Communication Currents

Police Communication: Why Does it Matter?

June 1, 2008
Intercultural Communication

One of the most common complaints civilians have about police officers is that their communication style is rude and arrogant. When officers adopt such a stance they run the risk of sending a message opposite to the one intended. As a result some members of the public lack trust in the police, and are unwilling to assist police in fighting crime. Although socio-demographic factors such as ethnicity, sex and age do affect attitudes to the police, police officers who communicate politely and convey concern are more likely to facilitate compliance.

By the very nature of their work, police officers communicate with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, attitudes, and preconceptions. These differences present several challenges. Officers are required to adjust their communication practices. They must quickly assess if the person they are talking to is a suspected or convicted felon, as an anxious member. Therefore, officers need to develop a type of code-switching that allows them to accommodate members of the public under some circumstances and to use authoritative forms of communication in others. To do otherwise could be literally life threatening under certain circumstances. This is a type of balancing act for officers who must accomplish two objectives: represent authority and induce compliance, and, at the same time, show concern, and gain respect and trust.

Trust is an important factor in establishing positive relationships. People tend to distrust members of dissimilar groups and may perceive them as threatening. For example, in police-civilian interactions, members of the public tend to see the uniform and the badge rather than the individual behind them. However, studies show that police officers who are willing to take the time to show kindness, understanding and consideration when interacting with others--especially those who may be distrustful--will likely foster a more positive atmosphere. This means a greater likelihood of cooperation. Indeed, officers prefer to use their communication skills to affect voluntary compliance wherever possible rather than having to resort to physical coercion.

That said police officers around the world differ dramatically not only in demeanor, but also in levels of corruption, abuses of power, and thresholds for the use of force. Are these differences potent in predicting civilian compliance when it comes to police-civilian interaction? To answer this question a study was conducted with over 600 undergraduate university students in Japan, Korea, Canada and Guam. Individuals of this age group commonly come into contact with the police for a variety of reasons. Some examples include: traffic stops, curfew violations, underage drinking, involvement in political demonstrations, and calls for help. In general, police officer communication style makes a difference. Police officers who appear more accommodating are considered more trustworthy. And generally, trustworthiness is linked to cooperation. In addition to this general finding, there was some variation between nations.

Japanese students are perhaps most likely to come into contact with local police officers who operate in kobans, or police boxes. They patrol the neighborhood, respond to calls for help, and assist detectives. Koban officers also act as neighborhood counselors and direction finders. Barring a few negative newspaper reports, Japanese police are generally well-regarded. Korea's police force presents a considerable contrast. Established by the Japanese during their occupation, and despite attempts at reform, the Korean police are typically viewed with suspicion. A 2005 survey found that citizens in urban areas who had contact with police reported perceptions of police corruption or negative ratings of service. Also some Korean students have taken part in demonstrations clashing violently with the police. This would explain why Korean participants found police to be less accommodating than did those of any other nation.

Conversely, studies in Canadian cities over the last couple of decades have found that attitudes towards police performance were generally favorable. This was also mirrored in the findings. Canadian participants in Alberta perceived police to be more accommodating than the participants from the other nations, including respondents on Guam who reported police as only moderately accommodating . This was expected based on news reports that document both police officers' achievements and misdeeds (for example, corruption, brutality, and evidence tampering).

Findings from this study highlight the universal importance of officer accommodation in their communication with the public and the resulting trust in police in maintaining a positive image of law enforcement. To be most effective, police officers should communicate in a style that is sensitive to the values, customs, and needs of a wide variety of community members within a given culture. In this way officers can be responsive to, and combat, the histories of immigrant minorities who often have had frightening experiences with non-accommodating (and even lawless) officers in their culture. However, accommodation practices can be counterproductive in certain ambiguous and, especially, physically- or life-threatening circumstances. Detecting cues to understand when to accommodate or code-switch to another more controlling and assertive style is a critical communicative skill.

About the author (s)

Valerie Barker

San Diego State University

Adjunct Professor

LilnaBeth Somera

University of Guam

Associate Professor

Howard Giles

University of California, Santa Barbara