Perhaps today more than ever, it is crucial that police and law enforcement professionals have the interpersonal skills necessary to effectively communicate with fellow officers, subordinates, higher ups, community members, other departments and jurisdictions, and the court systems. Police communication skills — needed to investigate crimes; de-escalate situations; build trust with communities; and write memos, reports and grants — are crucial for all law enforcement professionals, especially those with leadership aspirations.
Communication Skills are the Secret to Success for Top Law Enforcement Professionals
Many of the top officers and professionals in law enforcement have said cited effective communication skills as a key ingredient to their success. That’s because the most successful law enforcement leaders understand how to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds under varying and often unpredictable conditions. They use communication to build trust, create transparency and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and empathy, be it in the office, on the streets or in the courtroom.
In Aurora, Illinois, Kristen Ziman was appointed chief of police, making headlines as one of only “219 female chiefs in the more than 14,000 police departments nationwide.” According to her predecessor Greg Thomas, it was her “work ethic and communication skills” that made her an especially good choice for the position. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune interviewed, Ziman said, “of all the things we talked about when I sat down with her for a few hours one recent morning, the word the new chief kept bringing up time and again was ‘communication.’” The Tribune continued:
“Being able to relate to others, whether that includes the 289 members of her police department, a concerned neighborhood group or a young suspect sitting in the back of a squad car, is a major reason Ziman is sitting behind the chief’s desk today. It’s the ‘art and skill of communication’ that has helped hone her police chops, she insists. And it’s finding as many ways as possible, including social media, to connect to this city’s residents that will help her become an even stronger leader in these challenging times for police officers. ‘I want to be reachable … to be touchable,’ she says of the residents she serves and the officers she leads.”
Detective Sergeant Edwin Pantoja is a 27-year veteran of law enforcement and founder of ForceEffects Training. Pantoja wrote in a recent USA Today article, “Let me be clear: My No. 1 tool for the past 27 years has been my communication skills. I’ve worked in a city with highly trafficked bars for most of my career, dealing with drunken patrons and bar fights on a weekly basis.”
Breaking Down the Language Barrier for Better Communication
As evident in Kristen Ziman’s success, being able to relate to others is crucial when you are working in law enforcement – and that includes relating to and communicating with the many ethnic groups that make up the United States. Today the U.S. is home to more Spanish speakers than Spain itself, according to the Instituto Cervantes, and is the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico. Which is why learning Spanish as a second language can be so beneficial for members of law enforcement. It can be hard enough to communicate with suspects and community members when you speak the same language, not to mention when there is a language barrier involved. As James Anderson, director of the RAND Institute’s Justice Policy Program, told the Associated Press, “Essentially, a police department’s ability to build trust with an ethnic community is difficult if you literally can’t talk to them.” And in many cities, such as Atlantic City, New Jersey, there are a multitude of languages represented. In Atlantic City alone residents speak 37 different languages.
As the diversity of citizens in the United States continues to grow, police departments are actively seeking officers and law enforcement professionals who possess Spanish language skills– and many of these departments are willing to pay a premium for those skilled candidates. For example, in Burbank, California, officers receive an additional $100 per month for being bilingual and the Salem, Oregon, police department offers a 5% pay incentive for bilingual Spanish speakers.
Additionally there are a number of language training programs geared specifically toward police officers, such as the free online language training courses offered through the National Institute of Justice.
Communication is Key in De-Escalation Strategies
Communication is also being heavily relied upon to help change police perceptions and improve community relations. In response to events that have taken place over the last few years, such as the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the high level of community–police tensions that currently exist across the country, police departments are increasingly focused on de-escalation strategies when it comes to training officers, making arrests and interacting with community members. What many of the best chiefs and officers have long known is that communication, done right, works. As Edwin Pantoja stated in his USA Today article, “Officers who are trained and efficient in verbal communications and basic take-down techniques rarely receive excessive use-of-force complaints.” And that’s precisely what de-escalation aims to do – utilize communication skills to cut down on the use of force and reduce the number physical encounters between officers and civilians.
De-escalation in policing is a technique that attempts to reverse the long taught and encouraged method of applying force to control a situation. Instead, de-escalation attempts to diffuse a situation through peaceful means such as speaking calmly, showing empathy and asking open-ended questions to engage people in a real dialogue rather than demanding answers and exhibiting displays of power and authority. As the New York Times reported,
“Officers at police academies have always been trained in de-escalation, but there has been less emphasis on such methods over the past 20 years. A recent Police Executive Research Forum survey of 281 police agencies found that the average young officer received 58 hours of firearms training and 49 hours of defensive tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training.”
Now, in an attempt to repair relations with community members and increase their effectiveness, many departments including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Chicago Police Department are beginning to put more emphasis on de-escalation strategies and training.
A key component of de-escalation is the proper use of communication. In Clarkstown, New York, the police department is “arming its officers with words and honing their communication skills in an effort to prevent conflict.” Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said in a Boston Globe article, “If we can use language and presence to get people to comply with lawful orders, we can consider that a win.” And Las Vegas Sgt. Miguel Garcia remarked in a Sun Herald article, “It’s different police work. There’s more talking to people. Now we’re teaching to have patience, step back … which is good. Good for the (police), good for the community.”
But learning how to communicate with diverse populations and with suspects and community members who may be dealing with addiction, mental illness, poverty, or any number of afflictions is not easy. Communication techniques and skills, especially as they apply to modern police work, must be learned and practiced in order to be effective. That’s why training and higher education for police officers is so crucial.
Many law enforcement personnel are seeking outside educational resources to help them develop their communication and leadership skills. Programs like the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership include entire graduate-level courses on topics such as “Communication for Law Enforcement Leaders,” and “Conflict Resolution and Decision Making.” And the curriculum is resonating with students. As Eddie Brock, a San Diego County Sheriff Lieutenant said, “A police officer with a limited education will see one way to solve a problem in the community. He will solve it as he knows how, with a stick and a gun. The educated officer on the other hand might see the problem from different angles, bringing in different resources to solve a problem, not just the law. Education causes you to think slower and think broader.”