In towns and cities across the country, there are police officers who have spent their career forging a tight bond with their community. We often don’t hear much about them in the news, but in many cases, social media has given them a platform to share their work and give us a more complete picture of law enforcement’s role in the lives of the people they serve.
One of the most well known examples is Tommy Norman, a police officer in Arkansas who has garnered over a million followers on Instagram by posting pictures and videos of his daily interactions with his community. His notoriety has drawn a bit of a cautious eye from his higher ups, with a recent story revealing Officer Norman would no longer be able to post on social media while on duty until it was cleared by the department’s PR department.
Regardless, Norman’s online celebrity may be recent, but his approach to policing is nothing new. “I decided to be a police officer really to do my part in making a difference in the community. Right away as a rookie officer, my goal was to make a difference. What's changed is social media. It's really brought a lot of attention to the work that's done here in North Little Rock.”
Forming a close bond with the community can have a profound impact on an officer’s ability to do their job effectively. Norman explains: “It builds trust and respect. Which in return creates a lot of peace, I think. People aren't so fearful when you [get] out of your police car and form relationships with members of the community."
Norman believes that his approach not only makes people feel safer, it also results in better policing. In 2001, a murder suspect was on the loose.
“I was a 3 year officer, my shift had just ended,” Norman recalled. “A gentleman called the Little Rock Police Department. And, you know, I work for North Little Rock. He wanted to meet me at a gas station. I go there. He's sitting on a curb in front of the gas station and he said that he wanted to turn himself in for a murder he committed. He beat a man with a two-by-four inside a homeless camp. And he knew the police were looking for him and he was trying to run. And so I called the Little Rock police. They came over. And before they left with him, I just asked him, ‘Why me? You never even met me before.’ And he told me that word on the street was that there was a police officer in another city that he could surrender to with dignity and respect. I'll be honest with you, as a three year officer, from getting out of my car and really forming these relationships everyday, I just wasn't really sure that as a police officer I was making a difference. When I met with this guy, that answered my question. And from that point on, I [told] myself I'm not going to stop.”
Norman’s work has gotten him a lot of attention -- from appearances on CNN, to shout-outs from rapper Killer Mike, to a fundraising effort led by rapper The Game. While he’s focused on his work as an officer, Norman wants his legacy to be bigger than the badge. His vision is to use his foundation, called Mission Give, to do long-term good in his community. And, he wants his work to be an inspiration for the next generation. “I just feel that it's really important for the younger generation to get out now and make a difference and start creating good in their own legacy. If you want to make a difference, make a difference today. Don't wait until tomorrow."
Tommy Norman’s attitude has captured the public’s imagination at a time when shootings and riots seem to dominate the news. But, of course, the reality is much more complicated than headlines can capture. Norman’s perspective amidst it all goes back to his early days as an officer. “As a police officer, trust has to be earned. It's just not going to be given to you. Because with me as a new officer in 1998, even though I was from North Little Rock, born and raised, I still had to earn the trust and respect of the community.”
Norman also challenges officers in other departments to follow his example and build relationships with their communities. “I tell people every day, every month, every year, get out of your car and get to know people. Just don't knock on someone's front porch when you have bad news for them or you're there to enforce the law. You should be there for a birthday party, for a graduation.”
It’s important, he says for officers to understand that these relationships help them do their job better. “I guess my big question for other law enforcement officers is that when your shift ends, and you're no longer getting paid, will you go home and get out of your uniform and put on the same clothes that the members of the community are wearing and get out and spend time with them? Because I tell you right now, a pair of blue jeans and a button down t-shirt is far more powerful than a police uniform.”