By Ben Sandell
Columbia Heights was near ground zero of the global scrutiny and civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Anger and feelings of disillusionment with law enforcement spilled over the Minneapolis borders, challenging the Columbia Heights Police Department (CHPD) to find ways to connect with the public and preserve a positive relationship with residents.
The idea of a police podcast had previously been considered by Chief Lenny Austin, but he didn’t have the resources at the time to make it happen. The confluence of events in 2020 combined with an increase in communications staff brought the idea back, and production was greenlit in March 2021.
The CHPD didn’t want to hide from the questions stirred up in 2020. The bimonthly podcast became a platform for officers to hold conversations about public safety topics relevant to the community, with the pilot episode focusing on the then upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin and the state of community/policing relationships.
The next six episodes covered topics relating to women in policing, past practices vs. modern philosophies, the Constitution, domestic abuse, winter-parking misgivings, social worker assistance, and mental health.
Recorded episodes yet to air will feature conversations on the state of public defenders, women in law enforcement leadership positions, public school relations, and human trafficking.
All topics are meant to engage general members of the public, not just those who already have a built-in interest in law enforcement issues. The moderator of the podcast is not an officer, but me, the city’s communications coordinator. I work to ask fair questions on behalf of those who are not steeped in criminal justice knowledge.
The show is co-hosted by Officer Mohammed Farah, Investigator Tabitha Wood (starting with episode five), and Officer Darry Jones (the first four episodes), and features a rotating roster of special guests.
Outreach and impact
To reach the broadest possible audience, “Roll Call” episodes are widely available on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts, and on the Columbia Heights website and social media pages.
On Apple Podcasts, “Roll Call” ranked in the top 150 most-listened-to government podcasts in the United States for the month of January 2022, according to Podstatus. In early 2022, “Roll Call” received a first-place award in the category of community engagement from the Minnesota Association of Government Communicators.
In an application for a Department of Justice grant to fund a full-time social worker with the department, the podcast was used as one of several examples of the CHPD’s commitment to community policing. The Department of Justice awarded the CHPD with a Community Policing Development grant for $207,849 to fund a full-time social worker stationed at the Police Department for two years starting in 2021. She was the guest on the seventh and most listened to episode.
The biggest challenge for us has been on the technical side.
The city lacks a recording studio, advanced recording equipment, or any audio technicians on staff. Podcasts are recorded in the police training room on standard microphones.
For the pilot episode, staff used two podcast microphones (a Snowball and Yeti); with two people on each mic. When it became clear the podcast would continue into multiple seasons, communications and police purchased higher-end microphones and a sound mixer.
“Roll Call” is recorded and edited with Adobe Suite software. It takes several hours to edit each podcast for time, with each episode coming in at half the length of the unedited conversation.
Scheduling around police work
Another challenge to “Roll Call” production has been the difficulty in scheduling officers and guests around busy and often unpredictable work schedules. For this reason, the podcast is recorded only bimonthly.
Despite these challenges, or because of them, guests and city employees have found the podcasting experience educational and insightful, and it’s helped strengthen relationships not just with the public but with staff and colleagues.
The overall positive response to “Roll Call” has been rewarding, and the production crew strives to improve with every episode. We plan for the podcast series to run well into the future.
Listen to the podcast at columbiaheightsmn.gov/podcast.
Ben Sandell is communications coordinator for the City of Columbia Heights.