"I held this kid's hand. I talked to him. I begged him not to die."

An interview with Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (Ret.), formerly of the Rochester Police Department in New York.

Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (Ret.) joined the LEAP speakers bureau in 2019 to work on issues ranging from procedural justice to the impacts of justice system fines and fees on indigent civilians. In this interview, he discusses the mental health challenges facing police and how re-envisioning policing as "relational" will revolutionize the field and make neighborhoods safer.

Mikayla Hellwich: Why did you choose a career in law enforcement?

Chief Harris: I never actually intended to be a police officer growing up. I started working with the Salvation Army when I was about 16, and I developed a skill set in dealing with youth. It was a summer job once, and I kept going back to it in New Jersey for about eight years. After that time, a friend of my father's, who was an officer on the Rochester Police Department, approached my father with a job he thought I would be great for. It was an internship serving as a liaison between the police department and youth gangs in the city. The job was contingent on me taking the police exam. I took the exam and scored very well on it. I ended up entering the academy in October of 1987. It was not my initial intent, but once I got in and began to see the potential of this career, even though it took me a little while, I ran with it.


You recently retired. What were the most rewarding aspects of your work?

One of the most rewarding aspects was the ability to assist people in some of the most challenging times in their lives.

I received two bits of advice when I started my career. One was from my father, who told me not to forget that I had to come back and live in the neighborhood that I was serving. The other advice was from a gentleman who had known me since I was a boy. He was on the board of directors for my internship, and his son and I were friends. He knew all the ridiculously foolish things we used to do. He pulled me aside and said, “Don't forget, you're not so very far away from the people that you're going to be dealing with.” And they were both correct. What they were telling me was to never forget to put myself in the position of the people I was serving. And I approached this job from that point of view, going into it with the desire to help and looking at it as an opportunity to actually make a difference and impact someone's life.


You became the first Deputy Chief of Community Relations when the role was created by the mayor to boost the connection between citizens and officers. Professionals in the community have had plenty of wonderful things to say about you in this role. What did the position entail, what were your responsibilities?

The job came about because of a couple events here in the city of Rochester. One was a drug investigation that resulted in us arresting some ancillary people that had walked into the scene -- one of which happened to be the girlfriend of the primary arrestee. Unfortunately, that was captured on cell phone video, and the portion that was captured was us having to, unfortunately, lay hands on her, and she and the officers ended up down on the ground. The second incident was a Black Lives Matter rally that occurred at a primary intersection of our city. It resulted in the arrest of 74 individuals. Just after those events, our city council convened a hearing that was very, very well-attended by our community. They were extremely vocal about their displeasure with the Rochester Police Department. They voiced some very serious issues. For example, they questioned our integrity, they questioned our transparency, they questioned our sense of training. We were called racist. We were called thuggish. We were called everything they could think to call us, and as a result, the mayor decided that if they were going to be so vocal in a hearing, perhaps we needed to go out and actually have a conversation with them in the community. So she developed the position of Deputy Chief of Community Relations and Engagement, and assigned me to the role.

My primary responsibility was to go into the community and have conversations to develop strategies, not only to build on the relationship between the city of Rochester and the police department, but also to identify those areas of concern to the community. The mayor initially sent me on a 90-day mission to do exactly that. The result of that 90-day mission was a document I wrote called “Rochester's Blueprint for Engagement,” which outlined very specific steps for how to engage with our community. It also outlined the primary concerns that some in the community had for the department.

After that was done, my responsibility was to continue to improve on it and to continue developing strategies that would connect the department and the city of Rochester. We established a police training advisory committee, and I purposely populated that particular committee with as diverse a group of people as I could find. I grabbed people that were vehemently opposed to the department, or law enforcement in general, as well as people that were hardcore supporters. I reasoned that in order to do this properly, I needed to get as wide a variety and as wide a spectrum of people as possible; to come sit at the table, and literally review every policy, every procedure, every training, every bit of information that the department used. I gave them two mandates. The first was to review everything and to serve as advocates for us when questions of our training or internal policies came up in the community. The second was to serve as ambassadors from the community to bring to the table recommendations that the city of Rochester wanted to see us trained in. It was a very, very successful program.


What were some of the recommendations the community came up with in that second mandate?

I ended up retiring shortly thereafter. So the program began, and it was taken over by the current deputy chief of communications. I have not seen the specific recommendations they came out with, but I can tell you that when I was the deputy chief of community engagement, the primary recommendation was that they wanted to see us out in the community more. They wanted us to engage our youth a bit more, and they didn't want to just see an officer riding down the street waving. They actually wanted to see us out walking in the community, stepping into stores, getting to know the residents.

I came up with a couple of programs that were designed to serve that purpose. One was a door knocking strategy where, in an officer’s downtime -- every officer in any agency across the country has downtime -- so ours were asked to stop on their assigned car beat, get out, walk the community, knock on doors, introduce themselves, and let the residents there know who they were. If they wanted to give contact information, they could. But the strategy behind it was to at least make that initial contact so the people there could see an officer, get to know them, actually be able to put a name to a face. Another strategy we used was called Bigs in Blue. It's basically Big Brothers, Big Sisters, for law enforcement. It's a national program that I believe started in St. Louis. 


When you institute a program like the door knocking policy, what does that look like in practice?

We asked them to simply call “out of service” on a door knocking. We actually developed an action code they could use when they spoke to the dispatcher to let them know they were going to be out of their cars doing this. So, the information we collected was more about how many times it was being done, so we could report back to the city council and the mayor's office that we were actually out doing it.

The conversation came in a roll call format where we would sit down and an officer would talk about his experience meeting Mr. Harris, for example. He’d say, “Mr. Harris is great. He lives over there, and by the way, he says, if you stop by, he'll have coffee for you.” I thought that was more important than actually having an officer write another report to document something that we ought to be doing naturally. I wanted it to be as organic as possible. I wanted it to be as user-friendly as possible. I didn't want to add something else for an officer to do, other than getting out of the car and actually just knocking on a door and saying hi.

If they weren't home, we had door knockers or door hangers that we could leave.


Did those activities seem to do anything to improve department culture or officer morale?

A lot of what I put into place, I never actually got to gauge its effectiveness personally, because I retired. I have spoken to the current administration of the department, and they say it is very effective. But I haven't been in place to actually judge the level of morale that's there. I can tell you that, if you take a look at the law enforcement industry as a whole, best practices indicate that as often as an officer can engage and connect with someone from the community in something other than an enforcement capacity, it's a plus. It's a plus, not only for the officer and their morale, but also for the community and how well they trust their officers.


Police-community relations is often used as an umbrella term to describe a philosophy, programs, and policies that build relationships between communities and police, but we don’t talk about the specifics enough. Are there any other kinds of community-policing programs that you think are notable and worth paying attention to?

A couple of things. One, when we use the term community policing, it's been my experience that it's often misunderstood. That's partially our fault as an industry, because I don't know that we painted the appropriate picture for it when we first started talking about it. It was kind of billed as: the officers are going to be out of their car, they're going to wave to you a little bit more, they may walk up and down the street, they're going to go back to actually walking on the beat sort of thing. 

By definition though, community policing is a partnership between community and the law enforcement agency that serves them. It's so all-encompassing that there's not one specific strategy that can be identified as community policing. But there have been some agencies that have gone a step above others. Camden, New Jersey, comes to mind. Camden at one point had an extremely high rate of violent crime. There was a lot of dysfunction. There were so many concerns that they changed their entire way of policing. 

From my understanding, speaking with a captain out of Camden, they took about a third of their patrol personnel and assigned them to report taking. The remaining percentage of patrol officers were assigned to proactive duty where they would come up with engagement strategies and get out and engage the community. It was a different philosophy than just chasing the radio around and being responsive to that. They designed a program where officers would get out and actually create their own day, create how they would interact with the community. I believe that with any strategy you come up with, the philosophy is important. The environment that the chief executive officer of that department sets is going to be the most important factor when we talk about community policing.

Another thing I want to say, too, is that I heard a term in Houston, at the leadership symposium for NOBLE [National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives]. Apparently law enforcement has begun to move away from using the term community policing because it is misunderstood. They're starting to move more towards something called ‘relational policing,’ which is probably a more accurate way of saying or describing where we need to be. We need to be building partnerships and collaborative efforts with our neighborhood groups, with our clergy, with our businesses, with our educational institutions, in order to make sure holistically, that the city or the town is well-served.


I haven't heard that term before. Thank you for sharing. It is really useful for us [LEAP] to know that going forward.

I hadn't heard it either, before Houston, so I was happy to hear it, because it really does capture what community policing needs to be. It is a relationship.


It's perfectly descriptive. So, it’s not that community policing is inherently bad. It sounds like it is more of a branding problem? 

In my opinion, it's our fault. We have not done a very good job in defining it, and when you don't do that, it's left to interpretation. That is a common theme with much of law enforcement, and part of the reason for all the misinformation. 

I'll give you a great example. Frequently, you'll hear on the news that officers were using force to arrest an individual, and if it was captured on cell phone video, it can look very bad. There's science behind what we do, that we as an industry have never done a very good job of actually explaining. We did this with a community group that had come in to speak to the chief, while I was on the department. We took our defensive tactics team, and we took the smallest officer on the team and asked her to simply not allow herself to be arrested. We asked her to just lay on the ground and not fight back or struggle, but to simply lock her legs, and lock her hands underneath her chest, which would not allow her to be handcuffed or arrested. Then we took the largest officer we had on the defensive tactics team and asked him to get her into custody. All we wanted him to do was to handcuff her. Well, the reality is, you really can't do it without using some sort of pain compliance technique. 

Research has shown that if you strike the nerve cluster that goes down the side of your thigh, called the common peroneal nerve, while giving verbal direction loudly, a person will comply with an arrest. It hurts them, but it doesn't injure them. It doesn't cause any injury at all. It is a pain compliance technique. I can explain that all day long and some people will see that it makes sense. But the reality is, if you see it on camera, or if you happen to be seeing it while you're on the street, what you see is an officer delivering a knee strike to the side of someone's thigh and screaming at them, and it looks bad. So if we as an industry could begin to educate our communities as to the techniques that we use, and how they were developed, and the research behind them to actually explain what we’re doing, it will go a long way towards eliminating some of that confusion.

We have not been very forthcoming about the policies and practices we use, so that void has been filled by TV, movies, and books. Some of the most popular entertainment is cop shows. They give a very warped interpretation of what law enforcement truly is. Given the lack of information the real profession gives out, the void is then filled by people seeing what they see on TV, reading what they read in books, and thinking that they understand law enforcement when they really don't. That has gone a long way towards creating the misinformation and poor feelings that exist out here. Now, if we're going to fix that, then my recommendation would be for the law enforcement industry to begin to educate the community as to what we do and why. That was the impetus behind the police training advisory committee that we put together.


Your other areas of focus are officer wellness and training. From what I’ve observed in the media and in conversations with speakers, training gets talked about a lot but wellness gets left out of the discussion pretty often. Do you agree that wellness is overlooked? And if so, why do you think training is prioritized? 

I absolutely agree that officer wellness is overlooked. One of the things I did throughout my career was I introduced myself as Wayne. I would tell people, “You don't have to call me ‘Officer Harris.’ You don't have to call me ‘sir,’ you don't even have to call me, ‘Deputy Chief Harris.’ I appreciate it, but my name is Wayne.” I did that because I wanted them to see that there was a human being inside the uniform. That's something people unfortunately tend to forget. And the uniform, while it serves a very important purpose, also blocks the community’s image or interpretation of who that person actually is. Every police officer -- man, woman, black, white, straight, gay, whatever -- every single police officer is confronted with things throughout their career that will impact them, either physically, or emotionally and psychologically. 

Very early in my career, I was sent to a train accident where a 12 year old boy had climbed up on a slowly passing train. The tracks divided his neighborhood, and it was common for kids in the area to wait until the train was passing, climb up the train, cross on top of it, and then come down on the other side to get to their neighborhood. He did that, but he slipped between the cars and ended up falling as the train was still moving. It rolled over his legs and severed both of them. Now, police officers are trained to be first responders, which means we can do CPR, we can give emergency breaths, we can put a bandage on someone. But that kind of injury is well beyond any police officers abilities. So, I held this kid's hand. I talked to him. I begged him not to die. He didn't scream. When medical personnel got there, I helped carry him down off the tracks. He ended up living.

Just after that, the city of Rochester and the owner of the railroad tracks got into a disagreement as to who ought to be putting the fence up to make sure that it didn't happen anymore. When I heard them arguing over this, it annoyed me to the point where I said, “You know what, I don't really care whose responsibility it is to put it up, you guys can fight over this for the next hundred years. Put up a fence so I don't ever have to carry another kid down off that track!” 

I had a hard time looking at trains for an awfully long time. It took me probably a few years before I was comfortable actually being around them. When those calls would come in -- unfortunately they were more frequent than you would imagine -- that bothered me. I had to take a step back and kind of mentally collect myself before I was okay to work on something like that again. And that's indicative of how law enforcement is. Every single police officer on this planet can tell you a story similar to that where they were impacted emotionally.

So, when we're talking about officer wellness, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that we’re human beings. We suffer from high levels of stress. Our dietary strategies are horrific, and we all end up gaining weight (unless we're gym rats, which most of us aren't). So, we have a very high rate of hypertension. Unfortunately, we also have a very high rate of suicide. We also have a very high rate of divorce. So, if we're not talking about officer wellness, if we're not trying to make sure our offices are physically, emotionally, and psychologically prepared to deal with the bad that police officers see throughout the course of their careers, then we're really doing a disservice to the community and to the men and women who do this job for a living.

There's a cool ending to the story I just told you. I got promoted to captain in December of 2011, and I happened to be working midnights. I was the staff duty officer and patrolling a park here in town. I came upon this car that was out sort of off the parking lot into the trails in the middle of the night. I called out with it and had officers come to assist me. We took everyone out of the car. The last person out of the car was clearly an amputee. Now, as it turned out, they weren't out there doing anything but really stargazing. They had been at work, and just came out there. They weren't drinking. They weren't getting high. They weren't having sex. There was four people in the car. They were really just out there enjoying the evening. After we identified them and made sure everything was fine, I looked at the amputee and I said, “Do you remember me?” He said, “Yes, I do. You're the officer that helped me out that day.” And seriously, it almost brought me to tears, because he had taken the money that he had gotten from his accident, and put himself through school, opened up a business, and is a great guy.

That horrific event that impacted both of us ended up having a decent ending. All those years later, probably 17-18 years later after it happened, I got closure.

Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (Ret.) spent 30 years with the Rochester Police Department in New York and retired in 2017. He's now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). 

Mikayla Hellwich is the speakers bureau & media relations director at LEAP.


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