How these 3 basic concepts can improve police communication

Think of your voice and ability to project critical information as a vital piece of safety equipment

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to design and host a series of training exercises for tactical units of local and federal law enforcement agencies. These events focused on applying best practices and lessons learned from the combat aviation community to build high-performance teams through trust, communication, and leadership development. 

Police work is a team effort and since all good teams find a way to communicate effectively, it came as no surprise when I observed the best LE teams coordinating their actions through clear, concise and correct communications. 

These three concepts may seem simple, but we sometimes lose sight of them in the daily thrash. Since effective intradepartmental field communications (cops-cops or cops-dispatch) are foundational to your work, let’s take a few moments to review the basics. 

1. Be Clear

Much of the communications calculus involves being heard, and then understanding the intent of the message — both of which requires clarity. Physiological reactions to high stress such as auditory exclusion and deteriorated cognitive processing place an even higher premium on the value of clarity. 

Here are five concepts on clarity to consider:

  • Some of you patrol in a city or county where terrain or cell towers interfere with public safety radio networks. If you must respond to a call where you know your radio will not work, how should it change your tactics? Would you call for backup preemptively? Does your dispatch know of these areas and would they automatically assign a second car to the call? Could you use your cell phone instead of your radio? 
  • Under stress, do the speed, volume and or pitch of your voice change? Do you pronounce words clearly? If you are unsure about how clear you sound on the radio, I encourage you to ask your dispatcher, a co-worker or listen to the tapes yourself. 
  • Think about the impact of environmental noise (e.g., sirens, traffic, and wind) on the clarity of your radio communications and minimize their impact when practical. If you are not the lead unit and are “calling the pursuit” should your siren be activated? 
  • Some agencies choose to broadcast in code only, some in plain language (clear text) only, and some use a combination of both. Either way, all good radio communications protocols offer unambiguous messaging. Change them if they don’t. Law enforcement “10 codes” and “11 codes” are not universal — variations exist across agencies. What happens when agencies who do not share common brevity codes work together? In these situations, and as discussed in the 2008 National Incident Management System, plain language/clear text should rule the day. It is also a generally good idea to adopt radio protocols that require information be broadcasted in a standardized sequence (e.g., who you are, where you are and what you want). Doing so makes transmitting critical information easier under stress and allows recipients to anticipate important language. 
  • Reducing ambiguity is also crucial to how you interact with your partner or fellow officer on scene. If your partner is the contact officer on a traffic stop and shouts "gun!" what is your expected response as his cover? If “gun” represents a key word with specific meaning you both train to, that training directs your action. If it isn’t a key word, how will you know what is really meant? The gun may be an immediate threat requiring lethal force on your part, or not. How will you act in that split second of decision space when lives are at stake? 

2. Be Concise

Get to the point with the least amount of words, in the shortest time possible. Concise language provides the following three benefits:

  • It requires less cognitive processing for the recipient by removing irrelevant information – this is especially important under high stress. 
  • It expedites your focus back to primary tasks (controlling the situation/officer safety) and frees up your hands if they were used to operate the radio. 
  • It opens the radio channel for support assets to coordinate on your behalf or allows other officers to transmit critical communications for a different incident.

3. Be Correct

Say the right thing the first time — every time. Consider these two things: 

  • If you incorrectly transmit your location, backup can’t find you quickly. Saying nothing for a few seconds while you compose your thoughts is better than saying something wrong, fast. Compose the thought, and then listen as you say it to ensure it came out correctly. 
  • Provide complete information. It is possible to provide technically correct information that is incomplete to the point the entire communication just isn’t right. For example, if time and conditions permit, a complete call for assistance during an active shootout would tell responding units what direction to arrive from, not just the location and situation. Without it, they may drive through the kill zone or compromise clear fields of fire.

Much of this applies to interacting with the people you serve, too. Think of your voice and ability to project critical information as a vital piece of safety equipment – and like all safety equipment, you must train effectively and routinely with it. Practice on your way in to work by visualizing scenarios and rehearsing the associated communications formats aloud. Not only will this make your communications better, but it will also prime you mentally for the upcoming shift. Doing so will make you a more effective cop, and on the toughest day, it may save your life. 

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