4 ways to effectively communicate during a critical incident
Being a good communicator is not just about making your voice heard
By Andrew Blubaugh
As I creep up on two decades of law enforcement experience, I have concluded that being a good communicator is the most valuable skill an officer can possess.
You can have a rock-solid investigation, but testify poorly and you may lose the case. You may have identified the suspect and have him on the verge of confessing, but one slip up in communication can cause the suspect to shut down and refuse to talk anymore. Offer constructive criticism to a coworker the wrong way and they miss out on the opportunity to learn simply because they feel like they are being attacked rather than helped.
These mistakes can be tough to deal with, but they are survivable. But what about a critical incident? When you have a non-compliant suspect on the verge of fighting with you or a suspect at TASER or gunpoint, how often do we fail to develop the situation to the best of our ability?
How officers approach buildings or stand when interacting with suspects are examples of practices designed to provide a tactical advantage. Communication is no different, we must possess communication practices, techniques and tactics to develop situations in our favor, especially during critical incidents that don’t allow officers the time to make corrections.
Here are four ways to ensure effective communication on scene:
1. Don’t be the screamer
You don’t need to be the loudest person on scene to be effective. Officers screaming commands can come across as scared, overbearing and lacking confidence. Yelling to get one’s attention is fine, but your volume needs to adjust accordingly.
Giving commands or just conversing at a tone and volume less than the suspect can calm them down, whereas continuously screaming commands can amp the suspect up.
Being calm can be contagious, so infect as many people on scene as possible with the right tone and volume.
2. Don’t be a broken record
“Get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground…” The broken record command is given by the officer who doesn’t have another option or is unsure what to do next. We see officers do it all the time, giving dozens of the same commands with no change in behavior from the suspect.
If the situation allows time for multiple commands to be given, then use that to your advantage and give alternative commands that still provide an advantage for the officers.
It is my opinion that ordering a suspect to the ground is not the best first option. In a building, especially a home, placing a suspect on the ground can place them in a confined space giving officers a small amount of room to properly handcuff. It also can limit our visibility due to furniture being in the way. In the mat room, it works, but in a suspect’s cluttered home it becomes dangerous. Additionally, a lot of people don’t want to get on the ground, simply because it is wet or dirty.
Don’t confuse my willingness to give alternative commands as letting the suspect run the show. Regardless of why they won’t comply, if we order a suspect on the ground and we fail to gain compliance then we can ask them to face away, spread their feet and place their hands in a way that enables you to handcuff. If the suspect refuses, then you just made it easier to articulate the suspect’s level of resistance and if force is used, these additional alternative commands aid in our justification of the use of force.
3. Shut up and act
Outside of having an alternative command to avoid being the broken record, we must have appropriate use of force options available and officers must be willing to use them.
How many times does an officer need to give the command, “Drop the knife” or “Drop the gun”? Every situation is different but multiple commands being refused should be concerning, and sooner rather than later, force needs to be applied.
4. Be the officer the suspect wants to interact with
The best way to build rapport in most situations is to listen and show empathy. Simply listening to the suspect will help you gain valuable information, possibly allow them to calm down and provide time for you and backup officers to develop the situation should force need to be used.
Listening to an angry intoxicated suspect who refuses to leave a bar can be painful, but it can also result in talking them out rather than dragging them out. So, let them talk, nod in response and let them know you understand when appropriate. Offer solutions rather than arguments. Most importantly, recognize when it’s time to shut up and act or time for another officer to step in and talk.
Putting these skills to work during high-stress calls will take time and experience. On the road, we need the safety net of other experienced, capable officers to back us up. We need to check our ego and let other officers take the lead or take over when appropriate. When the incident is over, we must not forget to discuss the failures and successes we experienced.
Integrate communication into scenario-based training
Communication challenges need to be an integral part of scenario-based training. At my agency, we script our scenarios in a way that if certain commands are given the role player acts in a specific way. For example, a broken record command of “drop the knife” more than three times might result in the role player moving toward and possibly slashing a nearby victim.
During the debrief, discuss issues such as commands given and actions taken, reactionary gap and the immediacy of the threat.
Body-worn camera footage within your agency or videos easily found online are valuable training tools. Reviewing an incident caught on video once a month offers quick and easy training. However, there are challenges to reviewing videos. Go into the review with specific points in mind, otherwise, the discussion can mount into a never-ending list of criticisms. Regardless of whether the video comes from your agency or another you must be realistic and view it from the perspective of the officer at the time of the incident and consider facts that you may not be aware of. This is important to build a culture within your agency that can respect failure and success. The review must be realistic and fair. The last thing you want is officers hesitating to act because they don’t want to be the next video review for training purposes.
About the author
Andrew Blubaugh is a full-time police officer and trainer for a northeastern Ohio police department. He is also a team leader on a multijurisdictional SWAT team.