Interpersonal Skills Training in Police Academy Curriculum

By McDermott, Peter J.; Hulse, Diana | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Interpersonal Skills Training in Police Academy Curriculum


McDermott, Peter J., Hulse, Diana, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Effective policing occurs when officers and members of the public partner to create safe and crime-free communities. This partnership requires that officers display not only strong technical capabilities but interpersonal skills. Therefore, law enforcement agencies must train their officers on how to interact effectively with the public.

Together, technical and interpersonal skills form the basis of all police work. Any well-established law enforcement agency trains and evaluates all recruits for their technical (e.g., tactical and legal) abilities. For example, in firearms training, recruits must earn a certain score to carry a weapon.

Unfortunately, many agencies do not concentrate on training and evaluating officers' interpersonal skills (e.g., active listening, problem solving, persuasion, and conflict management) even though officers need them to competently execute tactical and legal tasks. If officers cannot communicate with the public, poor community relations will hinder even the most technically proficient departments.

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To illustrate this point, in 1983, George Miller wrote about the tension that exists when the community and the police interact. He claimed these difficulties exist because of the different expectations and attitudes that each group brings to the encounter. This conundrum continues 27 years later as officers try to navigate their responsibilities amid police-community tension and increased expectations of privacy. (1)

An officer stops a motor vehicle for a minor violation. Conflict arises immediately between the male officer and the female operator of the vehicle. The female driver refuses to provide necessary paperwork and tells the officer that he makes her uneasy. The officer calls for backup. The backup officer, also male, arrives and speaks with the woman, who expresses her trepidation of the first officer.

Response #1: The backup officer mandates that the driver follow the instructions. The woman refuses to cooperate and again cites her fear of the first officer. The men determine that the situation demands a higher level of force. They ask her to step out of the car and then place her under arrest.

Response #2: The backup officer says, "I understand your concerns, but my colleague and 1 need this information. How do you feel about handing me the documents, and I will pass them to him? I want to make sure that you understand what I said, so can you repeat back to me what you heard?" The driver replies that she understands the backup officer's request and provides him the documentation to pass to the first officer.

In this second response, the backup officer displays active listening skills, conveys his understanding of the driver's perspective, reflects her feelings, clarifies his message, and resolves the conflict by offering an alternative solution.

Department officials might never hear about the incident in the second response unless the driver contacts the department to compliment the backup officer. They may, however, hear about the situation in the first response if the department garners negative attention as a result. This fictitious scenario demonstrates the importance of interpersonal skills training to increase the likelihood that officers choose the second response and, thus, achieve a positive outcome.

COMMUNICATION IN COMMON POLICE PRACTICES

Talking and Touching

Fundamentally, police officers do two things: they talk to people and they touch people. Most police activities involve one of these actions. The "touch factor" in police training, driven by concern for officer safety, encompasses instruction in firearms, motor vehicle stops, self defense, arrest and control, and responses to crimes in progress. Instructors easily can witness and evaluate officers' proficiency in these areas. For example, in firearms training, recruits must receive a certain score to qualify to carry a weapon. …

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