“Did you y’all watch The Wire?
If you did, that’s not what West Baltimore’s all about. It’s way too Hollywood. It’s way too tidy.”
Sheree Briscoe exudes the calm authority of someone who knows exactly what she is talking about.
She grew up in Baltimore. Raised four children there. And, now as the sassy new Captain of the Western District Department of Police, she could well turn out to be one of the West Baltimore's saviours.
For the unfamiliar, West Baltimore was recently the epicentre of the infamous Freddie Gray riots which sent shock waves across the country and raised uncomfortable questions about race, justice and equality in modern America.
Freddie Gray was a 25 year old African American who died after apparently sustaining brutal injuries in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers have since been charged with his murder.
Also starring this week are the Scottish Government’s Director General for Learning and Justice, Paul Johnson; the philanthropist, Howard G Buffet (yes, that Buffet); and the outgoing Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House.
Hurricane Abigail slaps at the windows as Sheree continues:
“The National Guard had been on the street. A state of emergency had been declared. But, after the riots, I asked to go. I saw this as an opportunity to do something different and to do something better for the place I grew up in.”
Martin Luther King once memorably described riots as “the language of the unheard”. And, since becoming Captain, Sheree and her team have engaged in a programme to reach out to the unheard of West Baltimore.
Across the three square miles of her patch, she has engaged with community leaders, young families and in-your-face drug dealers alike.
She has been spat at, sworn at and threatened with her life.
Yet, steadfastly, she has listened and she has been accountable – and, slowly, ever so slowly, the community in West Baltimore are reclaiming the streets, a block at a time.
“We might be police officers but we are people first. We needed to listen. That’s why I give my phone number out to everyone I meet. I say to them, “It’s your job to hold us accountable. If you don’t see my officers operating as they should, ring my phone. Or, if you don’t have a phone, knock my door. You know where I live.””
At a stroke, West Baltimore residents have become involved with police planning.
“We’ve got a long way to go for sure” Sheree reflects. “But, the direction that we’re going in now, the community is more a part of it. They are going to be more a part of the process, as opposed to affected by the process”
It is a theme we will hear again and again throughout our time at Tulliallan.
The speakers might have come from different sides of the Atlantic, and the contexts could hardly be more different, but the message was consistent and emphatic: wherever we are in the public service, we need to continually find ways to engage with our communities to find out what really matters to them.
Earlier in the week, Paul Johnson spoke passionately about the inspiring work that is going on to transform engagement in some our communities.
In the context of another West – this time Wester Hailes – he spoke about the power of interpersonal relationships in developing a genuinely shared agenda for a community.
Echoing this sentiment, Scott Thomson – dynamic Chief of Police at Camden County and one of the President Obama’s ‘go to’ experts on community policing – referred to the “irreplaceable bond of human contact” when engaging with communities.
Again, the emphasis is on authenticity and on listening.
On doing things with communities - rather than at or to those communities.
Tellingly, Scott’s police officers see themselves as “community builders rather than law enforcement officers”.
And, that’s where we must all ultimately see ourselves, wherever we are in the public service.
Whether we are operating in riot-torn West Baltimore or in some of Scotland’s most deprived areas, we are all – in our own way – community builders.
We are all in the business of unlocking assets within communities, their potential and, ultimately, their wisdom.
Without exception, the best ideas always come from places themselves.
That, of course, is one of the central pillars of the whole Scottish Approach - and, it is what an overwhelming body of evidence is now telling us.
As I drove away from Tulliallan, I realised that Sheree was right.
Engaging meaningfully with communities isn’t Hollywood.
It is never tidy.
But, do it, we must – for in all that messiness lies something better, something different.