Police officers should learn to SMILE. Based on my personal experience, and that of some of my co-workers, I strongly believe this concept will greatly reduce the number of verbal and physical altercations a police officer may find themself in, and reduce the number of discourtesy complaints against the officer.
Cadets in the police academy are indoctrinated from day one that they are in charge and in control, and to take charge and to take control of any situation. Unfortunately, these officers then go out and act heavy handed in situations that did not require them to have an “I am the law” attitude , taking control and taking charge. A very recent example took place a few weeks ago at my church when an older lady suffered a medical situation and drove up over the curb and almost hit the church building.
I was not there, but several church staff and volunteers were there to render aid while waiting for the police and EMS to arrive. One of them is a retired deputy from Sacramento County, California. The retired deputy told me that a young female officer showed up and she had the “I am the law” attitude and tough in charge demeanor right off the bat. The retired deputy said that instead of coming across as compassionate, the responding officer came across robotic and harsh. He said that the officer eventually “settled down” and chatted with the driver, even waited with the driver to be picked up by family, but the “damage” had been done. That critical first impression was tarnished. The retired deputy said he does not recall if the responding officer even asked if everyone was okay when she first arrived, and if she had, it was totally lost by her initial body language and her tone of voice.
Why did this officer feel that her initial approach to the call required a tough, take charge attitude and demeanor? I am pretty sure that on her screen the dispatch call would have noted that it was an accident on private property with an older lady suffering from a possible medical condition. What about that call looks like she needed to arrive like the cavalry arrivng to save the day? And if a complaint had been made about her “attitude”, Internal Affairs most likely would just look at whether policy and procedure was violated and MAYBE inform the officer that a complaint had been made about her attitude and tone of voice. But no real effort would be made to educate the young officer about how critical it is that she be very aware of her non-verbal communication.
I am aware that in my 20 years as a police officer, several co-workers were talked to about their interaction with the public. In fact, I know of officers who rather frequently receive discourtesy complaints from the public or who were talked to by other officers who never change. I believe they developed the attitude of “You police your way and and I’ll police my way. As long as I am not violating policy and procedure, it doesn’t matter to me what people think of me as I do my job”. These officers quickly developed the reputation of being heavy handed. Other officers would just shake their head, shrug, and say “That’s just the way they are.”
But what if cadets are taught very early in their career, first in the police academy and then with in-house training at their department, of how critical their non-verbal communication skills are? There is a principle called the law of first mention, which is more commonly used in regards to Biblical studies. I use it to illustrate how information is etched in our minds the first time we are taught or told something in an instructional context. The first time a young man is taught to hunt, change a tire, tie a knot, or the first time a young lady is taught how to cook a specific meal, or apply makeup. It can be very difficult to change how something is done, and I heard a story where this woman always cut off the ends of a particular cut of meat. She was asked why she did this and she replied that was how she was taught. I think it was her adult son who had started asking questions and to make a long story short, he was able to ask his great grandmother who told him that in the old days the family did not have a large enough pan, so the ends were cut off to make the meat fit. People are taught a behavior and action and it gets passed on and no one questions it.
Last October I was contacted by the training unit of the Coral Gables Police Department, Florida. We had a long chat over the phone about how young officers, even some old crusty veterans, really struggle with their people skills, their social and interaction skills, and often times a situation goes sideways that most likely could have been avoided. Take a look at this photo that was taken by one of my instructor/role players at the mall this past January…
The training unit at the Coral Gables Police Department asked me to put together a training course where my team and I will “train the trainers”, we will pass on what worked for us in our careers, and they will design their own training program to pass on to their officers. Based on my conversation with the Lieutenant at the CGPD training unit and my asking around other buddies of mine from the force, and noting all of our very similar experiences and philosophy on how we interacted with people, I came up with what I call the SMILE concept.
SMILE is an acronym for Soft Methodical Interaction for Law Enforcement. I had observed that young officers tend to start off too “harsh”, they arrive on scene with an “I am the law” attitude. I say start soft, start with a smile. A smile can always turn into a frown. Be Methodical and flexible, always maintain officer safety protocols and situation awareness and continuously assess the situation and be prepared to ratchet things up if necessary. Interact with a subject and the public using non-verbal skills too, be aware of what signals and messages your non-verbals may be transmitting. Interact by being in the moment and exercise reflective listening.
My team and I will spend 2 days in Coral Gables to educate them on the SMILE concept. We certainly do not expect changes to happen overnight, there has been a paradign of actions and behaviors going back decades. I am very well aware that there will be officers who will immediately just roll their eyes, content and convinced that they do not need to change or adjust anything about themselves, and there will be officers who will soak up the information and knowledge because it resonates with how they already want to interact with the people they come in contact with. I strongly believe that educating young officers early in their careers and making them aware of the powerful tool they have in their innate ability to communicate with non-verbals will begin the wheel moving with making changes. And one day we can say that it began with the Coral Gables Police Department, Florida.