What is Effective Communication in Law Enforcement?

Published May 5, 2022

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that Title II entities "communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities," which means that covered entities are required to "provide auxiliary aids and services to make sure that individuals with speech, hearing and vision disabilities can understand what is said or written and communicate effectively." 

While we have covered the ADA's effective communication provision that applies to law enforcement previously, we look to what that means in a broader sense regarding policing. 

To keep policing fair and effective, law enforcement officers need a particular set of skills to help resolve everyday interactions. While technical skills (such as tactical and legal skills) are vital for law enforcement to efficiently perform their job, interpersonal skills are just as important. These skills include integrity, empathy, adaptability, mental agility, conflict resolution, and effective communication.

Broadly speaking, what is effective communication?

Effective communication includes both written and verbal skills that law enforcement professionals must be able to perform when interacting with those on their team and citizens in the community. It involves a combination of understanding what is being said by others as well as relaying information to another person that is clear and concise. Regarding written communication, law enforcement officers must be able to communicate clearly when writing the details of a scene in a report, whereas, with verbal communication, law enforcement officers must be able to communicate with the public effectively.

The term "effectively" also means the person in which they are communicating also understands and comprehends the communication. In terms of communicating with persons with disabilities, particularly those with sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or learning disabilities, this means ensuring that not only do law enforcement understand the skillset, but also have adequate training to properly accommodate various communication methods. For example, having both the proper training to recognize when alternative means of communication are needed (ASL interpreter for example), but also readily available access to and understanding of how those services can and should be used. 

Effective Communication for Different Areas of Law Enforcement

Effective communication is needed in three main areas of law enforcement, which are:

  • Policing
  • Police administration
  • Police research

Policing

Evidence can be lost and an investigation can be compromised because a witness or suspect does not understand what a police officer is saying. Effective communication is also needed for community relations, intervention, and mediation. Communication skills are necessary for law enforcement to perform their jobs properly, whether they need to investigate crimes, de-escalate situations, take part in crisis prevention, build trust with communities, or write memos, reports, and grants. Law enforcement officers will often need to effectively communicate with fellow officers, subordinates, higher-ups, community members, victims, victims’ families, other departments, other jurisdictions, and the court system on a daily basis.

When performing day-to-day tasks in regards to policing, law enforcement should continuously monitor access to effective communication resources, such as interpreters, Ubi-Duos, VRI, VRS, and any other techniques that improve their ability to effectively communicate with all persons within their community, including persons with disabilities. 

Police Administration

Police administration needs to rely on effective communication in order to provide useful guidance to law enforcement officers and resolve a variety of personnel conflicts. 

Effectively communicating throughout the administration process can be the difference between understanding a situation or potential suspect/victim, their needs, and any accommodations that may be required to effectively communicate at the scene of a crime or investigation. 

Law enforcement agencies should ensure all members of their agency are trained in effectively communicating and identifying the needs of persons with disabilities to ensure needs are met as new staff enters and exit an investigation or enforcement activity. 

Police Research

In police research, effective communication is needed to accurately convey the results and conclusions that research has recently found.

Different Techniques for Effective Communication in Law Enforcement

In order to effectively communicate, law enforcement officers can  implement the following techniques:

  1. Using the 80-20 Principle, where law enforcement officers spend 80% of their time listening and 20% of their time talking before using what they’ve gathered to make a connection.
  2. Actively listening.
  3. Expressing themselves with body language to show the person that law enforcement is interacting with that the officer is actively listening.
  4. Making simple requests, one at a time, so as to not overwhelm the other person.
  5. Asking many open-ended questions, mainly beginning with “what” and “how”, to elicit longer answers.
  6. Looking for barriers that may exist to effective communication, such as language or comprehension.

Obstacles hindering effective communication

Language barriers

Language barriers are an increasing obstacle in effective communication. To combat this, many police departments in the United States are willing to pay a higher salary or bonus for individuals who can speak a second or third language. As the population of U.S. citizens continues to grow and diversify, police departments are increasingly finding themselves needing officers who can communicate in American Sign Language, Spanish, Russian, and Asian dialects.

Lack of training and evaluation

Unfortunately, many agencies often do not focus on interpersonal skills, leading to poor public relations and unsafe communities. Recruits are trained to carry a firearm, for example, and are not allowed to carry a weapon until they are evaluated and pass a certain score. If a police officer cannot properly communicate, however, they are still allowed to respond to any sort of emergency call, including those that require effective communication.

For example, a victim who is deaf may call law enforcement to investigate a domestic dispute only to have police ask them to communicate through a companion who may be the suspect − this is the importance of ensuring police have effective communication training and the ability to use the resources needed to do so − family should not be relied upon to interpret when responding to an investigation unless there is an immediate threat to safety.

This problem usually begins as a result of a lack of proper training during an officer’s time in the police academy, where many training programs fail to properly explain objectives or only have recruits observe an instructor without participating themselves.

Who should be required to master effective communication?

While effective communication is important at all levels and in all areas of law enforcement, those who should receive priority in communications training are command-level personnel, officers who regularly deal with the public, and law enforcement employees who are a part of a department’s internal networking.

 

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