By Frank Borelli
©2009 New American Truth
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” -Abraham Lincoln
“Everything is a matter of perception.” -Shawn Davenport
What do those two quotes have in common? Whether or not you are a fool is a matter of perception. How what you say is perceived will determine how people perceive you. HOW you say WHAT you say will determine much of how people perceive you and what image you present.
Now, those who know me will tell you that I don’t believe “image is everything”. However, I do feel it important for law enforcement professionals to maintain a certain image. That image should be one of disciplined service; of professional assistance; of compassionate enforcement; of trained and motivated public safety operative. To maintain all of that at the same time is almost impossible, but I believe it can be done. As to the specific topic of how what we say can affect our image let’s look at a few examples.
My favorite and most obvious example is this: You’re in an urban area on a Friday night on foot patrol. There are a number of people coming and going from the local eateries and liquor stores. While walking you spot a local trouble-maker who is belligerent sober and a complete idiot while drunk. As he progresses toward you it becomes obvious that he not only has been drinking, but still is as he tips the bottle he’s carrying in a paper bag up to his lips. He’s staggering slightly as he walks and then he sees you. In one hand he has the bottle-in-a-bag. His other hand is in his coat pocket. Your senses are on alert but you don’t feel a particular threat yet. This guy has always been all talk. Still, you slow down as a precaution so that the distance isn’t being closed as fast. There are still plenty of people around “a dozen or more just within 10 to 15 feet of you. When the drunk jerk gets about 15 feet away from you he suddenly throws the bag to the ground, smashing the empty bottle inside. His left hand comes out of his coat pocket holding a box cutter “an edged weapon with a razor edge, but not one easily seen by the witnesses. Witnesses: everyone around you has turned to see what caused that crashing noise and sees the drunk with something in his hand. Your adrenaline is pumping so hard you can feel the top of your skull ready to pop off. You can hear your heart beating in your ears. The drunk says something about teaching you a lesson for all those times you treated him bad. You realize he’s only 15 feet away; well within the 21-foot limit set by Tueller and court decisions. Without really thinking about it you draw your weapon and start screaming at him as the gun comes up into your line of sight, the weapon’s sights lining up on the drunk jerk’s chest.
Here’s the million dollar question: What are you screaming?
We like to think that we scream coherent orders to drop weapons; get on the ground; stop or I’ll shoot! Most of us have seen the training video where one police officer says, “I’ll shoot your ass!” eight or nine times without pulling the trigger in a lethal force situation. That statement almost makes it sounds like he’s excited about the possibility of pulling the trigger. We know different only because he didn’t for so long. WHAT he said and WHAT you find yourself screaming can make all the difference in the world whether the witnesses say: “That cop just wanted to shoot that drunk,” or “That cop really didn’t want to shoot him. He had no choice.”
When the adrenaline is coursing through us and we’re ramped up in anticipation of a suspect fighting arrest it’s difficult to maintain any control over what we say. However, if we keep it in mind and train to say certain things then we can go a long way toward protecting ourselves. Instead of, “I’ll kill you, you SOB!” it would sound much better to say, “Don’t make me shoot you, sir!” A relatively small change that can mean a lot.
The first statement, as heard by a witness who doesn’t know you from Adam can sound like you’re eager to kill. It can lead people who are predisposed to think ill of the police to believe that you are hungry to harm a person rather than acting to protect others. Finally it implies that the choice of whether or not to pull the trigger is entirely yours. The second statement though leaves a different impression. “Don’t MAKE me?” puts the burden of the shooting on the suspect. HIS actions determine whether or not you are FORCED to pull the trigger. “shoot you” isn’t “kill you”. We shoot people in the process of performing our duties to stop a lethal threat presented either against ourselves or other innocents. We do not shoot people with the intention of killing them. Sir always sounds better than any derogatory word you can think of unless ma’am is appropriate.
For many of us, using words such as “sir” or “ma’am” are a sign of respect and we loath the idea of using them with reference to suspects. We have also all had someone call us “sir” or “ma’am” in a tone of voice that made it clear there was NO respect in the word. I submit to you that we can do the same thing “without the disrespectful tone. Using words of respect, such as “sir” or “ma’am”, doesn’t put us in an inferior position to the suspects. It doesn’t give them any power over us. It merely puts a more professional face on our interaction with them. In today’s world of personal media devices such as digital cameras, cell phone cameras, palm-size DVRs and more, we can’t afford to be caught acting unprofessional, even if it’s just in our language.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that any officer should EVER sacrifice any level of officer survival tactics, techniques or protections. However, if you have choice between saying something that can be badly misinterpreted by the public or something that can ONLY make you look better, then I’d opt for the latter choice all the time. I’d train for it. I’d think about it. I’d call people Sir even when I felt they weren’t worth the gum stuck to the bottom of my boot. That’s just more reason for me not to waste any of my precious time, financial resources, or career path potential for the small pleasure I might gain by telling them what I think of them.
When you’ve got them in cuffs and you’re alone in your patrol car you can bet that they’ll spout off even more. They know they’re relatively safe. There was a time I’d say that in the privacy of your patrol car was the place to tell the guy what you really wanted to say. In today’s world of video cameras INSIDE your patrol car, capturing the sights and sounds of your arrestee as (s)he is transported, I’d advise against saying anything at all if you can avoid it. Let them get ignorant. Let the tape work against THEM.
Witnesses can see things many different ways. If ONE thing happens with four different people seeing it, you’ll get four different stories about what happened and how. Do all YOU can to make sure that the four perspectives have a positive slant on the law enforcement side. Not only will it help you, it will help the law enforcement community in general as we move into the 21st century and the wonders of even smaller personal media devices.