5 ways patrol officers can revamp and reignite their empathy
It’s not enough to simply recite, “I can see how that would upset you”
In 1967 the Beatles suggested that all the world’s problems could be resolved with love. While I am not qualified to determine if they were right, I do think there is merit to that basic sentiment.
Patrol officers can practice a similar mindset to improve public interaction, de-escalate volatile situations and effect positive change. It may not be as catchy as the Beatles tune, “All You Need is Empathy” is just as vital.
Empathy can be defined as the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes. I would go further and say that real empathy involves 1) understanding why a person feels what they feel, and 2) actually caring about why they feel that way. So what can we do to incorporate empathy into patrol? First, we need to take a trip down memory lane.
1. Remember why you became an officer
For many of us, we were idealistic and hoped we could make the world a better place. For others, it was simply the desire to help people. Do you still have that same motivation? Can you look back to the day you graduated from the academy and pinned your badge for the first time? I bet you were thrilled to swear that oath and get out there to help people.
I remind myself of that feeling each evening as I put my uniform together for my next shift. The title on my badge may have changed, but at heart, I am still that fresh-faced rookie who wants to help others. Think about your “why” as you pin on each part of your uniform. Begin each day the same way you started your career and remind yourself of your desire to help people.
2. Focus on the times you have helped people
Being a police officer is a difficult job. Do it anyway. Throughout your career, you have had a significant impact on the people you encountered. Picture the relief a lost motorist felt when you gave them directions. You may have given those directions a thousand times, but to that person, you saved them from an incredibly stressful situation. Remind yourself how thankful a stranded motorist was when you changed their tire in the rain. It is easy to get focused on the high-speed “real” police work, but even the mundane calls can make someone’s life better. When you have downtime, think about those calls.
3. Learn their stories
Patrol officers are often asked to manage difficult situations involving people in crisis. Learn those people’s stories. Before we can see the world through their eyes, we need to understand their history. We do this by using the same skills taught to police negotiators.
Ask open-ended questions. We’re not going to resolve all their problems in a brief encounter, so focus on the present. Some questions I like to use are, “What happened today to cause you to call the police?” or “Tell me what happened.” Open-ended questions encourage a person to tell their story. If there is a lull in the conversation, I like to ask, “Tell me more about that.” When asking open-ended questions, you must listen to their answers. Don’t interrupt or ask more questions while they are speaking. Remember, our goal is to learn their story.
4. Care about their story.
For many officers, this is the hardest step to incorporating empathy on patrol. Police officers are asked to see and do things most people cannot. That has an effect over time and can sometimes cause us to shut down our emotions. But emotion is the information that lets us better understand and care about a person’s story.
You might never have experienced what they're experiencing, but you should imagine how it feels. If you’re struggling to imagine it for yourself, picture your friends or a family member in a similar situation. This may make you uncomfortable. That is OK.
5. Show that you care. Like, really show it.
Statements like, “I can see how difficult that must be” or "I can see how that would upset," acknowledge their feelings in a nonjudgmental way that shows you care. But this is not enough. You must actually care for these words to have meaning. It’s not just cops who are good at detecting disingenuousness. People will see right through your façade if you don’t care.
I encourage you to put these empathy tactics to use on your next shift. Try to see the world through the eyes of the people you encounter. Let them know you care. Let empathy be the key to affecting positive change in your community.