Communications: NBPD’s Modern Weapon

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This two-part series, by NB Indy writer Richard Simon, ran in the Feb. 7 and Feb. 14 printed editions of the Indy.

Picture the old-fashioned image of a local cop—someone meaner than a pot-bellied frontier sheriff who wasn’t happy until he hauled some fear-wracked “juvie” to the police station for the “third degree.”

To the officers of the Newport Beach Police Department, today’s “third degree” most likely includes a law degree.

The majority of our city’s officers have received Bachelors or Master’s degrees, or specialized education in the military. And many have earned post-graduate certificates from Federal and State agencies in management, sociology, investigations, leadership, and communications.

Many people who have been in contact with our officers (either having received a ticket or requesting police service) all comment that Newport’s cops must have attended charm school. That doesn’t mean they won’t talk with firm authority, if needed. Measured escalation is a management concept.

Along with self-defense training, every Newport Beach officer is coached in verbal judo: the art of defusing confrontation through astute and responsive communications. It goes way beyond the stereotypical tete-a-tete.

If one were to prioritize the steps of communications in law enforcement, “Listening is the key skill,” opined Sgt. Todd Hughes, a 25-year veteran with NBPD and one of the long time leaders of the department’s Crisis Negotiations Team (CNT used to be called the Hostage Negotiating Team, but the newer name has been embraced by most county law enforcement agencies). “In most cases, listening to what an individual says is more important than asking the questions.”

Listening goes deeper than just hearing, Hughes said, and that “extracting meaningful information is the crux of our job.”

An imperceptibly close second is “the ability to speak. You need to look comfortable doing it, and be comfortable doing it,” Hughes said.

With events being either recorded from uniform-affixed devices or picked up from camera/sound systems in patrol cars, a clear voice is vital. Today, electronic recording systems allow officers to optionally ditch pen and paper so that they can focus better on field interviews. Transcribed comments are more precise than field shorthand, which are often scribbled in stress situations and/or poorly lighted environments.

Next in Hughes’ priority line-up is written communications, or the ability to put accurately and succinctly on paper that which transpired so that others will understand what had happened. This is helpful when referring to the report to jog memory in case of court testimony.

Interestingly, Hughes pointed out that the field report does not become evidence.

Understanding, perceiving, reacting to and sending nonverbal cues may be the most basic of human communications. Cops are taught to enhance these abilities that every human learns from birth. Experience with a broad range of people hones their skills like a survival knife. Nonverbal communications either compliment or contradict a verbal message, which compounds the interpretive challenge facing an officer.

Nonverbal cues can include everything from style of dress to bad breath, from subtle facial movements to subtle changes in a foot’s position, from pursed lips to how one’s arms are hanging – even how close one may be standing and at what angle.  Literally thousands of involuntary cues over a very short period of time conspire to communicate how an officer must perform.

The mastery of this nonverbal language could very well save an officer’s life, as well as that of a suspect or innocent bystanders.

When you call 9-1-1, one of the finest communicators on this planet will focus all of her or his attention to assist: the police dispatcher, who in many cases is the first law enforcement voice with which a citizen may ever come in contact.

“Police dispatchers are amazing people,” Sgt. Hughes exclaimed. “They’re the first line of response.”

In just seconds, they must often take disjointed, hysterical, panicked, and incomplete reports, then convert those into usable information for appropriate communications to officers.

Like trained psychologists, dispatchers may have to de-escalate emotion on the other end of the phone, while they themselves display calmness in execution of their duty.

Their extemporaneous verbal skills surpass that of “improv” actors on stage; but the 9-1-1 dramas are for real, and performed 24-7.

Dispatchers are the front-line troops in crisis negotiations, Hughes said. The person on the other side of the phone line might be a bank robber who refuses to give up, a hostage taker, or a potential suicide.

In all instances, the reasoned voice of the negotiator is that “weapon” most likely to help defuse a very bad situation.

This is where the special skills – either natural or learned – of the negotiator come into play: a gift of gab, comfort in social situations, calmness, ability to evaluate a possible mental condition, and a thick skin, to name a few.

They must demonstrate empathy, and in some cases, sympathy, to give hope to possibly hopeless situations.

The only goal is “patient, peaceful and positive resolution of the situation,” Hughes said.   The final result, whatever that may be, in reality is not determined by the police.

Although a crisis negotiation happens rarely in Newport Beach, the CNT practices a minimum of 10 times every year. Often, professional actors are hired to play the part of psychotic persons, or a bank robber, or a rebuffed husband bent on suicide.

In other instances, a couple of police volunteers – who are somewhat familiar with police operations — are tagged to be the actors. And they are merciless in putting the negotiators through their paces.

In one post-mortem critique several years ago, a male negotiator actually blurted that he wanted to “punch” the actor. That player, who happened to be this writer, stifled a big smile as he left the scene, fortunately in one piece.

Detective Capt. Dale Johnson, who had led the negotiation team for 15 out of the 29 years he has been in Newport, named “integrity as being a police officer’s most important characteristic,” but identified “communications as the most important skill.”

“Communications is one of the greatest challenges for our officers, because they are required to communicate with diverse people in so many different areas – language, culture, socio-economic and generational,” Johnson said. “If a new recruit has some difficulty in communicating, we’ll place him with a field training officer who excels at it.   Throughout everyone’s career, we constantly work to enhance that skill.”

Capt. Johnson reflected on the countless instances where his natural ability to communicate came through for him. These weren’t prime-time movie-of-the-week highlights, but rather quiet scenes performed before no audience in which he talked potential suicides to come off ledges, where he convinced a bank robber to exit and surrender, where he calmed accident victims until the ambulance arrived, where he soothed the anger of warring partners, and where he counseled youngsters in terms of consequences.

Johnson attributes his focus on communications for every successful outcome. And sometimes maybe a little luck as well.

The public at large seldom sees the internal communications that take place daily within the department. Lines of communications reach out like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Chief Jay Johnson is the proverbial hub, and all point outward at his directions.

Not counting the intradepartmental communications, such as the twice-a-month Crime Statistics meeting, at which all command staff share their progress (or otherwise) as it pertains to crime control throughout the city, Chief Johnson regularly communicates with a broad array of audiences.

Those audiences include employee groups, police association, police management association, the general public, and the countless publics within the generic public such as civic associations and organizations, special interest groups, victims’ rights advocates, chambers of commerce, the city council and city manager, the media, professional organizations, and many others.

Despite his crowded calendar, Chief Johnson makes sure that he eventually communicates with everyone who has reached out to him. Management’s philosophy of open communication is one reason why the NBPD receives overwhelming performance approval in citywide annual surveys.

Communications is always a two-way process at the NBPD—it’s an arresting concept.

Contact the writer at [email protected].

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