The power of the smile

This simple but effective tool is underutilized by too many officers


As both an officer and trainer I practiced and taught what I call the discipline of staying positive to help avoid negativity and chronic cynicism.

These efforts led me to discover a simple but powerful tool that is underutilized by too many officers. That powerful tool is the smile.

Willfully smiling as you meet and greet the public you serve can positively impact their attitude toward not only you but also our profession.
Willfully smiling as you meet and greet the public you serve can positively impact their attitude toward not only you but also our profession. (Photo/Dan Marcou)

Non-verbal communication

You have all have been taught about the importance of reading non-verbal cues of the people you are in contact with. Those same people are also making judgments about you based on your non-verbal cues as well and the smile is a clear-cut non-verbal communication during any contact on the street.

A smile is not an absolute indicator of positive intentions. However, it does generally send an immediate positive non-verbal message when worn on the face of a police officer.

Smile when appropriate

It bears stating, there are many times in law enforcement when smiling would be totally out of place. Clearly, at death scenes, serious accidents, while investigating sexual crimes, or while using force to overcome combative resistance.

However, when on foot patrol, entering a business on your beat, or giving directions upon request, willfully smiling as you meet and greet the public you serve can positively impact their attitude toward not only you but also our profession. In contrast, make the same casual passing of someone in the public and ignore them, look uncaring, or even worse, be gruff in your demeanor, and they will instantly judge you as well as our profession harshly.

The power of the smile

Realize that a contact started with an air of indifference, or even a scowl will likely take a different trajectory than a contact with a smile, a greeting and an introduction.

For instance, “Good evening, I am Lt. Dan Marcou. The reason I stopped you tonight is both your taillights are out and since you can’t see them from the driver’s seat, I thought I should stop you and let you know.”

Starting a legal equipment violation contact such as this with a smile, where a warning is most likely imminent, is certainly acceptable.

Once mastered, the act of transitioning from smile to no-smile properly timed is almost like a no-impact use of force technique.
Once mastered, the act of transitioning from smile to no-smile properly timed is almost like a no-impact use of force technique. (Photo/Dan Marcou)

The power of ending a smile

The use of a smile can also become a tactic to achieve compliance. When you as an officer make a lawful request with a smile such as, “Since you are clearly not happy with the service here, and the owner wants you to leave how about we leave now and you can find another place, whose service you might better appreciate.” All this can be said with a smile.

When the person you are speaking with replies in the negative, I have found that just a pause and transition from a smile to the face of a serious professional can have as powerful an effect on people as any words and eventually actions that will most certainly follow if the person does not comply.

Once mastered, the act of transitioning from smile to no-smile properly timed is almost like a no-impact use of force technique.

Create smiles

As you patrol, when time permits, you can create circumstances that allow you to smile at the public you serve. One such way is to increase your contacts. This allows you to not just cite, but stop and educate people who commit violations that are dangerous bad habits and citable offenses but are minor enough to warrant a warning.

You can stop someone for rolling through a stop sign, a seat belt violation, or even a cellphone violation and give them not only a warning but recite a short pre-prepared presentation. During the presentation explain to them not just how much money you are saving them by warning them, but how what they are doing could lead to a tragedy. Send them on their way with a “Thank you for your courtesy and for listening. Drive safe and be safe,” type of closure.

Caution: Even during these “public safety violation vehicle contacts” you need to use proper tactics because although you will run across mostly good people, at times you will come upon people who are wanted on warrants, driving without a license and/or in the process of committing a crime. Therefore, use caution and proper tactics on all stops since no stop is routine!

Drive-by smiles

You can also conduct congenial stop and talks, or drive-by-smiles, with an open-window wave. Here are a few examples. You can:

  • Stop and give a shout out to kids playing, saying “Nice catch,” or “Nice shot.”
  • Stop to tell a business owner who has made some improvement, “Thanks for making the city a little nicer place to live.”
  • Stop and tell a homeowner working in the yard, “Your roses look beautiful this year.”
  • Kiddingly tell new parents, “You may not be aware of it, but you are strolling in a No Cute Zone, and with those children you are definitely in violation.” (I have used this one more times than I can count and it never fails to get not only a smile but a proud laugh from the parents.)

Adding these and others of your own making to your patrol repertoire takes little effort. It also costs nothing to be nice until it is time to be intense, but the positive impact can be priceless.

Conclusion

During these tough times, it seems unrealistic to even talk about smiling while doing police work considering the way some so publicly besiege and besmirch the entire profession of law enforcement. I get that.

However, the reality is, a recent Monmouth Poll revealed that in spite of the onslaught, 71% of Americans still approve of their local police. That’s you!

This shows that not only do the majority of the public you serve, not believe the misrepresentation of the entire police profession willfully orchestrated by some; but it also shows that in spite of these attacks you all must be continuing to serve the public faithfully one contact and one call at a time throughout these challenging times.

Now that’s something to smile about.

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