Tiana Jean Sanford
As part of a concerted effort to reach out to the community, Montgomery County prosecutors and staff organized a program to interact with citizens at five local donut shops. Here’s how they did it.
One does not have to look very hard to see that prosecutors and law enforcement officers are often the center of media attention and scrutiny these days. Right or wrong, media reports are often critical of what we prosecutors do and how we do it. From grand jury processes to officer-involved shooting investigations, we are under a microscope. Consequently, one might say that as a profession, we are at crossroads in how we handle public perception: We can continue doing “the Lord’s work,” paying little attention to public perception, or we can make efforts to interact with, engage, and educate our communities.
Starting in 2015, our office chose the latter and made it a priority to further expand our community outreach efforts. We’ve had great success in raising awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenses, for example. Every opportunity that we were given to engage with groups of people was an opportunity to empower them to get involved, establish a partnership, solve a problem, and gather feedback on past initiatives. We were finding success in reaching out to schools, churches, non-profits, and law enforcement agencies, and we wanted to replicate this model in all areas of criminal prosecution. Simply put, our vision was a community informed on what we do, how and why we do it, and their role in the process.
We solicited ideas from others in the office about where to focus next. And while everyone had ideas, not all of them had a catchy title—or were the brainchild of the elected prosecutor himself—until one day.
It was then, in passing, that Brett Ligon, our elected DA, told us that he had just come from an event called Coffee with the Constable. While his mentioning it was casual and the whole conversation was no more than a minute in duration, it was evident that Mr. Ligon was energized by his experience and believed that something similar could be an opportunity for our office to reach out to citizens too. If people would have coffee with the constable, then someone would definitely have at least one donut with the DA! And so the idea for reaching out to the donut-craving citizens of Montgomery County was born.
Time to make the donuts
The first thing we did was to identify days and times for our gatherings. This part was challenging. We took many things into consideration including peak hours of donut demand, school start times, and the potential number of attendees. We eventually settled on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings between 8:00 and 10:00 am. We figured that this was early enough in the morning to get some foot traffic without being in the way of those busy with the morning rush. Once we settled on days and times, we needed to figure out how many gatherings we were going to host. This part was simple, as Montgomery County is split into five precincts and each one of those precincts has a sitting Justice of the Peace. We determined that our first “Donuts with the DA” tour would include a stop at a donut shop in each of the five precincts.
It was an easy decision for us to hold the gatherings as close to the location of the Justice of Peace courts as possible. These locations are centrally located enough for everyone in the county to have access, and most people have had a speeding ticket before and are familiar with the location of their nearest JP. A quick search on Google Maps provided us with a short list of potential locations, which we then ranked solely based on location. However, a phone call and visit to each donut shop on the list was necessary to commit to the final location. The response from the donut shop owners was mostly positive. Only one owner suggested we find another shop. He was concerned that his store did not have sufficient space and that parking was a pain. A site visit revealed that his assessment was spot-on, so we chose another donut shop in that precinct. Each location had to be clean and with adequate seating and adequate donuts—every flavor of donut. After our rigorous selection process was complete, we had commitments from donut shops all over the county and were well on our way.
The next step was getting everyone in the office on board. Now some of you are reading this and thinking, “Wow! This is neat! I am sure everyone thought this was a great idea!” Some of you may be on the fence thinking, “OK: Fun name, minimal commitment … Let’s see where this goes.” And then there are also those of you who are saying to yourselves, “The elected DA eating donuts. In public with random people. Wait—would I be expected to eat donuts with the elected and these random people and talk to them? Horrible idea.” We aren’t actually reading your mind here; it’s just that all of these sentiments (and more, some of which are not suitable to print) came out of our coworkers’ mouths too. But getting everyone on board is imperative in community prosecution initiatives. While it is not the most difficult task, it does take a continuous and deliberate approach. Prosecutors are generally service-oriented, so enforcing the principles of community prosecution and relating them back to a specific initiative is usually all it takes to wrangle them in. Most everyone was positive about the Donuts with the DA initiative, and the naysayers had valid concerns (mostly about safety, whether anyone would show up, and that it would not be received well and seen as simply political). But at the end of the day, we were able to dispel the concerns and move forward with getting the word out.
A press release announcing our initiative, dates, and locations got the ball rolling. Our local news media followed up, and stories on Donuts with the DA were heard on the radio and read in our local newspaper and blogs. On the days leading up to each event, we used social media to post and tweet our location and also posted flyers in the donut shops. We even had Boudreaux from Montgomery County Lifestyle, a popular social media presence, broadcast live from the downtown Conroe event.
Eating donuts and shaking hands
On the morning of each event, we would arrive to the location early to set up. We hung a District Attorney’s Office banner, laid out some of our office scrapbooks, and purchased a variety of donuts. Each Donuts with the DA event was attended by Mr. Ligon, a handful of assistant DAs, and at least one investigator from our office. The investigator’s presence not only addressed concerns for safety but was also an opportunity to make sure the public knew that it’s not just prosecutors who do the work of justice every day. There is a whole team of individuals, from administrative and legal assistants, to investigators and victim assistance coordinators, who are passionate about the work we do and are imperative to the pursuit of justice.
With that, we had the team and we had the donuts. All we needed now were the people.
Remember the way you felt at your first middle school dance with all sorts of worries? Did you show up too early or too late? Would anyone ask you to dance? Would your classmates look at you weird? Would anyone talk to you? Did you pick just the right outfit to make you look cool and approachable, yet legitimate and not to be toyed with? The waiting was certainly the hardest part—but all of those worries went out the window after the first handshake. The citizen interactions we had were all positive. There were two distinct groups of people: those who knew we were coming and planned to be there to meet us and those whose only plan was getting a donut and going about their day. At first people appeared apprehensive. You could see in their eyes that they wondered what they had stumbled upon and if their local donut shop was safe with the obvious presence of law enforcement. As soon as they found out that we were there as part of our community outreach, though, they relaxed and were incredibly supportive of our continued efforts.
We met a lot of different and interesting people during our donut tour. At our first event, the foot traffic we experienced was steady. We had set up our table outside and were greeting people as they walked into the store. Each interaction was similar: We’d all smile and say hi, our body language was reciprocated by the customers, and a minute or two later we’d met someone new, talked to them about why we were there, and sent them away with information on how to contact us in the future.
One experience was notably different. A car pulled up and a large man in his early 40s stepped out of the car, followed quickly by a little girl dressed in a green polo shirt, plaid skirt, crisp white socks, and saddle oxfords. The smile they both wore from ear to ear was identical. They approached and said hello first, though they were not at the donut shop to see us. They were there to celebrate! After pleasantries were exchanged, the man informed us that he and his 4-year old-daughter had just left MD Anderson, where she was being treated for cancer. The appointment had gone well and they wanted to celebrate with a donut, and we were honored to be a part of their celebration. We chatted with dad and daughter about our office, and dad looked at his daughter and told her she could do what we did when she grew up. She was shy but seemed pleased; then she gave us a hug and they went on about their day. From our experience with this dad and daughter duo—as well as an elderly lady we were able to help with an identity fraud issue—each interaction solidified the need for us to make ourselves accessible to the community we serve.
Imagine having a question or concern about the District Attorney’s Office but not knowing whom to contact to answer that question. There are people in our jurisdictions who want to know how prosecutors fit into the larger criminal justice system but do not feel as though they have the access necessary to get the information they need. People may know where our office is located or even our office phone number, but the obstacles to reach us may result in confusion about what we do and how we do it.
There are those who will claim that this effort was purely political, and while they are wrong, that’s not an unexpected response to community prosecution efforts. This is in part because the concept of intentional community prosecution model is fairly new. Prosecutors may be aware of core principles of community-based prosecution, but the public at large is not used to seeing the role of a prosecutor in this way. As prosecutors, we are in a unique position to act as ambassadors for the criminal justice system. Creating opportunities where partnerships can be established and problems can be solved is one way we can affect the way our community perceives us. This is why community outreach efforts will be largely successful no matter how many people show up to eat donuts with the district attorney. The mere existence of these events and efforts by our offices to support them sends a message to our communities that we recognize their value in this process and that they can trust us to represent them well. As prosecutors, we recognize the value of people feeling safe in their communities, and we are fiercely and unapologetically committed to seeing that justice is done. While community outreach may be challenging, given our unique role, it makes us more effective at doing justice, and we are the individuals best suited to meet these challenges.