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Not Just Law and Order: Chief of Police Diana Bishop

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Police Chief Diana Bishop has been in the force for over thirty years and values transparency in her role as public servant.

Police Chief Diana Bishop has been in the force for over thirty years and values transparency in her role as public servant.

Police Chief Diana Bishop has been in the force for over thirty years and values transparency in her role as public servant.

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It wasn’t until my frustrated mom called the cops on my friends and me for playing music late one evening that I understood some of the daily functions San Rafael Chief of Police Diana Bishop described to me at the beginning of our interview. She said that often the police are the last resort for people who don’t know what to do even in a non-dangerous situations, like a mom who can’t get their kid to get out of bed to go to school or to stop playing rock and roll.

San Rafael Police Department (SRPD) Chief of Police Diana Bishop showed humility, dedication, and honesty in describing the strengths and weaknesses of the SRPD, and this made her very approachable. However, she still conveyed the serious, professional manner you’d expect of a police officer.

“If you really think about it, it’s a crazy job we have. I walk around every day with a bullet-proof vest and a gun, and it’s normal for me.” Bishop agreed that the SRPD has to do some of the more boring, stereotypical, law and order police work that you’d expect. “Sometimes [we] just arrest people, enforce the law, stick to the facts; like you’d see on TV. But that’s a very small piece of what we do.”

Bishop framed the main roles of the SRPD much differently than the mainstream view of the police. She argues that the department actually acts as more of a last line of support for people who don’t know where to turn: “We help society deal with problems that they can’t figure out for themselves. We don’t often have the answers. But we can guide them to places that may have the answers.” Officers have to be ready for any type of situation, whether it’s dealing with a drunk person walking in traffic, responding to a bad accident, or a serious armed threat. Bishop encourages dispatchers and officers to think of people they are dealing with as their mom or their grandmother to encourage positive interactions with the public: “You might not remember it the next day, but they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives.”

According to Bishop, sometimes part of the police department’s job is having to tell people, “no we can’t help you with that, because it’s illegal, it’s not in our list of things that we can do, or it’s not something that the police can do; it’s a civil issue, rather than a legal issue.”

However, sometimes having to work within the parameters of law presents difficulties for the SRPD, Bishop explained. She cited how the well-intentioned federal mandate for California to reduce prison rates has challenged the department in preventing recurring crimes and serious drug offenses. Petty crimes, such as theft and shoplifting, used to receive more serious punishments after each recurring offense. However, in order to reduce prison rates, the same punishment is given each time, no matter the number of offenses, and there isn’t as great of a risk for recurring crimes. More serious felony drug offenses for the possession of dangerous drugs, such as cocaine, meth, and heroin, were degraded to misdemeanor offenses. Though the possession of these drugs may be “non-violent” offenses, the limited resources for dealing with substance abuse has left the SRPD dealing with the same people for 10-15 years.

“The system [for dealing with substance abuse] isn’t great. It could use so much improvement, and the capacity just isn’t there.”

Though there might not be the resources to solve all the major issues in the San Rafael community, Bishop noted ways the strained public relation between the public and police could be improved. Bishop’s first step in creating a better public relation starts with opening more of a dialogue. Just think, when’s the last time you actually had a real conversation with a police officer.

“I find that when you just have a conversation with a person, even if you totally disagree at the end, you see each other as humans, not as someone in a uniform. Just as I don’t see you as a high school kid, as a young man who’s coming in here to learn. It’s all about relations.”

There has definitely been a dehumanized relationship between police and the public, but Bishop is one who puts the faith back in law enforcement. Recognizing that there are aspects of her job that she doesn’t have control over, Bishop is focused on what she can do to improve things, not what she cannot do. And I found one big similarity between the police and the public, even the cops like San Rafael’s famous Bahia Taqueria.

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