After the Webinar: Motivational Conversations for Community Building. Q&A with Al Cobos

Webinar presenter Al Cobos answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Motivational Conversations for Community Building.  Here are just a few of his responses.

Audience Question: How can trust be measured? 

Al Cobos: Just like with the example I was talking about, you know, when it comes to results, it’s hard to quantify. I could cherry-pick examples of trust, just because let’s say I’m getting a certain amount of anonymous tips, getting phone calls into the station, people are providing information about activities taking place in the different communities, that can be one aspect of it. But it’s hard to quantify that. You know it when you see it. Just one quick example, I was having some training from an agency up north that on procedural justice. And we’re in a community center, it’s full of cops, and an elderly lady walked right in the middle of our training. And she needed backing for one of her earrings. So, one of the deputies gave her, she asked for an eraser, gave her eraser as a back into one of her earrings. And the instructions for the course again, they were from up north, and I thought, God, this is a great example of trust. Here she walks into their community center, but into a room full of police officers in uniform. And she felt comfortable to come in and ask for something as small as, “Hey, I need the backing on my earring. Can somebody give me an eraser so I can use it?” And they got it. And the funny thing was the instructor said that would never happen where we work, and all that kind of indicative of trust. You know it when you see it. But, you know, that doesn’t mean trust is pervasive in that community, but at least it was there. So, it’s something, you know when you see it. But it can be hard to quantify.


Audience Question: How do agencies invest the time and budget in community engagement when they barely have enough officers to just take 911 calls? 

Al Cobos: I think, ultimately, it’s culture change. And it’s something that needs to be, police officers have to get training in a number of different issues. There’s a driving force, the law, on, and on and on. But what do we do the most? And it’s talking to people. There’s a delivery of services that takes place where police officers and deputies have to go out in the field and contact people. They’ve got to talk to them. And that’s community building one-on-one, those one-on-one interactions. Even if you are busy, you still have to give people their due. You got to listen to them. You got to give them a voice, you know, you’ve got to validate their perspectives, but it’s just relationship building, and it takes time. Having said that, I know even when we were flush with the police officers and deputy sheriffs and, you know, we’re at full capacity, there were still similar issues about people not communicating with the community. So, in terms of culture change, I think if it’s taught early on but also practiced within the organization itself. Where even these notions of trust, respect, neutrality, and voice, if you practice those internally as an agency, then you can expect your people to practice them externally. But that’s a cultural aspect. I mean, you can go to training all day long. But culture is going to trump training. It’s what you do every single day. And I think if there’s an emphasis on problem-solving, asking the right questions, building relationships at all levels, it’s good for communities, but also makes you a better instructor. It’ll make you a better supervisor. It’ll make you a better manager. So, being able to tie all those things together, make it more relevant for an organization, and it’s not just, “Hey, this is just for community building.” No, it’s about being a better professional in all aspects of what we do. So, it takes some work. Again, there are some limited resources, but I think culturally, if that’s practiced, then you can see some benefits down the road.


Audience Question: Can you provide examples of the kind of opening questions you might ask the community to gauge their worldview to gauge their perspective, and kind of get to get the discussion started?

Al Cobos: Well, one of the strategies I use, and I do this with, I’ve done this with meetings. But it starts with the agenda. And it doesn’t matter if you put it online if you’re using social media, or you’re posting it on a poster outside where the meeting is going to happen itself. But as you set up the meeting itself, instead of posting topics, “We’re going to talk about vandalism. We’re going to talk about trust with law enforcement. We’re going  to talk about traffic, gang issues.” Make it a question. What are some of the impacts caused by gangs, and they could have some questions below that? What can we do about it? What are we doing right now? Where can we improve? So, when they see that they’re already kind of primed, because you’ve posed the questions, and even before the meeting starts, you can ensure everybody has an agenda, you can even ask, “Hey, read the questions, we’re going to get started a couple of minutes,” It’s just one strategy to start to move down the direction of these are the topics we’re going to talk about, but you presented them in the form of a question, and if they’re trying to answer the question, they’re thinking about the very topics you want them to address. So, you’re kind of getting them ready for the meeting itself. So that’s one aspect of it, but the other aspect of it, and it’s a strategy, you ask open-ended questions specific to the topic at hand. And again, with, let’s say homelessness. Homelessness is, it’s a huge impact on a lot of our communities and, people have easy solutions for it, “Well, let’s arrest everybody,” that comment can come up. “Let’s arrest everybody just get them out of here.” So instead of saying, “We can’t do that,” I ask a question to go, “Well, why do you think we haven’t done that already?” or “Why do you think that action hasn’t taken place?” So now you start to move down a path as to why do law enforcement just can’t arrest everyone? But you’re moving down a path towards, “Hey, these are some solutions that can be offered,” and you could ask them questions about maybe what their role is in terms of helping out the homeless situation. So, it’s about asking the right question, but you got to be well prepared for it. And I would highly recommend, challenge yourself when you get ready. Tell somebody something. Think of, how can I phrase this as a question? And when I ask the question, that it’s not a yes or no answer, but it moves them along the path where I want them to go. So, I hope that answers the question, it’s a kind of a one-way communication here. But I hope that answers the question.


Audience Question: How have you handled it when you ask a question, but no one in the group responded? Call on someone? Answer yourself? Or just ask another question? 

Al Cobos: Well, haven’t been a victim of that many times. It’s going to happen. What I’ve done for myself was, internally I’m thinking I asked the wrong question. It didn’t resonate. But when you’re standing in front of a class, and you ask a question. And it’s just, dead silence. A couple of things are happening. First off, you’re not waiting long enough, I know with instructors, or if you don’t teach all the time, that silence, you got to let it go. I’ve never had it, where no one answered. It might’ve taken 20 or 30 seconds for that silence to go. But, when I was a less tenured instructor, that ten seconds would go by and I’ve got a heart rate of 180 at that point because no one’s answering. So, what I used to do then was, I would say, “Well, looks like I asked a question in a confusing way,” and I would ask the question a different way. Even though it was slightly different, but by saying, “Hey, I think I ask a question the wrong way here, let me ask it this way,” now you’ve got people listening to this new question. And generally, I’ve never had any issues after that. But also, I think I’ve got fairly decent and asking the question, but if it does happen, I let the silence go for 20, 30 seconds. And if I start feeling comfortable with it, I’m simply just going to say, “Look, I think asked a question or wrong way here. Let me phrase it this way,” or “Let’s look at it from this perspective,” and then you ask it again. And generally, there’s not an issue with that, asking that rephrasing that question a second time.


Audience Question:  I’m a community member attempting to build a dialog with my local police department. Will these same techniques work in reverse to engage the Police Department? 

Al Cobos: I would say yes. I would kind of like the notion about knowing who your collaborators are on the other side, the people that are willing to speak with you. And it’s a great question and it’s from a great perspective because we at law enforcement expect community members to reach out to us and to build that bridge. But I convey that it’s law enforcement responsibility to reach out to the community. And with reaching out to law enforcement, find out who the people are that are going to help you out. I would ask a number of questions. Just be cognizant of the way the question is asked. A lot of times, people have asked me how I do my job, the way it’s asked can go a long way. “Why does your profession use too much unnecessary force or unlawful force?” That’s going to bring about a certain reaction. But if you ask a question from the perspective of, “Hey, I see all this stuff happening on TV. How can that happen? What led up to that incident?” Now, you’re creating that conversation, and you may not agree with everything, but it’s looking at it from a different perspective. And then you can follow up with, “Well, I’m glad you said that, but from my perspective when I look at this stuff this is what I see. But now I know what you said…” but at the same time, you’re conveying your perspective to law enforcement. So, you’ve got that back and forth. So, it’s again, you know, asking the right question with where you want to go with it.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Motivational Conversations for Community Building.


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