Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A New Year's Resolution for the City of Westbrook

Lord knows we dwellers of the Paper City could (and do) spend hours and hours picking apart Westbrook and identifying problems that plague this city and brainstorming remedies for its improvement. However, in keeping with the author Jonah Lehrer's wise advice that we limit our New Year's Resolutions to one at a time, I'll suggest only one resolution for now: We need to reduce the energetic self-promotion of our city's warts.

The greatest problem with Westbrook's dreadful public image, from my perspective, is that our police department currently doubles as the city government's de facto PR arm. Hear a story about Westbrook on the evening news, or read a similar story in the paper? Chances are it's crime-related, and Chief Bill Baker is being interviewed. Got a Facebook update about the goings-on in Westbrook from the city's government? I can almost guarantee it was the WPD's latest list of arrests or the department's updates of sex offenders lurking in our neighborhoods.

Now, I completely understand the usefulness of the WPD's Facebook page as a tool for broadening public awareness. Moreover, I appreciate the law enforcement strategy behind announcements of drug busts and captured outlaws. The problem as I see it, though, is a question of balance and quantity.

The scale measuring public awareness on one side and negative public perception on the other has, in my view, tipped toward the latter. Instead of serving as reassurances for the city's citizens and warnings for its dirtbags, I'm concerned the WPD's steady stream of press releases and talking head interviews depresses civic morale and might scare off possible new residents, business or otherwise.

Some might argue that the challenges and controversies we face here in Westbrook would lead to an inevitable negative public perception of the Paper City. Such critics would have a point, though I'd be interested in their answers to the following question: Which city had a higher crime rate in 2009, Westbrook or South Portland? I suspect they--and most residents living in the Greater Westbrook media market--would quickly guess Westbrook, even though they'd be wrong.

Why do I think most people would guess Westbrook as the more crime-ridden of the two? It might have something to do with the fact that nobody knows what South Portland's police chief looks like, and that city's landscape wasn't, say, plastered all over a recent news story about rampant statewide drug addiction.

- John C.L. Morgan

Related: Mullets and Tracksuits and Cuffs, Oh My (Wednesday, November 24, 2010)


Patrick said...

Yes, the WPD press coverage and Facebook page is basically how I get my news, and the person behind the WestbrookMaine Facebook page seems to have a lot of Debbie Downer posts as well.

A drawback with user generated content is that a lot of people are well, uninterested in creating content (or, just plain lazy), so unless there's a link to something, be it good news or bad, it's unlikely to get shared.

I came across a similar idea in blog post titled "Controlling Your Social Media Message" recently:
Provide lots of things to let people easily pass on the message. Truthfully, you're likely to have more pretty lazy supporters than ones who will go out of their way to craft new stuff. If you give them lots of interesting things to share and pass on, even different options to choose between, they're more likely to use your own content (which, presumably, is completely aligned to your goals) than make up their own.

Perhaps someone should create a new Facebook page, and really make an effort to get the community involved in contributing. I've considered doing it myself, but I've really just been waiting to trip over a resource that's already up and running (and perhaps I've been a touch lazy).

BTW: I think the link in the second to last paragraph isn't working.
BTW2: Blogger not allowing blockquote in comments is pretty lame.

Baker said...

I would like to offer my perspective on this issue for what it's worth. This is an age old debate with which I am very familiar. Police departments that are too visible give the city a bad name. Police departments that are not visible enough are asleep at the switch. I assure you that we seek only balance.

People should understand that crime problems in Westbrook come to us - we don't make this stuff up.

Secondly, what we do is public information and the fact is the media comes to us too! That is a reflection of our polite cooperative relationship with everybody; our ability to put a sentence together; and our willingness to tell the truth even when the story is a bad news story.

I believe we have an obligation to speak openly about what we do for three main reasons; citizens of this city have a right to know what is going on and to be assured that the police are responding to problems competently; we also have an obligation to help citizens understand and come to appreciate the incredible job the men and women of this agency do every day when dealing with very complex and often dangerous social problems; finally we think it is in the City's best interest that our vigilance is always on the minds of area criminals, who by most accounts are finding Westbrook an uncomfortable place to do business.

At every turn we reinforce the fact that we spend 90% of our time dealing with 10% of the population and that Westbrook is a great place to live and work.

The cooperation between city departments; the schools; the business community; and residents; contributes to the quality of life here which is improving in part because of our work and our visibility.

I won't be here forever (I know some people are saying thank god!) but when I'm gone I hope that the people of this great city will continue to support the visible, aggresive, and professional policing that goes on here.

Without it things could slip down a slippery slope from which many cities have found they cannot recover.

This is clearly a debate with two sides. No one need wonder where I stand! My hope and expectation is that the silent majority for whom we slave will agree that our approach and our visibility are cause for celebration not retreat!

Anonymous said...

I am a taxpayer 15 plus years in Westbrook. I have NEVER seen the law enforement be so much up in your face. Boots bloused,leather gloves. Pull car over 1 mile over. Do search. Put notes on homes to ask people to turn in the next door home. Talk in full sentence? OK,We are not as smart as you;think. But as taxpayers, We can SEE. Only post is from the Chief. I wish I was a fly on the wall at the sation. I hope all my grammor(: is takin correctly.......I would encourage others to stand up and not be afraid to speak the truth about the above. PEACE.

Westbrook Diarist said...

I for one appreciate Chief Baker's thoughtful response to my post and think it does well articulating the valid reasons for a police department assuming a public face.

I think we both agree that disclosing the WPD's activities is a good thing in that it broadens awareness among both the general public and the trouble-making 10% Chief Baker refers to.

I'm just afraid we might be getting to the point where adopting such a public face may allow that 10% of the population negatively define the remaining 90%of us who make this city a positive place to live.

As for the actual policing tactics, I'll leave it up to the law enforcement experts to crack that nut. For what it's worth, when it comes to reducing crime, it seems to me that the "Broken Windows" theory is an effective strategy, so I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to some of the behaviors some view as aggressive.

On a personal note, I've had numerous interactions with the WPD (including a couple uneventful traffic stops), and I've always been treated with respect and professionalism.


My Mayberry said...

The law of averages would seem to indicate that fixating on the 10% negative element ultimately brings a diminishing return, unintentionally diminishing the positive contribution of the remaining 90%.

Descending on a neighborhood and distributing a "rat out your neighbor" notice, without the benefit of face-to-face dialog with the residents, flat out kills community in a way that takes years to rebuild.

Residents retreat behind their blinds, viewing their neighbors with suspicion and their neighborhood as a crime zone. Nuisance issues like barking dogs and loud music which neighbors could potentially resolve amicably between themselves, increasingly get routed to 911, no doubt tying up valuable police resources. The perception that the neighborhood is not safe to walk at night becomes the prevailing perception but simply not true.

What I believe that John is attempting to do is establish constructive dialog which explores that delicate balance between routing out the negative 10% while more constructively engaging the remaining 90%.

The facebook site is discouraging primarily from the perspective that it's the only online communication that the WPD offers. While proactively referring parents in the community to the online sex offender registry is vitally important, publishing the random pervert of the week shot simply puts everyone in a heightened state of suspicion. Reporting the number of nuisance 911 calls in relation to total calls would be helpful to present a more balanced reality and provide an indication where the community needs to step up their efforts to understand the demands that we place on our police resources.

We're not saying that the PD (or the Police Chief) aren't doing their job, we're simply bringing to light that like all fields of work, the playing field evolves over time. A reduced crime rate is not only the byproduct of strong policing, but also the sign of an engaged community - not only with the City, but with each other.

"If you had to choose between 10% more cops on the beat or 10% more citizens knowing their neighbors' first names, the latter is a better crime prevention strategy."

The Harvard Kennedy School
Civic Engagement in America

Anonymous said...

"I'm just afraid we might be getting to the point where adopting such a public face may allow that 10% of the population negatively define the remaining 90%of us who make this city a positive place to live."

"The facebook site is discouraging primarily from the perspective that it's the only online communication that the WPD offers".

I agree with the top two quotes from John and My Mayberry but you also have to understand that there is an ego factor to consider with Chief Baker. He likes the limelight and has since he was hired. It all started with his ride down the water falls in the Presumpscot River and hasnt stopped since. He is the Mike Chitwood of Westbrook. People dont call Westbrook- Bakerville or Bakerbrook for nothing. He obviously is searching this site and others so he can see what is being said about him or his dept so he can chime in, yet once again. Westbrook tax payers know they are getting the services they pay for. Our local papers pick up what is news worthy and what is not. Chief Baker doesnt have to comment or blog on every story that is published but his ego wont let him so it is thrown in the public eye more. This is all disguised in the name of "That is a reflection of our polite cooperative relationship with everybody"

Anonymous said...

Baker is gone!!!

Anonymous said...

He knew inside his deparment: that the officers thought the mullet was a joke.I would hope that this is a wake up call for the Police Dept.,just as the Fire Dept. We are taxpyers and YES WE do have a say.He did not leave Westbrook a better place then when he got here. Leave your self alone.

Anonymous said...

I disagree vigorously with a lot of the comments here. It's a sad day for Westbrook and we'll be hard pressed to find someone as talented and dedicated as Bill Baker. We're a better and safer City for having had him here.

The Chief sent a strong message that Westbrook would not be a haven for criminals and that all laws would strictly enforced.

Anonymous said...

Is it right for a police department to be setting up citizens to fail? I thought of this question after I saw the news story of the undercover cops walking across a cross walk to attempt to pull over anyone who doesn't stop, as is state law. I think the idea to have more people stop at cross walks is great, but when I saw the story about a cop who caused an accident by stepping out so quickly, as to try and make a driver get pulled over, and caused an accident, I again thought of the question I first posed: Is it right for a police department to be setting up citizens to fail?

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am very saddened at the loss of Chief Baker. He was a consummate professional. Westbrook will miss him.

That said, I am heartened & confident that he has instilled in the department he leaves behind, a quality police force that will carry on in his absence.

Sometimes it is difficult for those not involved in a profession to appreciate the VERY difficult work that it entails. My awakening to Chief Baker's talents came in talking to patrolmen from surrounding departments. These young patrolmen coveted the opportunity to gain a position on Westbrook's force. Westbrook's Police Dept. gained a reputation as apolitical, fair, professional and energetic. This was a place where you were accorded respect, training opportunities and challenges.

Some may perceive the publicized stakeouts as crude and cartoonish but these are useful tools for law enforcement and more importantly offer our force the opportunity to hone skills for future scenarios that may be of greater consequence.

As for publicity. I am all for it. Any business proprietor seeks to recognize and reward their employees. When they work hard and are successful, they appreciate recognition and acknowledgement just like any of us. That they are a part of a successful organization and that their contributions mean something. That Chief Baker has been able to deliver that on behalf of the Department should be commended.

Unfortunately, when the Police Dept. is successful, it is often in a way that can illuminate negative aspects of our City. That is the rub. The Westbrook Police Dept. has changed under Chief Baker's guidance and I would argue for the better.