The Power of One Time

A 16th-century Japanese twist on modern policing

By Art Carlos  |   Feb 11, 2019

2019 marks the 30th year I’ve been involved in Japanese martial arts. During my 30 years, I’ve been fortunate to have trained with a number of Japanese Masters. I’ve found many parallels from the martial arts context to the law enforcement profession. None of the wonderful teachings I have received seem to be as timely or as profound as the Japanese idiom “Ichi-Go Ichi-E,” which translates to “One time, one meeting.”

In Japanese, these powerful words can also be used in the context of “for this time only.” Even though this Japanese idiom is not well known outside of Japanese culture, it quintessentially describes most contacts people have with law enforcement officers. The vast majority of citizens living and working in communities served by various sheriffs or police departments have limited personal interactions with law enforcement. Obviously, there are always those “usual” subjects who seem to have repeated contacts or arrests, but these are outliers and not the norm. The reality is that the average citizen has little to no direct contact with police.

Inspiration for Law Enforcement

That is why this particular idiom seems to be timely and rich for most law enforcement departments and the cultural shifts that have been occurring in our society today. In my PD, we’ve seen a drop in the average age of our officers, faster than ever before. The officer with 20-plus years of experience has become the exception on any one of our shifts. Those experienced officers are being replaced with officers with 5 – 8 years of service. Ironically, in today’s environment, the officers with 5 years are sometimes referred to as “veterans.”

So, how does this idiom’s meaning relate to the cultural direction we seem to be headed to?

In the grind of daily shift work, departmental goals, endless daily tasks of things to get done before shift’s end—along with other routine objectives, like grocery shopping and picking up the kids from school—we can lose sight of the simple fact that each human interaction has value. Most of our citizen contacts are unique. We will likely never see these citizens again, and, if we do, it will never be in the same context.

Each Call For Service (CFS) is usually caused by an extraordinary set of circumstances that have caused a citizen to seek our intervention. Whether that contact was based on someone feeling compelled enough to drive down to your station (field office), flag down of an officer in the field, or a traffic violation that you initiated—each of these is a rare set of conditions that has led to you contacting this person.

Sometimes those of us who have been in the profession for more than a decade lose sight of the fact that human interaction matters. Simply put, we forget why we started. There’s the danger of losing sight of the impact you can have on that individual, in that moment, when all the calls seem to run together. “Ichi-Go Ichi-E” brings us back to the context of the uniqueness of this particular call. With this in mind, we focus on becoming present to the individual we are interacting with.

Another way to define this type of interaction is ‘being mindful.’ This is not a new concept, in fact this particular idiom can be traced back to Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591), a 16th Century Tea Master. Whether in a tea ceremony, a martial arts match, or a call for service, conscientiousness matters. This citizen must understand that they are more than just your routine. They might not like the outcome, but the of quality the interaction is tantamount and most departmental mission statements attest to as much.

Ultimately we’re in the work of community service. Our citizens must feel valued and that because of you their quality of life is improved. This grand vision is only accomplished by recognizing and valuing each individual meeting between the line officer with the community members they serve.

In Sum

As I near the end of my career, I am struck by just how law enforcement administrators and middle management leadership seem to struggle to develop a new way of instilling this value into the line personnel. They look to create tactical communication models, mindful policing practices, and a whole host of other ideas looking to move law enforcement forward. Sometimes the best way forward is looking backward. I propose we consider what a 16th-century Japanese idiom may have to offer us now.

But how is this accomplished? Perhaps by taking deliberate actions to meet with younger officers or deputies at random points throughout the course of a work week and by making a follow-up phone call to citizens. We must reinforce in our officers that although they will handle countless calls in the course of a career, none matters more than one in front of you. This can help facilitate the paradigm shift, and these small acts of intentional action slowly developinto relationships and culture.

Bottom line: People—both citizens and line staff—respond to sincerity interactions. Each interaction is a unique meeting that provides the opportunity to recognize the individual and the service, and not get lost in the grind. Perhaps, a bit of 1600 century Tea Master will filter through to this next generation. Embracing “Ichi-Go-Ichi-E” can matter now more than ever in modern policing.