In our last post, we introduced the Think CLEAR Approach to Law Enforcement Professionalism. The goal of Think CLEAR is to increase officer safety while simultaneously improving the quality of contacts with citizens. We call this an approach, rather than a framework, a model, or checklist, because it’s not rigid or sequential and all the elements are interrelated. It is designed to be a flexible approach to officer/citizen encounters and help officers focus on individual areas of performance. It can also serve as an effective evaluative tool for FTO’s and Trainers.
Let’s examine the first part of the Think CLEAR approach, Communication. To any experienced police officer, it is no-brainer that a critical element of officer/citizen encounters is effective communication. They teach it to us at the academy, it is generally reinforced during our Field Training experience, and hopefully we carry it with us as we are released into our duty assignments. The old saying “it’s easier to talk someone into handcuffs than fight them into handcuffs” still rings true today. But let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to communicate with some people than others. So what do we do?
For starters, let’s be cautious about getting drawn into the latest “buzzwords”. De-escalation. Diffusion. Disengagement. Those are just a few of the latest buzzwords we hear when talking about officer/citizen interactions and use of force. According to many (including those who have literally zero knowledge of police interactions), these phrases are the antidote to the disease of alleged police brutality. While I don’t deny there are techniques that may calm down an agitated person (which we will discuss), we must realize that communication alone cannot prevent all use of force incidents. To suggest so is fallacy and dangerous to both officers and the public. Effective communication is a tool for improving safety and improving the quality of contacts, but it is not a panacea for eliminating use of force incidents as some have suggested. We must also accept that there are times, due to increased time constraints, tactical considerations, or other officer/subject variables, that officers simply cannot de-escalate.
That’s why our first rule of good communication is communicate from a position of safety. What does that mean? It means we don’t place ourselves in a position of tactical disadvantage, for the sake of building rapport, especially when we have information that the person may be mentally ill or prone to violence. We can use the advantage of cover, concealment, physical barriers, and/or distance to effectively engage people, without being defensive or intimidating. There is no evidence that I know of that suggests engaging someone from behind a physical barrier (such as the corner of a patrol car) prevents effective communication and rapport building. We do however have examples of officers placing themselves at a tactical disadvantage to engage in conversation, with tragic results.
One such example occurred in Abingdon, MD on February 10th, 2016. Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, responded to a Panera Bread restaurant to investigate a citizen complaint of a man who had allegedly been involved in an attempted murder 17 years prior. According to witnesses, Deputy Dailey identified the subject, David Brian Evans sitting at a table, pulled up a chair, and sat down at the table across from him to engage him in conversation. Unfortunately for Deputy Dailey, before a single sentence could be exchanged, Evans shot and killed him. Evans also killed another responding Deputy, Senior Deputy Mark Logsdon, before event eventually being shot and killed (see full story here). We should honor the sacrifices of these deputies, by learning from their incidents. Rule #1 of effective communication, communicate from a position of safety.
What are your thoughts? How do you communicate from a position of safety? What are your suggestions for improving communication, while not sacrificing safety?
In the next post, we’ll discuss recognizing signs of combative energy during contacts and some effective ways of subtracting from the combative energy.