuse aggression and the old self-fulfilling prophesies about the police.
After these engagements with the workers, I thought, ‘We’ve got to keep this up’. I saw that the more officers had this sort of exchange, the better they got at it. And other parts of their jobs were changing too. Instead of just punishing people for possessing drugs, they were asking questions, referring them for help and guarding the relationship. This brought better information that were leading to better arrests of the people actually supplying the drugs.
The officers saw that deeper engagement might take 5 or 10 minutes longer than just asking about what they need for their report but they saw the advantages. They started taking more of a problem solving approach to everything they were doing. Now there’s a whole generation of police working this way.
Sick leave went down, retention at my station went up and it became the number one preference for first year constables. They were happier at work and more engaged. They felt they were doing more of the big job they’d signed up for.
Other benefits were a big decrease in injuries in custody: we’d had a terrible record of this. But the change, the one that speaks loudly to me, was in the number of people who wanted to hurt us. In the year before I started in the city, 130 police got assaulted. In the year I left, it was down to 35 people. If less people want to hurt you, you’re probably not doing a bad job, don’t you think?
Corey’s top 4 tips for better engagement
- Listening is everything: take the time to ask questions outside your brief
- You can’t fake sincerity: mean it because people know the difference
- Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable: sometimes engagement exposes us a little
- Accept responsibility for doing something about what you hear: whether it’s in your ball park or not.
You can hear more about Corey’s experiences with small but sincere change in this conversation with Richard Fidler. Wonderful stuff.
Corey Allen – Image ABC Local