'Customer service' in law enforcement (revisited)

You have to know the difference between a citizen in need of assistance and a predator

I would rather write an article that creates controversy and causes conversation than write one that states the obvious or preaches to the collective law enforcement choir. Most of the articles that create such stirs are ones that highlight the differences in mindset between line personnel and their bosses. What a shock!

My article, Debunking the myth of 'customer service' in law enforcement, created just such a stir for a few people, which makes me believe that there are many more out there who were "uncomfortable" with the premise of the piece.

The article is actually an excerpt from my book, "Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement." I wrote the book for a variety of reasons and with a number of objectives. The main objective (outside of highlighting the impact communication has on all aspects of life and our careers), was to be brutally honest and very realistic. As I said in the book, “I’m well aware that merely regurgitating general communication theories to criminal justice professionals would be a huge mistake, for there’s no group on earth with a more wary, suspicious and cynical view of philosophical ramblings than cops.”

$250,000.00 Training is No Myth

“What do you mean the MYTH of customer service? That isn’t a myth! You care to see all the bills for all the training I’ve put together focusing on customer service over the last 10 years? We’ve had Suzie Sweetheart talk to us at least 20 times about how to view and treat the citizenry as customers. Frannie Feelgood – who by the way has a doctorate degree in Customer Service Confusion and Chaos – has outlined a five-year plan for teaching cops on how to view everybody as customers. She only charged us $250,000.00. And now you are saying that customer service is a myth? You are obviously a low-browed, old-timer, Neanderthal who doesn’t understand the reality of policing in the new millennium.”

OK. I get it. I’ve heard similar complaints in the management and leadership classes I’ve been teaching over the past 12 years. I had similar conversations with my fellow supervisors. But, my response is simply this: Don’t read the title of the article, read the damned article. In it I say this:

“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.”

In addition, I continued with a conversation I had with one of my officers.

“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. So empathize – treat them the way you’d like your mother treated. But I also want you to realize that 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.”

We Want Repeat Business?

I honestly don’t get the argument. I was a supervisor for more than 18 years and 13 of them were as a commander. So I am not naïve. Where I think the naiveté comes in is when law enforcement administrators believe that we should treat all people as though they are ordering a cheeseburger and we want their repeat business.

On countless occasions I’ve seen police officers show compassion to victims and patience with the irrational. They control ourselves when faced with the belligerently rude. They remain calm when everyone else is out of control. Are there times when we lose our perspective, saying and doing things we shouldn’t? Of course! It’s one the reasons I wrote the book. Seeing officers damage, and sometimes destroy, their careers because of a loss of control or a misunderstanding of the power of communication was something I thought could be prevented.

But denial of reality and overreaction to issues are real problems for many law enforcement administrations.

Somebody screws something up, no matter how small: “Write a policy!”

Some citizen somewhere complains about something: “Send him to training!”

We adapt community policing as a stated philosophy and somehow that then must mean: everybody is a customer. Talking about killing people is so un-PC and may send the wrong message to people we are training to serve the customers.

I know that customer service sounds good. I know that it feels good. That’s why we embraced the principle so quickly and, from my perspective, without any real thought. Again, don’t get me wrong, dignity and respect is the key to doing this job right. It is how we should treat the majority of people, even suspects and criminals (it’s how you get confessions). But viewing everyone as though they are walking into Wal-Mart to buy a broom handle and a package of athletic socks doesn’t even begin to make any sense.

As supervisors (and hopefully as leaders) we need to think beyond the politically correct terminology and understand that the climate we work in involves violence. My contention is that if you constantly refer to everybody as customers, talk about them as customers, hammer home the customer service philosophy (the customer is always right) then killing them doesn’t compute in the brain and will cause hesitation.

I received an email from a sergeant with more than 20 years on the job. He works for a Sheriff’s Department in an eastern seaboard state:

“I have been in law enforcement for over 20 years with the same agency. I have been a Sgt. for the last 10 years. I read this article numerous times and found it to be very informative and accurate. I send out various links and articles for my guys to read and hopefully get them to think all of the time. I sent this article out last week. Today I get called into the Sheriff's office and talked to for over an hour about this article and my posting of it. Seems my Sheriff did not take kindly to the customer service myth part so now I’m being sent to: reeducation. After that I will meet with the Sheriff for more ‘discussion’.”

You Want Some Reeducation?

Here’s some reeducation. Watch the video of the 1998 murder of a young Georgia Deputy Sheriff. Kyle Dinkheller was a 22-year-old husband and father who had a pregnant wife at home when he stopped a 52-year-old predatory psychopath named Andrew Brannan for speeding. Even after the motorist grabbed an M-1 carbine and began loading it in plain view, the deputy issued more than two dozen orders and referred to his gun wielding, profane, and threatening “customer” as “Sir.” More than 20 times!

What did this customer do? He murdered Kyle – shot him multiple times! We use this video in our Street Survival Seminar. I use it in my Communication and Leadership classes. It is the first chapter of my book. Why? Because it demonstrates the type of mindset that will get street cops killed!

Hey, if somebody is screaming, “I’m a goddamn Vietnam combat veteran!” “Fuck you!” “Shoot my fucking ass!” “Do it motherfucker!” and then grabs a freakin’ M-1 carbine, I think that may be the time to stop treating him like a customer, stop calling him ‘sir,’ and imploring him to be reasonable. That is the time to shoot him! A lot!

Our mindset – our most powerful weapon – has to be cultivated with reality in mind. Treat people with dignity and respect, but not as customers.

Sorry, not in this line of work.

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