OnPolicing Blog

Want to Connect Better to Your Community? Just Ask Questions

March 23, 2017

James Cervera

Chief James A. Cervera

Virginia Beach Police Department, VA

James Cervera

Chief James A. Cervera

Virginia Beach Police Department, VA

A few years ago, some of my officers began investigating a shooting in which a guy had disappeared after he killed his wife and wounded his adult stepson.

As some of the officers began looking for the man, some kids rolled up on their bikes.

“Are you looking for that guy who shot those people?” one of the kids asked before saying as he pointed, “because he is hiding over there.”

Someone disconnected from our city might be surprised about that. But I’m not. That’s the type of relationship we have with our community.

It wasn’t always like that. Building relationships takes time, effort and some sweat. You have to be IN your community if you want to know the people that live there and make sure they know you.  

One of the ways we made this happen is to every year deploy most of our department out to the streets to conduct a survey with our citizens. It’s incredibly labor-intensive, definitely outdated, absolutely not being published in any periodicals, and more than anything, quite inefficient.

Guess what, we absolutely love it.

These surveys help us understand how people perceive crime in their individual neighborhoods. We also learn about their perceptions about us, which is critically important.

But the most important part of this effort is these surveys stimulate a conversation between two parties that typically only talk under complicated and emotional situations – meaning, after a crime, a traffic accident or neighborhood order maintenance problem.

Most cops are young and white. Most of the areas we survey are predominately minority neighborhoods. When we started this, I asked people, “When was the last time that a white cop had a conversation with a minority family and it wasn’t stressful?”

Typically, the answer is just about never.

And so, these surveys create conversations, and conversations build relationships. These can be hard discussions sometimes, particularly for citizens who are asked by cops if cops are doing right by them.

But some people talk to us honestly, which I am grateful for. More often than not, their top concern is that they want to see more of us in their neighborhood.

Other big issues are of course guns and drugs. But we learned something we didn’t expect as we heard a lot of complaints about disorderly behavior, typically being done by a large group of men who while standing around on sidewalks and doorsteps were hassling people.

This caught us by surprise but then it dawned on me: A lot of the neighborhoods are heavily populated with multi-family dwellings, which leads to an enhanced problem with large groups of loud and boisterous individuals.

So we have worked to reduce that. Interestingly though, these aren’t people we want to arrest just because they are drinking a beer in public. We look for voluntary compliance in dispersing the group, ask the people to move along, and when there are juveniles present, we take them home and talk to the parents.

The other thing we promise certain communities is that we aren’t coming in as gangbusters. Our Ready Response Team (some call it a metro squad) is proof of this philosophy. Using evidence based policing they deploy to an area with the specific goal of stopping identified crime problems.  They arrest the bad guys for those crimes, interact positively with the rest of the neighborhood and then quietly leave for their next assignment. Our citizens applaud that.

One of the added benefits of this survey is how it makes the cops feel. If there is one thing I have learned as a chief, cops are very receptive and appreciative to seeing the community support them.

Now that doesn’t mean that there was not any grumbling among some officers about going door to door and filling out a survey.

There are two things cops hate: status quo and change. So when I say we are going to view this differently, some people will say, ”Oh great, now we have to hug a thug.”

No, I tell them, we are getting the bad guys. We just aren’t looking at everybody as being the bad guy.

We have been doing these surveys for about seven years and there were some cops who still weren’t all that excited about it. But here’s the easy way to solve that – we send all of our command staff to work hand in hand with the officers.

That will keep the disgruntled guys quiet but on a far greater level, seeing the command staff there and talking to citizens goes a long way in boosting morale for the effort.

You know what? It’s working.

Here’s a good example of exactly how it is. In 2015, in the midst of community backlash against police across the country, we had back-to-back officer-involved shootings in the same neighborhood. In both cases, the suspect shot first and thankfully, no officers were injured and no one died in either case.

And we had zero backlash from the community.

That’s because we flooded the area with cops to talk with OUR CITIZENS,  to engage with them, and the community appreciated it immensely. As do the cops. As do I.

We remain as passionate about what we do as ever. I still believe cops are the knights in shining armor. They run up the hill to meet the dragon, and, as different as it sounds,  to make the dragon our friend.


James A. Cervera was appointed chief of police by City Manager James K. Spore effective in 2010. After serving two years with the Montclair, NJ, Police Department, he joined the department in 1978 and was promoted through the ranks.  Cervera holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice from St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla., and a Master of Public Administration degree from Old Dominion University.  He graduated from the FBI National Academy 171 session in Quantico, Va., the Police Executive Leadership School at the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia’s Senior Executive Institute, the Senior Management Program in Policing from Boston University, and the National Executive Institute.

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James Cervera

Chief James A. Cervera

Virginia Beach Police Department, VA

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