This month’s Law Enforcement Technology features an array of new technological gadgets that two decades ago would have seemed impossible. But as much as some things change, others remain the same. One important constant that officers from every generation share with those who came before them is the need for good, strong people skills. It’s critically important not to lose sight of how vital developing those skills can be, even in this wondrous age of technological marvels.
Never has personal human contact less been valued than it is at this point in time. We’re on Facebook and Twitter and Chat. We text, we email and we surf the Internet for what interests us, then we forward it to our friends. But what we don’t do is talk to one another, and unless police commanders make it a point to encourage their officers to better communicate with their constituents, police work will stumble.
Communication is the bedrock of what police do. You can have all of the CCTV camera footage in the world, terrific biometrics, computer forensics, tech support, the ability to analyze evidence in the field and other amazing tools, but unless officers can actually talk to the people they serve and do it well, with empathy, conviction and skill, a department will fail in its mission. That agency will be viewed as something to fear or resist.
People skills, including good old-fashioned word of mouth, have solved more cases than mountains of evidence. We learn about crimes, gather evidence, convict the guilty and separate out the innocent through talking to people. It’s an inescapable part of the job. And we tend to downplay this when we train our officers.
Sure, we teach them command skills. We teach them interviewing skills, but do we really go the distance and make sure our officers have true people skills?
In recent years, I’ve heard from too many people whose experiences with police have been less than acceptable. They recount exchanges that were gruff, impolite or indifferent. In some cases, citizens have felt officers were not only uninterested in them and their issues, but also that they were rude. That’s not the way we should roll as a profession.
If we’re not careful, we’ll neglect the chance to foster good people skills in our officers as we rely more heavily on technology to help us solve cases and prevent crime. In the process, we’re going to lose a lot of public support, as well as valuable information resources. Here’s what I recommend criminal justice managers consider at a minimum to keep their staff at optimal levels when it comes to dealing with the public:
- Emphasize good report-writing skills. Someone who can write well can also express his or her thoughts well. Not only will officers become better communicators on paper, they will grow conversationally (and your district attorney will also appreciate it).
- Put your officers on foot every once in a while. While it might not be possible to sustain entire walking beats, it helps officers get to know the citizens in their jurisdictions when they interact with them.
- Have them read the local newspaper. Require staff to stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the world and in their jurisdiction, in particular. If they come across as uninformed, they’ll inspire anything but confidence.
- Emphasize politeness and courtesy. Rude, abrupt behavior should not be tolerated and include role-playing in your training schedule. Remind them that good people skills can be helpful not only in showing the department’s best side to the public, but it actually encourages people to come forward.
Don’t let a lack of people skills sink your agency’s reputation.