What do a fried chicken stand and a police department have in common? No, it’s not a joke. The chief of a major law enforcement agency is hoping he can bring some wisdom from a successful fast-food chain into his operation.
The Chick-Fil-A experience
Chief Johnny Jennings was sworn in as the top executive at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) just over a year ago. He rose up through the ranks of the CMPD, starting as a recruit in 1992. The City of Charlotte is the 15th-largest city in the United States, and CMPD has about 2,000 sworn officers.
As with many others in the South and elsewhere, Chief Jennings is a fan of a certain fast-food chain.
“Chick-Fil-A is one of those spots my family enjoys going to where the customer experience is good and consistent,” Jennings told Police1. “Every time you go to Chick-fil-A, you have consistent quality, the people are friendly and you leave there feeling you were valued as a customer. Why can’t we do that at the police department? Why can’t we have good interactions with people on a regular basis where we leave them with a good impression of their interaction with law enforcement?”
When Chief Jennings carried this idea into a staff meeting, he found that one of his public information officers was acquainted with John R. DiJulius III of The DiJulius Group. DiJulius was responsible for the development of some of the customer service strategies used at Chick-Fil-A. Some collaboration between Jennings and DiJulius led to a customer experience workshop at CMPD in January 2021, where over 150 CMPD employees at all levels of the agency formed the foundation of the customer service initiative.
DiJulius found something of a kindred spirit in Chief Jennings.
“From the first moment I got introduced to Chief Jennings, I was inspired. He’s a visionary. He’s willing to go through the wall first. He looks outside the industry and wants to learn from the private sector. It’s just been a relentless vision that he’s rallied so many people around. Some of the naysayers helped us understand how to better prepare the training.”
Customer service in law enforcement
It’s evident that creating a good customer experience for people buying chicken sandwiches requires a different approach than for people interacting with law enforcement. When the police show up, more often than not, someone is having a bad day. Chief Jennings appreciates this but contends that it’s still possible to improve the experience: “When you go to a retail store or to Disney World, or into a hotel, you expect to be treated with respect and dignity, where you don’t have a negative impression on that interaction. And that’s the concept I wanted to look at with the police.”
There are times when police officers can change the tone of an encounter with citizens simply by taking a few seconds to explain the situation.
“I want to let our officers know it sometimes just takes an extra 20 seconds to explain things or to talk things through. Everything doesn’t have to be the ‘Just the facts’ method of policing. But taking those 20 seconds to have a continual conversation with an individual you’re in contact with could have a lasting impression on that individual,” Jennings said.
Law enforcement officers at all levels are trained to de-escalate encounters with citizens, rather than jumping in with force and getting the tactical upper hand. Properly applied, de-escalation may reduce the need for tactical intervention.
“I think when you start looking at how you treat an individual, we hear all the time about police officers who may escalate a situation,” Jennings said. “Sometimes it’s not an escalation based on what they are saying, but maybe sometimes how they’re saying it and the fact that someone feels disrespected or doesn’t feel like they’re being treated appropriately by the officers. So, when you look at something like that, as far as a de-escalation situation, we do it all the time. We do it when we do SWAT call-outs with hostage negotiations, all of that is based on de-escalation so that we can have positive outcomes.”
Charlotte PD training
Revolutionizing CommUNITY Collaboration training for CMPD employees will start with a 1.5-hour online training that teaches the foundational concepts followed by a four-hour in-person session with two trainers with role-playing and scenarios, followed up with brief capsule topics communicated at roll call briefings and other meetings officers and civilians attend regularly.
It’s expected that this will be an ongoing effort, reinforcing the tenets of the program through repetition and analysis of incidents where the customer experience model was or wasn’t applied properly. There will be incentives for employees who apply the principles of this training to their work style.
“We’re going to be looking at different awards that we can offer for officers and recognition to officers to provide that good customer service,” Jennings told Police1. “And I think it’s important that we celebrate when we recognize that so that expectations integrate into our culture within the department. When we are interacting with people, we’re thinking about this and thinking about how we can leave a positive impression before we finished that interaction.”
The training program was developed internally at CMPD, not purchased from The DiJulius Group.
“We developed it,” Jennings told Police1. “This is not them coming in and saying, ‘Hey here’s your lesson plan, and this is what you’re going to do.’ This was a collaborative effort between all of us. I think we all learned quite a few things in the process.”
Law enforcement officers are well-known for being set in their ways and resistant to new ideas, especially if the new stuff conflicts with their worldview and work style. Chief Jennings is aware of this and is hopeful the program will eventually come to be accepted by the rank and file.
“So, the resistance is something that was expected,” said Jennings. “I think a lot of officers are set in their ways, and when you throw something at them that is new, they will be skeptical about it. My goal and my hope are that when they see what this is all about, when they get the explanation and when they start going through it, they will be more accepting of it and understand why we need this and how this is going to improve our department, improve the community, and at the same time, even make them safer out in the streets.”
Other law enforcement professionals are watching CMPD to see how well the customer service initiative plays out. John DiJulius is optimistic about the outcome: “The results of what happens in Charlotte will speak for themselves. We’ve already had over half a dozen law enforcement departments contact us as a result of the news that’s come out in the past six months. We’ve already booked some of those.”
Chief Jennings wants the best possible police-citizen relationships, but he also recognizes the need for high morale among his officers: “The biggest thing that can influence morale is the satisfaction that you have in your job, the positive interactions that you have all day, every day, not just with the people on the outside of the organization, but also internally within the organization.”
CMPD’s program might also lead to the creation of a new position in police administration. “The fastest-growing position in corporate America in the last 15 years is the chief experience officer at Fortune 500 companies,” said DeJulius. “Well, the chief is sending one of his employees through an academy to learn how to be a chief experience officer. I doubt that there is a police department in the country, possibly in the world that has a chief experience officer. CMPD is drawing a line in the sand saying, ‘This is who we’re going to be.’”