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Focusing on Civility in Law Enforcement

The Municipal Association of SC has named civility in local government one of its main focus areas. The value of civil communication — and the dangers of uncivil behavior emerging as a norm — cut across every area of municipal government, including law enforcement interactions.

What is civility?

Civility is treating others with respect, considering their feelings and using good manners. Civility often requires self-control and patience with individuals who are not exhibiting self-control.

Police officer's verbal civility on a scene 

When officers are called to a scene, they must often approach people who may have just broken the law or are involved in some unknown or dangerous activity. Because these interactions can be difficult, one of the most critical skills a law enforcement officer must develop is effective verbal communication.

According to the National Institute of Justice Use of Force Continuum, an officer's presence itself is the first level of force, and the appropriate use of this presence is considered the best way to resolve a situation. The moment officers step out of their vehicles, they set the standard for the interaction. An authoritative but respectful tone can help diffuse a situation.

After officers make sure that all involved in a scene know of their physical presence, the next step in gaining control of the situation is to verbally communicate with the subjects. At this point, using a civil approach while speaking to everyone can help the officers deescalate situations and convince the individuals to comply with the officers' commands, without using physical force. 

Disregarding insults 

One of the most common mistakes that inexperienced officers make is taking insults personally, and responding in a disrespectful manner that further provokes the subject. During insurance claims investigations, this pattern of behavior often turns up on body-worn camera footage.

When officers understand the objective is about gaining control of a situation and not taking the rudeness or defiance as a personal attack, it can increase the opportunity for effective communication and reduce the need to use other means of force.    

Community policing 

Jack Ryan, attorney and retired police captain and co-director of Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute has taught at SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing sessions about procedural justice, which focuses on the way the police interact with members of the public.

This concept promotes civility and speaks to these four areas:

  • Giving residents a voice during law enforcement encounters.
  • Being transparent and trustworthy in the explanation of what law is being enforced and why.
  • Being fair and impartial in decision making — helping people understand the decision to enforce the law is against their behavior, not against them personally.
  • Treating people with dignity and respect.

Moving to physical force

There are some situations where good verbal communication and de-escalation techniques are exhausted, and a use of physical force is needed, but continued verbal communication should still be professional and respectful.

Improving the interaction

Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd has a list of philosophies for his department. One philosophy that is relevant to a discussion of law enforcement civility is this: "As a police officer, you have the authority to take away a person's freedom, but you never have the right to take away someone's dignity."

When an officer handles a situation the correct way — communicating professionally, using force when appropriate and practicing civility throughout the interaction — it can help in not only making the interaction smoother, but also can help when defending the officer in an allegation of a wrongful action.