Police officer’s condescending tone of voice and attitude created and escalated stress during a “simple” traffic stop in June, 2019, in Connecticut. The officer stopped the vehicle for speeding, and as he makes contact with the driver, who sounded confused, but polite and even cheerful with his greeting to the officer, the officer responds to the driver was a condescending “you” statement, “What are you doing on the phone?” at the 1:34 minute of the in-car video from the cruiser. The officer’s very first words to the driver is condescending. Based on my experience, I knew at that 1:34 minute moment the “tone” for the traffic stop had been set. Police officers are taught and trained to react and respond to the person they are dealing with, but what happens when it is the officer who sets the tone of the contact by his or her attitude, demeanor, tone of voice and words or phrases used?
At the very top of the list of teaching points in pretty much ANY de-escalation class is the universal truth that EVERYONE wants to be treated with respect, and starting off a contact and conversation with ANYONE, ANYWHERE by using a condescending tone of voice with an accusatory “you” statement is very rude, confrontational and disrespectful. In the early years of my career as a police officer, I ALWAYS greeted a driver I had just stopped with a friendly greeting, because I know that being stopped by the police can be stressful. I greeted them and explained why I stopped them, and I let them talk, I engaged with them. I treated them with respect. And then years later it became policy and procedure at my department, because of situations very similar to the incident I am writing about, that upon making a traffic stop our officers will greet the driver, identify ones self, explain the reason for the stop and then ask for drivers license, registration and insurance papers. I was already pretty much doing all that because I felt it was the right thing to be doing in the first place. Don’t misunderstand me, there were times when I had to take a very different approach to the person based on the situation, but generally the VAST majority of “simple” traffic stops, like in this incident in Connecticut, do NOT require a hard nosed, “I am the law around here and I am in charge” attitude and demeanor!
Eye contact is critical to establish rapport and connection with another human being. You are much more apt to successfully de-escalate a situation if you can establish a connection with the other person, and lifting your sunglasses for a brief, quick moment to make eye contact can help you do that. I use to lift my sunglasses for a quick moment to greet the driver and explain the stop, even if he or she did not do the same with their sunglasses, and then I would put them back down over my eyes.
To be fair, the officer did allow the driver to vent, which is good because people want to be treated with respect and one way we can do that for people is let them speak, let them vent. The driver maintained a calm but frustrated voice, however the officer in this incident continued to be condescending with some of his responses and comments with the driver, even commenting, “You don’t even know where you are?” in a condescending tone when the driver expressed uncertainty as to where he was exactly since he is not from the area. (He was taking his friend in the passenger seat to a nearby hospital for her oncology appointment).
This police officer’s condescending tone of voice and attitude created and escalated stress during a “simple” traffic stop, so can officers do different? Again, this is for the vast majority of “simple” traffic stops because everything is situation dependent, but generally, officers can greet the driver upon first contact with a friendly greeting, take a quick moment to make eye contact (that also takes away the dark lens so that you can clearly see inside the vehicle for officer safety) and AVOID using a condescending and sarcastic tone of voice!
There was a complaint made against this officer, who was found to have not violated any rules, policy or procedures, and was found to have acted “professionally”. From watching the video, and from my own experiences, I believe he could have acted more professionally.
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