In his nearly 30 years in law enforcement, Keith Touchberry has seen at close quarters how a police department’s relationship with the community it serves will largely determine the effectiveness of its public safety efforts.
“The police have the power they do because the people give it to them in exchange for protection,” said Touchberry, Chief of Police in Fellsmere, a city of about 5,000 near Florida’s Atlantic Coast. “It’s called the social contract.”
“Police officers must recognize that their first duty to the people they protect and serve is to maintain their trust,” he said.
In communities across the nation, that relationship has been tested of late following police-involved shootings. A recent poll found public confidence in the police was at a two-decade low, although police remain among America’s most-trusted institutions.
Touchberry, who teaches a course on Criminal Justice Ethics as part of Florida Tech’s 100% online BA in Criminal Justice program, said it requires a combined effort by police and citizens to boost confidence in the profession. It’s a philosophy his agency takes to heart.
In July 2015, the Fellsmere Police Department received the Excellence in Policing Award from the Florida Police Chiefs Association. The department was honored for its work with Partner Institution Policing, which seeks to strengthen partnerships between law enforcement, schools, community organizations and government agencies.
“This initiative has made a tremendous difference; all of us are able to come together as a community, work together on our issues and pursue shared solutions,” Touchberry said in a statement at the time.
In other community outreach efforts, the Fellsmere department started Twitter and Facebook accounts to notify residents of arrests, traffic wrecks and other incidents.
“I think people genuinely appreciate the opportunities that law enforcement agencies give them through social media,” said Touchberry, a Marine Corps veteran who spent 24 years with the Vero Beach (Florida) Police Department, where he rose to the rank of captain, before his appointment as Fellsmere’s police chief in September 2013.
Touchberry took time recently to share his insights on issues facing the law enforcement profession and the nation’s criminal justice system, from the benefits of having college-educated officers to the increasing use of body-worn cameras and the evolution of police training.
Q. Tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in criminal justice.
My interest developed when I was on active duty in the Marine Corps. Some Marines I served with were talking about a career in law enforcement after their enlistments and I became interested. One fellow sergeant was already a reserve police officer for the Oceanside (California) Police Department so I went on ride-alongs with him. I was hooked after one ride!
I moved to Florida after being honorably discharged in 1989 and was hired by the Vero Beach Police Department. I ultimately retired from there as a captain to become the police chief in Fellsmere.
Q. The Florida Police Chiefs Association recently honored the Fellsmere Police Department with the Rocky Pomerance Excellence in Policing Award in recognition of your department’s innovative approach to Partner Institution Policing. Can you tell us more about that initiative?
Partner Institution Policing (PIP) is a form of community policing that emphasizes a partnership between families, churches, schools, youth organizations, their service providers and government. The goals of PIP are to: strengthen the role of each institution by supporting common values and objectives; identify community members in need of services and collaborate on ways to facilitate their delivery; and develop and implement solutions, programs, model systems or other initiatives to address and resolve core problems.
To facilitate the achievement of these goals, the police department helped create the Fellsmere Action Community Team (FACT), a nonprofit organization comprised of people from each institution and their service providers. FACT also manages the implementation and maintenance of Bridges Out of Poverty, a community support program designed to address and reduce poverty, and is working toward implementing Kids at Hope, a belief system enhanced by programs designed to facilitate the success of children through community support.
Q. What do you consider to be the most important attributes/skills for police officers?
Police officers must recognize that their first duty to the people they protect and serve is to maintain their trust. To do this, they must be honest and forthright in everything they do and exercise personal and peer accountability at all times. They must be open to change, and willing to learn so they can continue to grow and develop as public servants.
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of leading a police department?
There are multiple challenges that vie for the top spot depending on events or circumstances. Accomplishing our mission on a tight budget, dealing with controversial arrests or other police actions, or just maintaining the trust and respect of the community when people respond negatively toward us without knowing all the facts.
Q. You teach a course on Criminal Justice Ethics as part of Florida Tech’s 100% online Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice program. Can you tell us about the course and some of the common ethical issues facing police officers?
The course is designed to familiarize students with the ethical challenges criminal justice practitioners face, empower them with the knowledge to face them and give them insight into their own moral development so they understand why they make the decisions they do. One of the most common ethical issues facing police officers stems from incidents where they witness misconduct and don’t know what to do about it. Reporting a fellow officer is never easy, but when officers make decisions that favor their relationships over their agency they jeopardize the public trust and make their organizations vulnerable.
During the course, students learn about the power of self-preservation as a value and the importance of not letting it drive their actions when the consequences could be adverse to their organization.
Q. How does your real-world experience impact your classroom instruction?
It enables me to provide examples that stimulate additional thoughts during discussions. Also, as a police chief, I am able to convey an executive leader’s perspective on the issues so students understand what will be expected of them in their careers. Overall, I think students appreciate learning from practitioners in the field because they get to hear how lessons are actually applied.
Q. Since the 1990s, the percentage of local police departments that require new officers to have a degree or some college coursework has doubled. As someone who earned a master’s degree in Criminal Justice, what benefits do you believe college-educated law enforcement officers bring to the nation’s criminal justice system?
There are many dedicated officers who serve proudly and with distinction with only a high school diploma or GED. Having said that, the numerous studies done on this topic overwhelming support higher education for officers with an endless list of reasons why. I believe college-educated officers enhance the status of our profession overall. I also think most people want to know that their officers have the ability to think critically and solve complex problems, and college prepares them for that.
Q. How has the training of police officers changed since you entered the profession?
Immensely. Distance learning provides officers the opportunity to meet most of their mandatory retraining requirements online and on their own time. In addition, computer simulators allow officers to experience scenario-based training that closely resembles real situations, preparing them to take appropriate actions under stressful conditions. Finally, the demands that are placed on officers today require that they know more and do more, thus increasing the amount of time spent in our police academies.
Q. A recent Gallup survey found that public confidence in the police is at a 22-year low, with 52% of Americans expressing “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of confidence in law enforcement. What can be done to boost the level of confidence?
Boosting confidence in law enforcement should be a combined effort between the police and the communities they serve. Robert Kennedy once said that “every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” The police have the power they do because the people give it to them in exchange for protection; it’s called the social contract.
Society is “insisting” now and negotiating changes to the contract because of the actions – or perceived actions – of some officers nationwide. This is nothing new. But what is new is the power of social media and its ability to mold and shape public opinion in the wake of a national incident. The vast majority of media consumers already do not think critically about the images they see and social media exacerbates that problem. Kennedy’s statement suggested to Americans that crime is a social problem requiring everyone’s attention and if citizens did not get involved they would get the kind of criminal “they deserved.”
So the answer to the question is this: Law enforcement agencies need to have close relationships with the communities they serve so they can weather the storms of controversy together. In addition, citizens need to learn more about how officers really perform their duties and not rely on media-driven images for their education. Ultimately, citizens should not be surprised when officers make mistakes because they are human; but they should be concerned if nothing is done about it.
Q. Social media has become a widespread tool for law enforcement agencies, including the Fellsmere Police Department, which has Twitter and Facebook accounts. What does social media bring to police work?
It used to be that if a police department wanted the community to know something, it had to issue a press release and hope the media shared the information accurately, if at all. Now, police departments are able to share information themselves about anything they want, when they want. Social media also enables law enforcement agencies to create a virtual community that goes beyond the boundaries of their physical community. It affords people the opportunity to rate their department, share issues that are important to them, voice their opinions, and generally just participate and contribute.
I think people genuinely appreciate the opportunities that law enforcement agencies give them through social media.
Q. Law enforcement agencies are increasingly adopting the use of body-worn cameras. What do you see as the potential benefits of body cameras? What are some of the concerns?
Like car cameras, body cameras help create an accurate record of investigations so there can be no doubt about what happened. Officers are more cognizant of their actions and will strive to perform their duties better. Nothing comes for free, however. So the cost to purchase and maintain the equipment and train the officers must be accounted for; so must the storage of evidence and response to public record requests. Finally, officers must be mindful that recording any incident is secondary to safety and not to jeopardize that for “film at 5.”
Q. Which case has given you the most satisfaction?
I found a homeless man in the woods while on foot patrol once and determined through a criminal history check that he had been arrested for a heinous sex crime against a child 10 years before in Texas. Approximately two months later, someone abducted a 7-year-old girl from her home, sexually assaulted her and then returned her to her bed. The man became the primary suspect because of my interview and I was assigned to help with the investigation. I was able to determine that the crimes he committed in Texas were done in exactly the same way as in our case.
DNA evidence enabled us to arrest him four days after the incident and he was convicted and given three consecutive life sentences. I took great pride in knowing that had I not found him in the woods and identified him for the predator he was, we may have never solved the case and got justice for that little girl.
Q. Who are your role models?
Mostly police chiefs who have set the example for others to follow and paved the way for my generation of chiefs to succeed. From history: Robert E. Lee, Teddy Roosevelt and Chuck Yeager.
Q. Who is your favorite fictional detective/investigator and why?
Sgt. John O’Mara in “Gangster Squad” because he was a former Marine turned L.A. cop who knew how to kick some criminal butt.
Q. What three words best describe your job as Chief of Police?
Challenging, rewarding, exciting!