The Power of Please
The FBI National Academy is like no setting I have ever visited. The most unique feature of the academy is that students and instructors are not allowed to pass another person without verbally greeting them. In fact, the greeting must be restated every time you pass them, all day.
The rule requiring pleasant greetings was put into place long ago to help officers feel at home while they are away from home. It is difficult to describe the positive impact this simple rule has on this very special place.
Could this type of climate be achieved in other settings, like hospitals, schools and universities? I believe it can. Would the benefits of this type of behavior improve not only the atmosphere, but also the very productivity of the people there? Can this type of demeanor help campus safety professionals improve their effectiveness? I believe the answer to both questions is yes.
Increased Respect Reduces Need for Use of Force
Although the effect might be achieved in a different manner, the same impact could possibly be gained by a few simple yet powerful customs. For example, the Southern tradition of habitually using “sir,” “ma’am,” “please” and “thank you” can have a big impact if widely applied and done in a way where officers aren’t just going through the motions. When I was a school district police chief, we had a standard practice of addressing not only the adults we interacted with as “sir” and “ma’am,” but the students as well, regardless of age.
This may seem strange to some, considering the extraordinarily high violent crime rate in our community and the sheer size of our school system. My officers arrested well more than 30,000 people during the 10 years I served with the department. We routinely arrested gang members, drug dealers and fugitives in our efforts to restore order in the high crime neighborhoods near our campuses.
While the fact that the officers in this department were highly trained clearly played a part, I believe the practice of affording citizens a high level of sincere and heartfelt respect had a lot to do with the dramatic reduction in the use of force as well.
From 1972 to 1989, before I was appointed chief of police, the 15 officers in the department were involved in 12 gunfights with one school district police officer killed. The use of other forms of force was also high, although officers were making only a fraction of the number of arrests they would in the following decade.
By contrast, from 1989 to 1999, only one campus police officer had to use an impact weapon to strike a suspect. Additionally, no officer was forced to fire his or her service pistol, tactical rifle or police shotgun, despite the fact that the number of officers in the department more than doubled and the annual number of arrests grew by several hundred percent.
Common Courtesy Leads to Fewer Lawsuits
Our officers had a saying, “You can run, but you will just go to jail tired.” It epitomized the level of aggressiveness in our patrol force. I have seen few environments where people breaking the law are more likely to be arrested, yet less likely to file a citizen complaint. I attribute this phenomenon to the genuine respect our officers had for everyone in the community, including those we arrested.
Attorney Randy Means, the highly regarded law enforcement trainer touts the importance of politeness in reducing litigation against police personnel. He makes a convincing argument that this approach makes good business sense. My department’s experience in the total lack of lawsuits filed during this same 10-year period using a policing style that was very aggressive by national standards would bear out his philosophy.
The power of genuinely treating other human beings with the utmost dignity and respect is a wonderful thing to behold. If this free yet powerful technique can dramatically affect human behavior in positive ways under challenging conditions, why isn’t it more commonly applied?
An internationally recognized authority on campus safety and the author of 19 books on the topic, Michael Dorn is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. Dorn, a member of the Campus Safety Advisory Council, works with a team of campus safety experts to make campuses safer around the globe through Jane’s offices in nine countries. He can be reached at [email protected].
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