What does it mean to win an encounter?

If you have been an officer for any period of time, the following situation has likely happened to you.

You’re walking in a store and a parent tells their child, “You better behave or that police officer is going to arrest you.” How did that make you feel?

I used to have a very smart-aleck remark when that happened. I would say, “We don’t arrest good kids, only bad parents” as I stared directly at the parent. Eventually, I realized that type of response was probably not appropriate even though I always got a kick out of it.

It is ingrained in us since day one of the police academy that we must win. But what is winning?
It is ingrained in us since day one of the police academy that we must win. But what is winning? (Photo/Police1)

Threat of arrest

The threat of arrest for bad behavior is something many police officers use in their duties on a regular basis. Has threatening someone with arrest ever gained their immediate compliance? I think back to an encounter I had when I was a young officer.

I pulled someone over for a minor offense that they disagreed with. When issuing their ticket, the exchange went like this:

Violator: “I’m not signing that ticket. It is BS.”

Me: “If you don’t sign the ticket, I am going to arrest you”

Violator: “Arrest me then”

Me: “OK, You’re under arrest. Click, click.”

Then what happened? I drove the violator to lockup where he was booked on some minor charge and was released on his own recognizance before I finished my paperwork. Who won in that situation? No one. What if the violator had resisted arrest? Then one of us would have likely been injured, the charges would be more serious, and the situation would have been needlessly escalated.

A different approach 

These days when someone doesn’t want to sign a citation, I take a different approach. It goes something like this:

Me: “I am issuing you a citation for XYZ violation. I need you to sign in the gray shaded area. Signing is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgment that you will take care of this before XYZ court date in XYZ county.”

Violator: “I am not signing this ticket. It’s BS.”

Me: “That is your right but signing is not an admission of guilt. You are signing in lieu of surrendering your driver’s license. If you don’t sign, and you’re free to do that, I will seize your license and issue you a temporary paper license. You can retrieve your license when you go to court on XYZ date (usually months away).”

Violator: Signs the ticket and drives away.

Does the violator leave happy? Not always. Do I needlessly arrest someone and potentially have to fight someone on the side of the road? Nope.

An argument could be made, and likely would be made by most cops, that the violator is to blame in the situation. But are they? It is ingrained in us since day one of the police academy that we must win. And win we must. But what is winning? Is it a win to get in an argument with someone upset they were caught speeding or upset because they will have to figure out how to afford their ticket? Should we get upset because they are upset?

The importance of emotional intelligence

I propose that we should use our emotional intelligence to handle the situation professionally and calmly. Emotional intelligence can be summarized as the ability to manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, to communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.

If we can manage our own emotions by understanding how an irate person affects us, we can remain calm in the face of provocation. If we understand where the anger is coming from when a person gets upset, we can empathize with their plight, even if we think it’s absurd. If we empathize with their plight, we can accept a little anger if it means a professional and calm resolution to our encounter.

Every officer should be taught the concept of emotional intelligence. It is a key component for crisis negotiation and can be used daily by officers in all roles of law enforcement. Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be improved by training. The benefits include fewer complaints, fewer uses of force, a more satisfied community and better opinions of law enforcement in general.

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