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2: Improving Human Relations and Understanding Non-verbal Communication

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    Chapter 2 - Improving Human Relations and Understanding Non-verbal Communication

    Key Learning Objectives:

    • Explain how improving human relations techniques can improve community policing.
    • Identify the importance of both verbal and non-verbal communication as a police officer
    • Explain why it is important to train recruits on human relations. Identify where police departments have gained training insight from other professions.

    2.1 - Improving Human Relations in Policing

    In this unit we examine the importance for police departments to train and provide officers with human relations skills. This understand allows officers to deal with difficult and dangerous situations through de-escalation and communication skills. Most departments require recruits to demonstrate competency in areas such as firearms, tactics and driving, but more and more department are recognizing the need for human relations skills to be effective and efficient officers. In this section we will examine those skills can create a better partnership between the police and the communities they serve.


    Pin It! Improving Human Relations Skills

    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.

    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.

    2.2 – Communication in Common Police Practice

    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.

    The “talk factor” in police training focuses on verbal interactions during criminal investigations, traffic stops, interviews, and interrogations. Unlike technical skills, however, police instructors cannot easily witness and evaluate officer performance in these competencies. Yet, officers need these skills to ably execute tactical and legal tasks. The Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council (POSTC) and the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center (KLETC) both support this view and maintain that effective interpersonal skills are essential to virtually every aspect of police operation.

    Law enforcement officers cannot avoid interactions with the public because they occur so frequently in three very common areas of police work: motor vehicle stops, criminal investigations, and domestic violence and conflicts. Officers’ interactions with the community as part of these duties illustrate the need for interpersonal skills training in law enforcement academies.


    Think About It . . . Enhancing Communication Skills

    Good communication skills can make all the difference in civilian exchanges, the first four seconds of contact between an officer and an individual can determine the entire course of an interaction. Watch this video in which Lt. Kevin Dillon talks about the value of good communication skills.

    Motor vehicle stops are considered one of the best ways to prevent crime, and they present the primary opportunity for communication between officers and the public; unfortunately, traffic stops also serve as the most frequent source of complaints against the police when they lead to conflict between the stopped individuals and officers.

    While law enforcement cannot avoid all hostility from motorists, the outcome of such conflicts depends on how officers approach the situation. Even when the incident requires enforcement action, officers should make every possible effort to seek a satisfactory outcome for everyone involved. Officers cannot predict the exact behaviors they will encounter during motor vehicle stops, and, thus, they need strong interpersonal skills to minimize hostility and misunderstandings in these situations.

    In criminal investigations, the community calls upon police officers to assist individuals who have suffered the most negative experiences imaginable, and the outcomes of these investigations dramatically influence those involved. During these cases, the investigating officers’ interpersonal skills significantly influence the community’s impression of the police. Public perception, in turn, affects the success of investigations by influencing community members’ willingness to provide information.

    Often, domestic conflict involves physical violence coupled with strong emotions. Officers who respond to these situations must secure the scene and gather information to determine probable cause. A strong foundation of verbal and nonverbal skills allows officers to accomplish these tasks in a sensitive environment.

    Essential Techniques

    To improve officers’ performance in common police practices, agencies can instruct personnel on basic competencies that ease communication between the police and the public during motor vehicle stops, criminal investigations, and domestic conflicts. These skills fall into three categories: setting the stage, gathering evidence, and confirming information.

    To set the stage for effective communication, officers should practice crucial verbal and nonverbal conversation habits. These include eye contact, body position, voice tone, facial expressions, gestures, physical distance, and physical contact. Police also should use open invitations to talk, such as encouragers and closed and open-ended questions.

    When gathering evidence, four communication skills assist officers in collecting pertinent information: focusing, paraphrasing, reflecting, and confronting. Focusing helps with re-framing and reconstructing problems. When paraphrasing, officers restate someone’s thoughts in different words and in a nonjudgmental manner. Reflecting involves feelings as officers articulate an individual’s emotions, whether stated or implied. Finally, confronting aids police in identifying discrepancies in a story.

    To confirm information, officers should use two strategies to pull together relevant data and ensure that they accurately capture an individual’s story. Clarifying confirms that the officer and the individual agree on the exchanged information and summarizing establishes that all information gathered is accurate.

    2.3 – Interpersonal Skills Training in Law Enforcement

    Some law enforcement training programs, such as POSTC and KLETC, already provide communications-based instruction for recruits. However, current descriptions of many training programs fail to explain how learning objectives link to lesson plans. Instructors might simply describe these skills in class, telling their students “You use interpersonal skills when you walk up to motorists with a friendly demeanor and engage them in conversation.” Alternatively, maybe teachers describe skills, model them, and evaluate recruits. Perhaps, students only observe the instructor, or, maybe, they practice, demonstrate, and master these skills. Currently, a lack of clarity surrounds how academies determine that police recruits truly master the competencies in a communications-training curriculum.

    Counselor Education Training Programs

    As police academies determine how to teach and evaluate interpersonal skills, they should consider using methods from counselor education curricula. Counseling-education students complete at least one course on essential interpersonal skills and then apply these techniques to all other areas of their training. Similarly, in police academies, interpersonal skills should be taught and mastered independently so that recruits can use these abilities to supplement technical training. Six steps comprise a common procedure in counselor education courses; this process exemplifies how law enforcement academies can teach their own recruits.

    1) The instructor presents, defines, and demonstrates a specific capability to the class.
    2) The students practice the skill, often in groups of three. One student takes on the role of the counselor, another plays the client and the third observes. Group members take a turn in each role.
    3) Class members discuss their challenges with each task, and they continue to practice.
    4) Each student performs in front of the class and instructor, who evaluates each class member on all of the assigned skills.
    5) The class repeats steps 1 through 4 until all techniques are introduced, modeled, practiced, demonstrated, and evaluated.
    6) At the end of the semester, students demonstrate all of the competencies that they learned in the course during a 10- to 15-minute mock counseling session. The instructor videotapes each session and evaluates the students’ command of all the skills.

    Many counselor education course materials outline systematic processes for learning interpersonal skills, which police academies can adapt for law enforcement. Recruits can practice their techniques by modeling common interactions between the police and the public. Additionally, instructors should consider using counseling interns or other trained non-police personnel to facilitate recruits’ learning.

    This initial training builds an essential foundation for new officers because they need to master communication skills before they execute tactical and legal tasks. In this context, law enforcement training resembles learning to play an instrument, like the piano. Beginners must learn certain basic and requisite piano techniques, regardless of their chosen genre, before they can progress. In law enforcement, all new officers must master verbal and nonverbal interpersonal skills regardless of their job function, title, or location.

    Lessons from the Medical Profession

    Though law enforcement and medicine seem unrelated, both professions demand interpersonal skills for many of the same reasons because they blend technical tasks with frequent human interaction. Like doctors, police officers must listen to and understand the public—their “patients.” When officers communicate effectively, it strengthens their ability to gather pertinent information, supplements their technical knowledge, and breaks down barriers between the police and the public. These items mirror how interpersonal skills function in medicine because doctors must bridge the gap between professionals and patients to practice medicine competently.

    Both doctors and police rely on information from human sources to facilitate their investigations. “If the doctor does not facilitate the story telling, “if the patient is not encouraged to go on “the patient very often will not.” The same logic applies to interview subjects: Witnesses provide however much or little information is drawn from them, depending on how the officers conduct the interview. Just as spoken and unspoken language influences patients’ willingness to comply with their doctors, the same factors influence an individual’s cooperation with the police.

    Doctor-patient communication remains at the forefront of medical education. In classes, internships, and residencies, medical students learn how to interact better with patients, which enhances care. Police recruits need to learn the same type of skills in the academy. Then, after this initial training, officers can apply their techniques on the job and, thus, build trust and cooperation with the community.

    2.4 – Human Relations Commissions and Guidelines

    The purpose and intent of Human Relations Commission is for a citizen group to consult with and advise elected officials of a city or county government to equal economic, political, and educational opportunity, to equal accommodations in all business establishments in the City, and to equal service and protection by public agencies. The Commission normally give effect to such rights to eliminate prejudice and discrimination because of race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition, place of birth, citizenship, marital status, military service, or any other characteristic protected by applicable federal, state, or local laws.

    The Commission normally provides advice and assistance to all elected leaders of the governing body in order that all officers, agencies, boards, departments, and employees may take ameliorative steps to enhance peace and good order and provide equal opportunity for and good will toward all people. Further, the Commission may recommend use of mediation and/or conciliation processes to attempt to eliminate alleged unfair or unlawful discriminatory practices.

    Human relation commissions guidelines

    The Commission shall be given the following guideline for completion of the mission purpose.

    • Conduct programs designed to bring groups together to close gaps resulting from past discriminatory practices and to proactively address current or ongoing inter-group tensions.
    • Mediate disagreements among individuals, groups, and organizations, which result from discriminatory practices within the commission’s scope.
    • Process complaints.
    • Adopt, by two–thirds vote of its members, bylaws governing the conduct of its meetings and activities, the establishment of subcommittees, and such other rules as may be necessary for the performance of its functions; provided, that such bylaws shall specify that a quorum shall at all times consist of a majority of its authorized membership and that any amendments to the bylaws shall require an affirmative vote of two–thirds of its authorized membership.
    • Maintain records and serve as the source of accurate and reliable data on practices, activities, and other problems, which are the subject to their jurisdiction.
    • Render a written report of its activities annually. Such report shall include summaries of recommendations for development of policies and procedures, additional legislation deemed by the Commission to be necessary, presentations by citizens and organizations, and recommended actions to be taken.
    • In addition to the other powers and duties, some Commission will have the power to do the following:
    • Prepare and disseminate educational and informational material relating to prejudice and discrimination and recommended ways and means of eliminating such prejudice and discrimination.
    • Furnish cooperation, information, guidance, and technical assistance to other public agencies and private persons, organizations, and institutions engaged in activities and programs intended to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.
    • Consult and maintain contact with other public agencies and representatives of employers, labor unions, property owners’ associations, professional associations, national origin groups, community organizations concerned with interracial, inter-religious, and intercultural understanding, social welfare organizations, and such other private organizations and institutions as the Commission shall deem advisable.
    • Advise and make written recommendations to the concerning the development and implementation of programs and practices for furthering the objectives of the Commission. If necessary, the Commission and an agency, board, or officer, which the Commission is assisting, shall submit timely reports of progress in establishing and implementing such programs and practices. Most Commission's shall not have jurisdiction over matters within the authority of the Civil Service Commission or the Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission including, but not limited to, City employee discrimination complaints or minority contracting practices.
    • Investigate, and with the assent of the concerned parties, conciliate or mediate all incidents of discrimination within the scope of the Commission to the extent such functions are not within the responsibilities of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission or any federal, county, state, City, or other established agency, and make specific and detailed recommendations to the interested parties as to the method of eliminating such discrimination.
    • Prepare, encourage, and coordinate programs based on established laws, regulations, policies, or goals to eliminate or reduce existing inequalities and disadvantages in the community resulting from past discriminatory practices.
    • Hold public meetings on community–wide problems, which may result in discrimination because of race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, medical condition, place of birth, citizenship, marital status, military service, or any other characteristic protected by applicable federal, state, or local laws.
    • Refer for appropriate legal action any matters not resolved through conciliation or mediation to the appropriate prosecutorial or regulatory entity.

    2.5 – Non-Verbal Communication


    Pin It! Non-verbal Communications in Community Relations

    Just as verbal language is broken up into various categories, there are also different types of nonverbal communication. As we learn about each type of nonverbal signal, keep in mind that nonverbals often work in concert with each other, combining to repeat, modify, or contradict the verbal message being sent. View this PowerPoint on communication skills to review the types of communication.


    The word Kinesics comes from the root word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements. Specifically, this section will outline the use of gestures, head movements and posture, eye contact, and facial expressions as nonverbal communication.


    There are three main types of gestures: adapters, emblems, and illustrators (Andersen, 1999). Adapters are touching behaviors and movements that indicate internal states typically related to arousal or anxiety. Adaptors can be targeted toward the self, objects, or others. In regular social situations, adapters result from uneasiness, anxiety, or a general sense that we are not in control of our surroundings. Many people subconsciously click pens, shake our legs, or engage in other adapters during classes, meetings, or while waiting as a way to do something with our excess energy. Public speaking students who watch video recordings of their speeches notice nonverbal adapters that they did not know they used. In public speaking situations, people most commonly use self- or object-focused adapters. Common self-touching behaviors like scratching, twirling hair, or fidgeting with fingers or hands are considered self-adapters. Some self-adapters manifest internally, as coughs or throat-clearing sounds. Some people subconsciously gravitate toward metallic objects like paper clips or staples that hold notes together and bend them or fidget with them. Other people play with dry-erase markers, their note cards, the change in their pockets, or the lectern while speaking. Use of object adapters can also signal boredom as people play with the straw in their drink or peel the label off a bottle of beer. Smartphones have become common object adapters, as people can fiddle with their phones to help ease anxiety. Finally, as noted, other adapters are more common in social situations than in public speaking situations given the speaker’s distance from audience members. Other adapters involve adjusting or grooming others, similar to how primates like chimpanzees pick things off each other. It would definitely be strange for a speaker to approach an audience member and pick lint off his or her sweater, fix a crooked tie, tuck a tag in, or pat down a flyaway hair in the middle of a speech.

    Emblems are gestures that have a specific agreed-on meaning. These are still different from the signs used by hearing-impaired people or others who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). Even though they have a generally agreed-on meaning, they are not part of a formal sign system like ASL that is explicitly taught to a group of people. A hitchhiker’s raised thumb, the “OK” sign with thumb and index finger connected in a circle with the other three fingers sticking up, and the raised middle finger are all examples of emblems that have an agreed-on meaning or meanings with a culture. Emblems can be still or in motion; for example, circling the index finger around at the side of your head says, “He or she is crazy,” or rolling your hands over and over in front of you says, “Move on.”

    This page titled 2: Improving Human Relations and Understanding Non-verbal Communication is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dave Wymore & Tabitha Raber.

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