3 Ways For Law Enforcement To Improve Public Relations and Trust

The communication process has become a learned skill such that many of us may not realize we are analyzing, positioning, listening, decoding, thinking ahead, and perceiving all at the same time, among other things. Those are just a select few of the steps and techniques we may go through in one small conversation. At a young age we were taught “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” as a means to ward off bullying and to compartmentalize our feelings. I have found the opposite to be true. Words are actually very powerful. Additionally, the body language cues and feedback we give which also tie into the complexity of interpersonal communication are important in discerning the message.

Any field in criminal justice demands so many aspects of interpersonal communication. As an agency leader, communication processes and interpersonal communication with the citizens coincides with public image which weighs in on every administrators’ agenda. These are skills a peace officer hones in on over time but practices every day and can never hit a learning cap. Each concept or theory can aid in developing one’s skills and takeaways from each communication technique can be used in practicality. Below are three ways interpersonal communication could improve public trust with law enforcement:

1. Create community immersion. Immerse law enforcement officers into their communities. This can be accomplished through a variety of ideas including reintroducing or elevating earlier community policing models. Forming community partnerships and coalitions with community leaders can assist in building relationships where tension might be forming.  Walk beats where officers are conducting regular neighborhood contacts and checking on local businesses has a proven history of success. Getting officers out of the car while being visible and personable creates cohesion with residents and business owners. Involvement in community programs and neighborhood projects can bring the citizens together with police to create a conversation to build unity.

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Communication Model Example in Law Enforcement Contacts

2. Become more cognizant of background differences and cultural sensitivity. Persons may become culturally encapsulated with no intention of bias, but it comes from being so ingrained in one’s own norms and erudition. People come from various upbringings and were raised in a multitude of conditions, environments, and cultures giving us a very diversified population in the United States. Officers have been treating people according to ordinance and statute parameters under the law with regards to enforcement. However, during the enforcement transaction and individual communication they sometimes tend to ignore social cues and internal and external influences an individual citizen carries. Scientists often call these factors social pulses or “noise”. It is important for peace officers to be sensitive to the factors in environment and cultural differences when communicating and interacting. To explain this further, I have designed a model diagram which includes but is not limited to these components:

3. Use more transactional model communication and active listening. Police officers often engage in linear communication due to the nature of their work by giving orders or commands. This model of interpersonal communication is effective in dynamic situations or circumstances where officers need to gain compliance immediately. Communication from an officer is frequently used to steer someone in a certain direction which makes it very linear, often eliminating other factors which make interactions more transactional or two-way.

Police communication to citizens in many instances is delivered in direct, precise language: sender to receiver with little attention to “noise” or adaption to accept feedback from the receiver. Examples of this type of interpersonal communication are interactions with persons involving orders, commands, or need for compliance. While necessary in many police contacts, when gathering information in a less evolving or dynamic circumstance-this type of interaction brings negative perceptions from the public. In a sense, the public want officers to be more compassionate and “human”, rather than displaying robotic and insensitive qualities. We are seeing a push back from law enforcement with various social media and public campaigns to bring them together with community members and show the personable side of police.

When running call to call, officers can get tied up in the heavy call load and continue this way of communicating along with “just the facts, ma’am” which shuts down communication lines with citizens. It usually isn’t intentional, but becomes a result over time of trying to serve an abundance of complaints when departments are short staffed. If it occurs with the same officer over a long period of time, it might signify he or she is an ineffective communicator and indicates a training need. Citizens want to be heard and they want to trust the message. Therefore, when officers use active listening and allow feedback to go back and forth in open channels, their perception and contact experience leans more positive than negative. Rapport building is part of this process as well and comes with opening up communication into a more transactional model.

Studying and absorbing all the various components of interpersonal communications which includes concepts and theories developed over many years becomes an overwhelming task at times. Don’t think the police take it lightly. It happens to be a huge focus in continuing education and police training. How an officer communicates and/or commands a situation has become a national discussion.

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These above ideas are not new, but perhaps need to be reemphasized, tweaked, and brought to the forefront to progress toward the police reform demanded by the public and government. Interpersonal communication has value for each individual whether he or she engages with another person in a personal or professional setting. We rely on communication to build relationships, lead people, make business deals, and defuse dangerous situations.

People desire to form relationships as a need for their well being. This trickles to any interpersonal communication even from police contacts which can happen during some of a person’s worst moments. From uttering a friendly greeting to life and death situations, police officers have made communications their number one tool in their toolbox. Today, law enforcement agencies are reevaluating communication models and interpersonal skills to grow to a higher level in order to build gaps in public trust and dispel racial tensions.