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It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It

It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith

One of the most popular workshops we teach is titled “What Did You Just Say?!” We call it that because if we called it “Organizational Communication for Professional Police Agencies” no one would hire us. Attending classes on how to communicate with each other is right up there with sexual harassment prevention, cultural diversity training, and learning CPR; its stuff we all need, but it’s not necessarily much fun to learn. However, ninety percent of what we do as cops involves some sort of communication. How well you communicate with others at work, on the street, and even in the lock up can make or break your career.

Internal Communication

Cops have our own way of talking. Our verbal communication can be pretty rough, filled with jargon, profanity, clipped abbreviations, and inappropriate humor. When I was a rookie just out of the academy, I thought that emulating my FTO and his peers would be the best way to fit in, so even though their language was incredibly colorful, and I was a 22 year old probationary rookie, I started to swear like a sailor. Needless to say, that little trick didn’t work out the way I’d planned, and frankly, it just made me look immature and unprofessional. When you’re brand new on the job, make sure you are always professional in your verbal communication. Go easy on the profanity, keep the humor to a minimum, and make sure you recognize and appreciate rank, titles, and seniority.

Our society has gotten away from “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” but it’s important to remember that law enforcement is a paramilitary profession which includes a rank structure and the need for some decorum. When you begin your career, address people by their titles (“Good morning Sergeant”) until you are told to do otherwise. This is especially important in the academy, and may even be a requirement. Even when you graduate basic and return to your agency for training, if you are asked a question, answer with “no ma’am” or “yes sir.” As you become more familiar with your co-workers or things become more relaxed you can use abbreviations like “Sarge” with the boss and first names with people you know well, but even if your Uncle Rocko is the shift commander at your sheriff’s department, you need to call him “Lieutenant” when other people are around. And don’t forget the civilian employees. That lady who is thirty years older than you who works in the Records Division? She’d better hear a “yes ma’am” or a “thank you” and see a smile every time you have contact with her. It’s called respect, and she has probably earned it.

Communicating With The Public

Most people go through life having little or no contact with the police, so when they do encounter a cop they are going to remember it. How well you communicate with the public is going to affect not only their experience (and yours) in that moment, but it’s probably going to have a significant ripple effect. Not only are they going to tell other people about their good (or bad) experience with the cop who took their report or gave them a ticket or handled their traffic crash, they are going to respond in kind to the next police officer they meet. Work hard to make sure that a citizen’s experience with you is positive, even if the situation is not a pleasant one.

Treat every victim with care, whether their entire home was just burglarized or someone stole their golf clubs out of the car that they stupidly left unlocked. When you roll up to take your 10th accident report of the day, keep in mind that while this is no big deal to you, it may be a frightening and unfamiliar event to the drivers. Imagine how you’d want your grandpa, father, little sister, or teenage son treated, and then act accordingly.

Cops also need to treat the bad guys with respect. New officers often make the mistake of treating every offender the same, whether they were caught speeding or committing a rape. “Talking tough” to an offender may make you feel better, but it’s probably not going to help you accomplish your goals. View every encounter you have as though you’re a detective and this is your case to solve. When you approach a driver for a traffic violation, smile, be polite, and if policy allows, ask them “Do you know why I’m stopping you?” Most will answer with a partial confession; “Well, I was probably going a little fast” or “I did sort of roll that stop sign.” After you complete the traffic stop, make a note of their statement, it will come in handy at traffic court.

When you take someone into custody, after they are secured and the situation allows, chat with them. I know plenty of great officers who cultivate productive informants from simple warrant arrests just by talking to them during the booking process. Once an offender is secured, even if you’ve been in a brawl with them, take control of the situation and start talking. Every good interrogator out there will tell you that you need to start out by establishing rapport and controlling your own emotions, and then start talking, listening, and reading their body language.

Your Non Verbal Communication

Most of our communication mistakes are the non-verbal kind. You can say “yes sir” to your FTO but if you do so while rolling your eyes, you’re not going to garner any good will. If you say “I’m soooo sorry that your expensive golf clubs were taken out of your unlocked car sir” in your best Bill Murray sarcasm-laced voice, that victim is going to know you don’t really care. Our thoughts and feelings tend to “leak out” through our bodies, our voice inflections, and our facial expressions, making us much more transparent that we realize. Be conscious of your tone of voice, the position of your body, and the gestures that you make while dealing with people. Study the science of non-verbal communication; it will help you immeasurably throughout your career.

Officer Safety is Still Number One

Don’t get so caught up in being a great communicator that you become complacent about officer survival. As several great police trainers have said about traffic stops: “Treat everyone in the vehicle with extreme politeness and respect while alternately having a plan to kill everyone inside if the situation calls for it.” Officer safety should be your first priority, but you don’t have to be a complete jerk to be safe. You can balance good communication with excellent officer survival…its all up to you. Stay safe!

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