Be cool

We live in stressful times. Job insecurity, skyrocketing prices, homes in foreclosure, evaporating retirements – almost everyone is seeing some part of his or her dream change shape and, in some cases, disappear entirely. Economic pressures make policing both challenging and stressful.

Certainly, this is not a new thing. Law enforcement officers over the past few decades have noticed rising public angst and its effect on courtesy and attitudes. Anyone who has ever strapped on a John Brown belt understands that dealing with unhappy, abusive people is an unfortunate, but necessary part of this business. It’s like a teacher coming into contact with students or a minister with parishioners – we interact with individuals who are in crisis due to the nature of our profession.

And there’s no doubt that stress also ups the danger quotient. In my opinion, both disregard for human life and increased access to sophisticated weapons have never been more rampant or serious threats than they are now. Anger, frustration, eroding core values and the proliferation of mentally ill individuals on the streets have also combined to create a volatile and almost inescapable social cocktail of risk. But violence isn’t the only dangerous byproduct of an unsettled society.

When individuals are deeply unhappy, they tend to lash out at those they perceive as being “part of the problem.” Unfortunately for criminal justice professionals, in the minds of some, authority figures often fall into that category. Officers are discovering that citizens who once would have had their backs are quick to criticize in these difficult days, less likely to support salary and benefit demands and generally tight-fisted when it comes to government expenditures.

Following on the heels of all of this bad economic news, police face the prospect of ordinary taxpayers who are usually supportive of their work becoming less so. Now it’s not simply the victims, witnesses and perpetrators with which law enforcement officers must deal – they must also face an unhappy constituency of taxpayers that measures every penny that’s spent by their government.

That means the stress level of a job that is defined by stress has accelerated. How can police managers maintain morale while keeping the lines of communication open with the public? I think officers need to be gently reminded that a level head and professional demeanor will leave taxpayers with the right impression of its law enforcement; that curt, abrupt or irritable encounters with the public they serve will only make things go that much harder during the next round of budget considerations. At a time when many departments find programs, positions and equipment on the chopping blocks, officers must react to higher stress levels by channeling their inner Gandhi.

Just as a soft voice often quiets a louder one, countering stressed-out citizens with a calm, professional, low-key demeanor may help, and it certainly won’t hurt. When the economy is better, police can cash in those “good will” chips they’ve earned by virtue of their putting the public’s mood in the proper perspective. Tomorrow those chips could buy higher salaries, more positions and new equipment.

The bottom line is that people who rarely deal with the police – your typical law-abiding taxpayer – may form an opinion of your department based on a split second of contact. If officers interpret command presence to mean that they can be rude and pushy, then this is what that member of John Q. Public will take away as his or her impression of your officers and your department. Bad experiences have a nasty way of coming back and biting us.

There has never been a more important time to remind officers that while solving the big cases creates headlines, treating the public they serve with courtesy and dignity creates a lasting impression that will follow your department out of this recession and into future budget deliberations. You only stand to gain future ground when you implement good public relations.