When I broke in at the Central Los Angeles Area of the California Highway Patrol, I knew I was going to be busy. I expected to be taught by my break-in officers the skills I would need to stay on top of my radio calls and my reports, and how to stay safe. What I didn’t expect was the lesson that I think was the most important one that I learned and the one that I tried to pass along to other officers throughout my career.
That lesson was relatively simple: Every public contact I made was an opportunity to make a good impression of myself and of the California Highway Patrol.
What We Do, How They Feel
In a city of 3 million people, it was quickly apparent to me that very few people actually have any interaction with law enforcement, let alone know a cop. With that infrequent interaction, most people get their opinions and beliefs of law enforcement from other sources: family, friends, and, of course, the media.
While there are over 10,000 cops in Los Angeles, the only officer who gets any media attention is the one who is being scrutinized for his or her actions. An officer may have rescued a family from a burning building, but if somewhere else in the city an individual is claiming they were harmed by another officer, that incident will be on the front page. It will lead on the evening news. These days, it will also be all over social media, with commentary from people the world over. The officers who rescued the family that same day? They’ll be lucky if they get a sidebar.
So it’s the individual contacts, made by thousands of officers on a daily basis, that can and will form the majority of public opinion. The stories of those individual contacts will be told over and over and will serve as the foundation for opinions formed in public forums for years to come.
The premise of this lesson transcends all aspects of the job. Making a good impression starts with how you view and treat people.
I was taught to treat everyone with respect. That did not mean that I had to allow anyone to berate or belittle me. It meant instead that when I was confronted with a demeaning attitude, I did my best to respond in a manner that would elevate the situation. I aspired to and conducted my business on a level that I set. I was also taught to never drop my guard, or compromise my safety or the safety of the individuals I contacted. I would strive to extend that olive branch of peace, while holding the arrows of war at the ready.
So how do you accomplish this multi-level maneuver? One method is fairly simple, you make the individual you contact feel and believe that your interaction with them is the most important thing you will do all day. Whether it a traffic violation, a minor fender-bender collision, or a simple property crime report, you greet the individual by proudly introducing yourself and your department and immediately state the reason for your contact.
You may be able to quickly defuse a potentially stressful situation by presenting yourself as being human and allowing the individuals you contact to be human too. I’d be willing to bet, better than 80% percent of the traffic citations I issued ended with the violator saying, “Thank you.”
Usually the violator would then quickly qualify that comment by saying something like, “I don’t mean thank you for the ticket …” I knew what they meant: They meant to say thank you for treating them with respect.
Despite the sensationalism portrayed in the mainstream media, the majority of public opinion is still supportive of law enforcement and do not want to reduce the number of officers on the street*. As professional law enforcement officers, as with any professional group, trust and public approval are important pillars. Gaining and maintaining that approval is all of our jobs. Continuing to interact with people on a level of mutual respect will go a long way in maintaining and building trust and a mutual respect between your department and the community you serve.
Remember: All it takes to be excellent is to do a little better every day.
*Policing in America, Cato Institute, Emily Ekins, PhD, 2016