How Police Can Better Navigate Cultural Differences

A San Diego police officer looks on during a protest against measures aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus on May 1, 2020, in San Diego, California.

A San Diego police officer looks on during a protest against measures aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus on May 1, 2020, in San Diego, California. AP Photo/Gregory Bull

 

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COMMENTARY | Tactical communications training can enhance safety and increase officer efficiency as local governments face shrinking budgets and calls to change how police operate.

Too many lives have been lost to police brutality, particularly in communities of color, and citizens are hungry for transformational changes in law enforcement’s approach. The outrage and protests across the country in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—and then the shooting of Jacob Blake in my home state of Wisconsin—have state and local officials working overtime to identify what meaningful, cost-effective steps police departments and local governments can take to prevent future tragedies.

One answer lies in requiring police nationwide to undergo Tactical Communication (TACOMM) training, which teaches verbal and non-verbal communication skills to help police maintain calm in tense situations. Today’s law enforcement officers are more mobile than their predecessors, responding to a variety of calls that expose them to different cultures, customs and communications styles they may never have been exposed to before. TACOMM promotes positive interactions with diverse community members, gives officers more tools to safely de-escalate and changes their behavior from automatic responses to more thoughtful, conflict resolution approaches.

Cultural Differences and Policing

Cultural conflicts, especially between officers and the communities they serve, occur for two main reasons. First, people typically rely on stereotypes when encountering cultural differences—especially when it comes to differences of emotional restraint versus emotional expressiveness and direct versus indirect communication. For example, an officer who comes from a culture of emotional restraint may misconstrue a direct and emotional person as aggressive, when in fact it’s just that person’s natural communication style. A second common reason for cross-cultural misunderstandings is our tendency to interpret others’ behaviors, values and beliefs through the lens of our own culture. An officer may harbor pejorative stereotypes about those who communicate in a fashion opposite to their cultural values. This leads to distorted expectations about that person’s behavior, as well as potentially dangerous misinterpretations. Both of these roots of cultural conflict can lead to officers defaulting to unnecessary force.

How TACOMM Training Works

The principles of tactical communication were first developed by Dr. George Thompson of the Verbal Judo Institute. This well-researched and field-proven methodology has been taught to over one million individuals worldwide since 1983—in one study of the Louisville Police Department conducted in 2020, tactical communications training helped lead to a 28% decrease in officers’ use of force.

TACOMM training provides a framework for considering culture in the community and identifying strategies that work, when communicating with individuals of different cultural identities. Officers acquire practical skills, such as how to be a better listener and how to frame complaints in a way that makes a person feel heard. They learn to phrase commands in a culturally responsive manner, in order to increase cooperation and eliminate misunderstandings. 

My organization, the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) has been conducting communication trainings and police/citizen dialogues in San Diego over the past five years. Soon, we will offer TACOMM training to all California trained police officers. Our workshops, which build on the principles first espoused by Thompson and include our experiences in San Diego, aim to ensure officers can manage high stress and potentially high-conflict situations by building bridges between law enforcement and communities in their engagement with citizens. Our trainers have identified several elements that go into a successful TACOMM training. These are:

  1. Incentivizing the training for officers. Any TACOMM training program should be accredited by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) board, so officers who participate receive continuing education credits that position them for career advancement. NCRC’s training is accredited by the California P.O.S.T.
  2. Incorporating the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory, developed by Mitchell R. Hammer, to help officers more accurately interpret the statements and actions of others. This tool gives officers an opportunity to reflect on their own communication and conflict resolution styles and to consider how community members react to conflict, from a cultural perspective. Officers learn to better manage the stress and anxiety that is often present in conflict situations and feel more confident in their interactions.
  3. Using trainers with law enforcement backgrounds. TACOMM trainers should have a background in policing or law enforcement, which increases their credibility with and relatability to participants. This is a standard NCRC practice.
  4. Giving officers the opportunity to talk about their experiences. For the training to stick, officers need to be able to openly talk about cultural considerations in the areas they serve, speak honestly about what they have encountered and learn from the experiences of their peers.
  5. Measuring officers’ attitudes before and after. TACOMM training programs should administer pre- and post-workshop surveys to measure skill acquisition. Notably, participants in our training have reported a 20% increase in their ability to: 
    • Determine the needs and feelings of others when managing conflict;
    • Respond to conflict and achieve a positive outcome; and
    • Recognize the cultural cues that influence conflict and its resolution.

Practical Considerations

Racial bias and racial inequities are deeply embedded in police culture throughout the country, beyond Kenosha, Minneapolis, Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities. This is reflected in the disproportionate rates of police actions against people of color, from traffic stops to—most tragically—the use of fatal force.

Law enforcement officers must make many split-second decisions per day. TACOMM training is designed to enable them to assess the situation from a more educated perspective, with the intent to reduce the number of times they might default to use of force. When a local government invests in TACOMM training, it demonstrates a commitment to sustainable change. Officers leave TACOMM training with a better awareness of their own communications styles versus those in the communities they serve. This allows for better interactions with citizens who differ from them culturally and leads to more effective de-escalation in crisis situations.

When officers understand their communities better, their perceptions change. This in turn strengthens cities, and makes everyone safer, no matter who they are or what side of the badge they’re on.

Steven P. Dinkin has served as president of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) since 2003. For more information on NCRC, tactical communication for law enforcement and/or corporate training programs, visit www.ncrconline.com or email info@ncrconline.com.  

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