By Jean Reynolds

Your police training is likely to include communication skills for dealing effectively with citizen concerns. For example, a citizen might make a request that falls outside of normal police procedures. Or someone might complain about the way you responded to a call.

Three principles can be helpful. First, you should try to understand where the conflicts are coming from. Second, you should learn and practice strategies for talking to a dissatisfied citizen. Most important, resist the impulse to lash out at a citizen or brush off the person’s concerns.

It’s important to know, for example, that anger is a normal stage in the grieving process. When someone dies as the result of an crime or some other emergency, grieving survivors might mistakenly direct their anger at public safety personnel. It’s important to stay calm, acknowledge the person’s loss, and assure them that you did everything you possibly could.

Inappropriate requests can be another source of conflict. A citizen might ask a stupid question or seek help with a situation not covered by police procedures. Perhaps you patiently gave directions to a pedestrian—who forgets what you said and asks you to repeat the whole thing. Someone might want you to discipline an unruly child or settle a disagreement with a neighbor. Or you could be asked to arrest someone who’s behaved unpleasantly but hasn’t broken any laws.

In those situations you have two choices. One is to remind the person that you’re a sworn police officer who has more important things to do with your time. The other (and better ) choice is to remember that public service is your mission and act accordingly.

A good first step is to summarize, in your own words, what the person told you (a skill called “reflective listening”). Demonstrating that you were paying attention goes a long way towards building good will. Then consider how you can help. Depending on the situation, you can make a referral to an attorney or community organization, have a patrol car check on the location, or offer some advice from your personal experience.

If you find yourself getting angry frequently, try to work on your own attitude. Remember that everyone—including you—sometimes experiences confusion and forgetfulness. Everyone makes mistakes. Staying in touch with the ups and downs in your own life can you help demonstrate patience and understanding when you’re asked to help.

A useful rule is never to humiliate a citizen in front of friends, co-workers, or family members. Children especially may form an indelible impression of police officers based on one brief encounter with you. If you have to deal with an unpleasant situation—an arrest, a patdown, handcuffs—consider whether it can done away from the view of others.

Most important, make professionalism a priority. Citizens are less likely to protest a traffic ticket if you make it clear that you’re committed to keeping the streets safe for everyone. If someone complains about the way you handled a call, you can briefly explain the reason for a practice or policy you were following. You don’t have to convince anyone that you’re right. But it’s important for you to show that you do what you do because of your commitment to public safety.

Respectful responses help build the trust and cooperation that are so important to successful policing. Even a large and well-trained agency can’t do the job alone: you need to partner with your community. Courtesy, patience, and willingness to help can go a long way towards building a positive reputation for yourself and your agency.