Training to improve communication and community education

In some areas of policing, the line between a training program and its outcome is as clear as it is reproducible. Officers who take driving courses display improved skill and decision making in driving simulations (and presumably on the road), for instance, just like those who take crisis intervention training are generally better equipped to handle mental health calls. This cause-effect that is easily measured can make it easier for departmental decision-makers to choose the training their officers receive, and it gives those developing and presenting courses a top-of-the-list selling point.

Other outcomes are more difficult to measure through the lens of training. Such is the case with police-community relations, an ever-important metric to many departments, as well as their decision-makers and the lawmakers who govern them. While the idea that a better-trained force would leave its community more satisfied with the policing it receives seems like common sense, digging deeper raises several complex questions: How does the department define or quantify good community relations? Just how much priority should satisfaction be given, and which aspects of police work have the most impact on it? In addition, what must a department change in the pursuit of positive community relations?

It is difficult to define good police-community relations

To be sure, none of these questions have easy, or even single, answers. The last is arguably the least clear and most important, if only due to the huge variety of priorities, policing styles, and cultures found in departments around the country.

Defining good police-community relations may be of some help here – but coming to a concrete definition is highly challenging at best. Even the smallest departments carry out a broad number of tasks (and fill a broad number of roles) under the general banner of police work. The proverbial hat an officer wears when interacting with a given member of the community may be entirely different when the next interaction comes, no matter where that individual fits within the community. Multiply this concept on a community-wide scale and you begin to see how good relations can be far less objective than bad relations can be. Outrage and anger, in other words, are significantly easier to measure than a vague idea of happiness or satisfaction.

Science on this topic can help narrow things down, but only to a point. Studies and aggregate research generally agree that tone of interaction, interactions with friends and loved ones, perception of area crime, and frequency/type of media coverage are all critical factors. Yet, finding a single most important area outside of class-based and race-based perception – two determinants police across the country grapple with on a daily basis, and two of the hardest determinants to control with any real efficacy – varies from region to region and paper to paper.

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Does better communication yield better relations?

If coming to a singular definition of good relations is so difficult, then, how do police train to improve them? Initiatives are being undertaken and their results are undoubtedly being studied; many such changes are still in early implementation. Departments and lawmakers are employing various strategies to increase overall relations with the communities they serve while simultaneously examining their effectiveness.

When looking at the initiatives on a larger scale, a few common trends reveal areas that might be worth refining and adapting. Common to most community-relations initiatives is the idea of perception: training to help officers understand how the people they interact with may interpret their actions and words, regardless of intent, legality, or compliance with departmental practices.

Take interpersonal skills, for instance, a cornerstone of movements like community policing and an area policing experts see as a potential turning point for better community-police relations. Citizens are less likely to be satisfied with police if they feel disrespected, talked down to, or generally not communicated well with. With a high percentage of complaints in some regions, centering on nothing more than police language when politeness and professionalism are important for overall satisfactions, training officers on verbal and nonverbal communication in all its forms could help keep officers safe and the public happier.

Departments looking to improve community relations should consider instilling these interpersonal skills early. Most academies necessarily put their primary focus on core police skills, including effective use of force, yet “interpersonal communication and use of force are intertwined.” Instilling the belief that communicating more intelligently is a core policing skill could foster these skills into recruits from the start, setting expectations and fostering skills before a new cop ever hits the street.

In search of improved relations…

The focus on better communication is only the first stop for some departments. Whether or not they support a full-on change to community policing, many departments have begun to focus on department culture as a primary driver of better community relations, with training at the core of their initiatives.

Changes may come as a result of pressure from the community or in response to bad public relations at the local or national level. For others, the move may be more anticipatory in nature, a natural reflection of the community’s needs. Officers in Brookline, Massachusetts weren’t involved in any fatal shootings in 2015, but officials and departmental decision makers still recently decided the best way to gain public support is to reduce use of force through training. De-escalation, stress reaction, simulation, and critique from trainers all play heavily into these new focuses.

That is not to say force is the only factor in community relations, or training designed to foster positive relations. Besides the general trend toward demilitarization reflected in Brookline, other departments have implemented training focused on officer attitudes. Officers in Wilmington, Delaware, for instance, undergo training designed to build pride in one’s job and fight the natural tendency towards cynicism.

The latter effort may be of particular importance for departments in search of better relations. While it may be hard to draw a direct line between community relations/satisfaction and cynicism, the proportional relationship between cynicism, burnout, and poor performance has seen extensive study. Conventional knowledge and research show this cynicism and the problems it causes are “contagious,” as is its impact on community trust. Thus, training officers to approach their job with a sense of pride and giving them tools to prevent cynicism does not just make for a happier, more motivated force – it has a direct impact on community relations.

Looking to a different sort of training to repair relations

To some degree, a focus on officer education is necessary for departments looking to improve relations through training; officers are the only population that leadership has direct control over, practically speaking. At a higher level, training also gives these departments a talking point to address with the community when controversy or accusations arise, as well as a way to demonstrate their commitment to better relations.

Of course, placing an emphasis on officer training as the only factor implies a few assumptions that may not be correct. For instance, it subtly reinforces the opinion that officer behaviors and knowledge are the only factor behind community relations, and that improper police behavior is the sole cause of poor relations – a view no department would implicitly share with the public, and indeed one most departments would challenge without a second thought.

Combined with the above-stated idea that perspective breeds understanding, this could make “citizen police academies” and other outreach measures an attractive supplement to standard training. Giving the community a chance to learn about police methods, procedures, and responsibilities could help build relations in several ways. Besides setting basic expectations, a citizen’s academy gives police and their citizenry a chance to meet on neutral ground, not the stressful situations both parties often find themselves in when they first encounter one another.

Perhaps best of all, academies and outreach programs are not restricted to departments of certain population sizes, budgets, or needs. Academies are especially flexible, giving decision makers plenty of room to decide on what topics bear discussion. One department might host an academy night together with the local prosecutor’s office in the interest of giving participants a broader view of the justice system, while another might cover the basic aspects of different kinds of arrest, with the subtext of explaining the events of a recent, controversial interaction. As the above-linked resource notes, creativity is key.

Training is paramount

Like so many challenges in policing, community relations are a complex ecosystem, in which seemingly inconsequential actions may create echoes that reverberate for years. This complexity makes it hard to pinpoint any one set of actions or trainings as the best path to improvement.

On a general level, however, there are worthy guidelines. Whatever a department’s disposition towards or ability to implement community policing, borrowing tenets such as enhanced interpersonal education from the trend appears to be a smart jumping-off point. As more departments emphasize the importance of communication, citizen education, and reduction of cynicism, we will begin to see hard figures and clear trends emerge.

Learn More:

Blue Courage
Can Training Programs Help Improve Police-Community Relations? (The Atlantic)
From Warriors to Guardians: New Perspectives in Policing Report Recommends Culture Change for Law Enforcement (Harvard Kennedy School)
The How’s and Why’s of Police-Community Relations and Diversity (City of Stockton)
Initiatives for Enhancing Community Relations PDF (Aurora Police Department)
Performance Metrics to Improve Police-Community Relations (Rand)
Police officers’ attitudes, behavior, and supervisory influences: An analysis of problem solving (University of Cincinnati)
Police Officers Debate Effectiveness Of Anti-Bias Training (NPR)
Recruit Training: Are we preparing officers for a community oriented department? (Community Policing Dispatch)
Training aims to improve police-community relations in Ohio (Akron Beacon Journal)

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