"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 12, 2015

Perception Versus Reality, One Year Later


They asked for a year.  A year has passed.  It’s time to check in and ask questions. 

On May 9, 2014, I published a post about Norristown, Pennsylvania’s new program to improve resident perception of itself, specifically the question of personal safety.  I attended the press conference that announced the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force,” which I quickly learned was not aimed at improving the public safety situation in the town, but to convince residents that their condition was already good.  The reality, they claimed, was actually much better than the perception of that reality.  As Council President Bill Caldwell phrased it, “Urban communities often get a bum rap for being places where random crime happens and we’re here to tell you today that this is not what happens in Norristown.”

I admit to expressing some skepticism.  After all, this was a PR event to announce the beginning of an extended PR campaign, which is pretty much a working definition of “grandstanding.”  What I found most heartening was that after the dog and pony show, Norristown Council members asked the public to give them a year before making a judgment.  I believed that to be a fair request, and said so.  Here is how I phrased it: 

"The joint press conference was totally a media event...that provides a clue as to how we should receive it.  As with the pilot episode of any show that we find promising, we should exercise “temporary suspension of disbelief.”  The first-rate cast stuck tightly to the script and delivered their lines with the necessary panache, producing an uplifting message, as intended.  Even ye who are without sin should not stone this cast; first let them actually act, and judge the result by how it plays out before your eyes.  Will the show deliver on the promise of its pilot?  You really need to stay tuned for this one."

I did cheat a little, writing about this perception versus reality thing in December of last year.  I did so because Pottstown had climbed on the “things are better than everyone thinks” bandwagon, complaining that people who spoke and wrote of Pottstown’s problems really didn’t understand the situation.  But this is probably a bad time to voice that opinion, given that Pottstown last month saw some 30 people arrested for their involvement in a gang war.

But let’s use this one-year anniversary to discuss Norristown.  It has spent the last year tending to the public’s perception about safety, and thus about the police department itself.  Talk about good timing.  For those of you that may have been in a coma for the last few months, they have not been good ones for police-community relations across our nation.  The general public has discovered that their perception of how things were in places as far apart as Ferguson and Baltimore (not to mention that of their respective police departments) did not match the reality on the streets.

I’d like to think that the convergence of tragic events that we have been witnessing in the media will lead at least a few more people to conclude that the manner in which local law enforcement conducts itself needs to change, whether it is a large city or a small town.  So how does a small town like Norristown fit in?  More than you might think; urban police work is—or should be—undertaken pretty much the same way regardless of the size of the urban area.

Just how does a police department earn the trust of its citizens?  By enforcing the law fairly, equally and with consideration for people as human beings, of course.  It’s easy to say, but not so easy to do.  A recent article in the Pottstown Mercury added to the evidence that Norristown may actually be onto something.  If so, then the reason may be Police Chief Mark Talbot.

He began the interview by accepting responsibility, on behalf of his department, for the state of things in town.  He didn’t pull out the usual complaints about uncaring residents, or social media.  Here is how he phrased it:

“That means that myself and the Norristown Police Department at the end of the year, or even at the end of the day, accepts the fact that we’re responsible for crime and the quality of life in our community,” he said. “We don’t point to bad people doing bad things, or citizens not helping us enough. We own it. It starts with that.”

But it isn’t just about the police.  Like all law enforcement officials, Talbot knows that citizen involvement is crucial to establishing peace on the streets.  “You can’t shut people out of the conversation. If they feel like you’re not listening to them, they will find another way to be heard, whether in a letter to the editor, or they will use social media,” said Talbot. “We would rather they come to us first….If you talk to people in the neighborhood and tell them what's going on, they will talk to you and tell you what they know."

Talbot has been impressing this approach on his department since he took over the post two years ago.  Is it working?  Official statistics say that crime in Norristown has dropped by 20% over the last two years.  Talbot, in his interview with the Mercury claimed that “people are telling us they feel safer now in Norristown than they have in a long time.”  That’s certainly a good start, but remember I focus not on the reality or the perception as much as the gap between them.

In my December post, I advanced my belief that the best way to improve the public’s perception of the situation is to improve the situation itself.  Remove the fear, and people’s perception of reality will improve.  Statistics say things have improved, so now I want to hear from YOU, the residents of Norristown.  It’s a simple question:

Do you feel safer now, in your home and on the streets, than you did a year ago?

Is lowered crime in Norristown a reality?  Statistics say so.  What is your perception, and why?  Does anyone see this as a result of the “Norristown Quality of Life Policing Task Force” (it was to involve more than one agency), or could there be a simpler, more personal reason?  Let me know what you think.

Either way, could you communicate that to Pottstown?