‘I’ll show them respect when they show me respect!’
How one recruit revealed some wrong-headed thinking
While teaching at the Alaska DPS Training Academy, a room full of recruits and I were discussing the reported rise in anti-police sentiments. One recruit lamented the loss of respect for the police. Another recruit, referring to protesters, said,
“I’ll show them respect when they show me respect!”
Sensing a “teachable moment,” I asked if anyone could see any flaw in that thinking.
After some shifting and rustling, one recruit spoke tentatively,
“They’re directing the situation?”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
Another recruit added, “If they decide to respect you, you match it. If they decide not to, you match that.”
A third recruit jumped in, “They’re determining if the situation is going to be respectful.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, high-fiving each of the three. “You’re letting them dictate what kind of cop you’re going to be – respectful, or not. Why would you give anyone that power over you?”
I told them how Sergeant Spitzer, the Deputy Commander, had been leading some recruits around town on a training run when a citizen began cursing them royally. Sergeant Spitzer cheerily responded,
“Bless your heart, sir. Keep right on exercising your First Amendment right.”
We took a break, and I cued up a news video of an officer holding a little girl and singing her a lullaby to distract her from a deadly car crash. After we watched it, I told the recruits that comforting innocent toddlers would come easily. The challenge would be how they treated adults in a meth house who’ve neglected or abused their kids, or other unsavory people.
Veteran SWAT commander, Chip Hugh, and veteran officer, Jack Colwell, have co-authored a compelling book about how to meet this challenge. “Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training” reveals how Chip’s SWAT team went from one of the most complained about units in the Kansas City Police Department to receiving zero complaints in six years – while at the same time capturing more illegal drugs and guns in a three-year period than the previous decade. They did it by changing their mindset to unconditional respect for the citizens they interacted with – all of them, even the baddest actors.
Chip describes this transformation in a 10-minute TED talk. He and Jack give more examples of unconditional respect in their book. They also detail the long-term payoffs in officer morale, community trust and crime reduction. This game-changing power doesn’t take a new policy, policing model, funding, or organizational restructuring. It can be wielded by any officer. As Chip explains, unconditional respect happens “one contact at a time.”
Just ask 20-year veteran Deputy Sheriff Elton Simmons, who made news because he completed over 25,000 traffic stops without a single complaint. Not only that, but many citizens thanked him after he ticketed them. Asked how he’d accomplished such a record, Simmons said,
“It’s simple. I treat people like they’re here,” gesturing level with himself, “not like they’re here,” gesturing beneath himself.
I then showed a video of three local police officers’ treatment of an arrested intoxicated teen. At the jail, the teen is stripped to his underwear and placed face down on a thin mattress. One officer is sitting on the teen’s back yelling, “Put your hands behind your back.” Another officer repeatedly drive stuns the 18-year-old with a TASER, as the young man writhes and cries out. The third officer stands by. Finally, the teen is left lying motionless on his stomach on the mat.
When the cell door closes behind the departing officers, one of them can be heard saying, “What a douchebag!” just before the video ends.
The room was heavy with silence. I suggested the recruits consider how viewing a person as a douchebag might affect how they treated them. It didn’t call for a response. I let them think.
I asked the recruits if anyone could tell me what “the golden rule” was. A recruit responded,
“Treat others as you want to be treated.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not ‘treat others as they treat you.’ That’s what makes it golden – and difficult. It’s about what kind of cop you want to be and will be, regardless of the conduct of others.”
As Chip’s SWAT team and the Kansas City Police Department discovered, the golden rule of unconditional respect also has huge payoffs in improved community relations, public safety and officer morale. Turns out, conducting ourselves respectfully feels good in a way that “tit for tat” can’t begin to approach.
Author’s note: Lacking tactical expertise, I have no comment on the officers’ tactics with the intoxicated teen. The city settled a lawsuit arising out of the incident for $350,000. My intention was to get the recruits to consider how mindset might affect tactics.