Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Interpersonal Communication: Improving Law Enforcement's Image

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Interpersonal Communication: Improving Law Enforcement's Image

Article excerpt

An officer pulls over a vehicle for running a red light. While approaching the driver, the officer automatically rests a hand on the butt of a holstered pistol. Then, leaning down and glaring at the motorist through the open window, the officer sarcastically comments, "They don't make red lights any redder than the one you just ran, buddy. I want to see your driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance--right now!"

The majority of police-citizen contacts occur face-to-face--either one-on-one or in small groups--during traffic encounters, interviews, media briefings, or other conversations in both formal and informal settings. The manner in which officers present themselves, both verbally and nonverbally, has a great impact on their professional image. It also affects the public's view of their departments and its attitude toward law enforcement in general.

Because of the complexities of the communication process and the effects that poor communication can have on police officers, their departments, and law enforcement as a whole, police departments need to develop effective communication training programs. This article provides an overview of the communication process, as well as guidelines for police administrators to follow when implementing communication training in their departments.


Interpersonal communication involves understanding the dynamics of sending and receiving verbal and nonverbal messages. Whether officers realize it or not, their ability to relate to others directly affects every action they perform on duty. This includes not only what the officers say but also the way they say it. Their tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and general demeanor broadcast messages to those with whom they interact. Often, these nonverbal elements send stronger messages to the listener than verbal ones.


An individual sends messages not only through language and words but also by tone of voice, pitch, and inflection. This form of communication is called paralanguage. Like body language, paralanguage also expresses emotions.

Active emotions, such as anger and fear, tend to be expressed by a fast rate of speech, loud volume, high pitch, and "blaring" tone. In contrast, passive emotions, such as sadness, are communicated by a slower rate of speech, lower volume, lower pitch, and a more resonant quality. Furthermore, a high ratio of pause time to speaking time characterizes grief, while anxiety produces nonfluency or blockages in speech.

These voice characteristics can also provide clues to the truthfulness of the person speaking. A deceptive individual may become less fluent and stutter more frequently. Deceptive answers to questions will likely be less plausible, longer, and contain more fillers, such as "uh," "ya know," or other common expressions.

Hearing Versus Listening

Hearing simply means the ability to perceive sounds. Merely hearing what another says prevents officers from contributing to the communication process and causes misunderstandings, mistakes, frustration, and less successful conflict resolution.

In contrast, police officers who learn effective listening skills acquire additional facts that allow them to form accurate judgments about incidents or individuals. Armed with more accurate information, officers can respond or act more intelligently and identify better alternatives to resolve situations. Effective listening also demonstrates to others that the officer is aware of and sensitive to their emotions.


Through kinesics, the study of nonverbal behavior, scientists have learned that facial expressions, gestures, posture, and other body movements transmit messages that either reinforce or contradict the spoken message. Understanding the possible meanings of expressions and gestures provides important insight into a person's feelings. …

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