10 Tips for Talking with Kids
When responding to calls for police service, children can at times be our best sources for information. Whether they are sought out as the only English speaker in a foreign language speaking household to give an account of an incident or they’re a victim you need to speak with, the junior members of our society can be a powerful addition to your case.
Here are ten tips on approaching a child, building a rapport, and eliciting information from them.
1. Remove your hat. If you are with an agency that wears hats, removing the hat will make you appear less intimidating.
2. Use the child’s turf. Try to speak with the child in an area that he or she is familiar with and comfortable in. Talking at the police or sheriff’s department facility may be too scary.
3. Get down on their level. Try to sit in a smaller chair or stoop down so that you are at the child’s eye level. This tip also goes a long way to lessening the fear factor.
4. Use your first name. When you introduce yourself, use your first name and explain that you are a police officer, deputy sheriff, etc. Avoid long official-sounding titles.
5. Emphasize help. Stress to the child that as a police officer, you are there to help them. Many children see law enforcers as people who just haul folks to jail. This situation isn’t helped (and we’ve all seen this) by the many parents who sit in restaurants and point to officers while telling their child that if they don’t eat their food, the officers will take him to jail.
6. Compliment the child. Tell the child something positive. Tell them that you like their shirt or other clothing to show that you are not a threat.
7. Show and tell. Ask the child to show you one of their toys. Children love to show their toys and tell people about them. Now that they have told you about a comfortable subject, they may be more open about other things.
8. Give with caution. Give the child a stuffed bear or similar item. When I was a police chief, I attended a dinner where I accepted a donation of stuffed bears that we put into every marked patrol unit. We also stocked the cars with plastic junior police officer badges, pencils, and the like. But be careful, especially when the child in your case is a victim. Some law enforcement agencies and district attorney’s offices have guidelines on giving gifts to children. The fear is that your action may later be construed as “bribing” your victim for a statement.
9. Parental presence. Depending on the situation and your local policies, you may need to have the child’s parent, legal guardian, or attorney present. Be sure you’re current on your local protocol before you start your chat. Also, be mindful of who else is present during your talk as that person may create fear on the part of the child.
10. Check with your supervisor. If you are in doubt about whether you should speak with the child, check with your supervisor. For example, some departments discourage patrol officers from speaking in detail with any child victim of sexual assault. That is usually done at a safe house location by specially trained staff.
Children are a useful, and precious, resource for you on a call. Care should be used to involve them in a way that ensures they’re helped and not marginalized.