Debunking the myth of 'customer service' in law enforcement

Treating our 'customers' with dignity and respect is a laudable, achievable goal — but the traditional concepts of customer service just don't apply to cops

Think about anytime you have ever had to call another law enforcement agency on the phone. Let me ask you this: What is the very first thing you say when a representative of that other agency picks up? I’ll tell you what you say: some variation of “I’m a cop.”

I ask that question in my classes all the time, and it’s always greeted by laughter. Cops all know the answer, and they know why they begin the way they do. Their immediate declarative statement, “I’m a cop,” is made for one reason and one reason only: We don’t want to be treated the way we treat everybody else.

When you call your own department, do you ever notice the attitude transmitted by the person who answers the phone? In all too many cases, the person’s general tone and paralinguistic demeanor reeks of “What do you want, you pain-in-the-ass citizen?” I regularly hear complaints from cops about the attitude of dispatchers, receptionists, and records clerks in their departments... but the subject of internal communication in organizations is a subject for another whole book.

I know from my own experience that putting in a call to the local police can be an unpleasant experience. In the suburb where I live, we have to call the Police Department if our cars are going to be parked on the street overnight. (This probably doesn’t make any sense to most of you, but that’s the way it is.) My seven kids have a thousand friends, and most of them drive. Kids are always coming over to our big, inviting house with a pretty cool basement and then staying overnight. So we regularly have to alert the local PD to get all the cars on the list of overnight parkers. And we dread it. Why? Because the receptionist over there is a surly grouch who acts as if you’ve just ruined her day because you’re an idiot with cars that are parked OUT OF CONTROL! She questions why the cars are on the street, the size of the driveway, the physical state of the cars’ owners, the location of the keys. All pointless, stupid nonsense. But if you question her BAM! you suddenly find yourself on hold for about a day-and-a-half. Good customer service?

Customer Service?
The following opinion concerning the general philosophy employed by most police departments tends to be somewhat controversial, but only, I submit, if it is taken out of context. That opinion? We ain’t in the customer service business!

“Aaaaargh!! You can’t say that! Of course we are! I’ve been going to classes on this forever. Our citizens are our customers: We treat them with respect, attempt to assist them, and provide a service. Hence, they are our customers, OK?”

Nope, I’m not sold. Oh, I 100 percent agree that we assist them and provide services. And I’ll take it much further: We listen to them, comfort them, check up on them; we find their lost children, and rescue their pets; we push their disabled cars and unlock those cars when the keys are left inside; we give them directions, check suspicious noises; we save their lives.

But they ain’t our customers.

Though that may confuse you, let me ask you this: What is the customer service philosophy? You got it: The customer is always right. But in our line of work, is that the case? Hell no! In fact, most of the time, they are wrong. Besides, in addition to helping citizens, we also give them things: tickets, bad news, warrants for their arrest, subpoenas; and we might handcuff them, take away their liberty, stop them in traffic, hit them with batons, spray them with chemicals, send 50,000 volts through their bodies, and, on rare occasions, kill them.

That doesn’t sound like any customer service philosophy I’ve ever heard. I mean Wal-Mart doesn’t tell its trainees: “Greet them at the door. Show them where the item they want is. Direct them to sale items. Be patient. Listen to their complaints. Empathize. Call a manager if necessary. And if all else fails, shoot ‘em!”

I’m not trying to be glib here, but I think there’s a real danger in regarding all the people we deal with as customers. I believe that if we bought into the true customer service philosophy, we’d become reluctant to shoot anyone if it were necessary. And we all know that violence is a very real aspect of our jobs.

Dignity and Respect
Let me make this very clear: I believe that everyone in the law enforcement field should treat the vast majority of those they encounter with dignity and respect. That’s the foundation of this book, my philosophy as a supervisor, and the crux of my communication classes. Treating people with dignity and respect, regardless of their character, has far-reaching benefits. It’s how you get a confession, how you get information, how you calm the crazies, how you develop rapport, and often, it can even be a factor in thwarting an attack.

When I first made lieutenant, I issued a single page of written rules for those working for me. At the very top of the page was the statement, “I believe that everyone in the law enforcement field should treat the vast majority of the people we encounter with dignity and respect.” The first time I issued those rules, a veteran officer said to me, “I noticed that it says the vast majority of people, not all.”

I said, “That’s right not all. I want you to bend over backwards for most people. Listen to their complaints; understand their emotions; realize that even if they only had their bike stolen, it’s a major emotional issue for them; empathize. Treat them the way you’d like your mother treated. But there are sociopaths and psychopaths out there. You have to know the difference between a citizen in need of assistance and a predator. Treat them with dignity and respect, but you have to have it in your head that you may have to kill them.”

I know that talking about killing citizens drives some administrators crazy, but it’s the reality. We have to be able to wade into any interaction with a dual purpose: assist others but be aware of the reality of violence. Be prepared to use force, and to kill if necessary.

I sometimes hear this from line-level personnel in my classes: “These are conflicting messages. My boss tells me to treat everyone as a customer, and you’re telling me to watch the body, read the signals, be prepared to kill. Which is correct?”

How are these mutually exclusive philosophies? If you are helping someone on a disabled vehicle call, do whatever is reasonable to help that’s your job. If a motorist is upset because you’re giving him a speeding ticket, listen to him, refrain from reacting or name-calling, and treat him with dignity and respect. If you have to deal with an irate citizen whose garage was burglarized and he wants to blame you, stay professional, empathize, personalize the encounter and treat him with dignity and respect,.

But, if any of these people turn out to be psychotic and reach for a weapon in order to attack you, then react and do whatever it takes to stop them, which may include killing them. Don’t call them “sir” 27 times. Don’t hesitate because you’ve been told a thousand times that all citizens are customers. Treat them with dignity and respect unless you have to resort to violence. Then do what you have to do.

So accept the reality of true violence. Understand that communication is an integral part of using force. Recognize citizens for what they are, citizens, not customers. Prepare to communicate effectively in all aspects of the job. Win from every perspective.

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