Effective Criminal Justice Communication
Sir Robert Peel believed that for police to be effective in their objectives, public opinion had to remain positive. As founder of the world’s first modern law enforcement agency, the London Metropolitan Police, his views carry weight among law enforcement officials still (Oakes, 2011). To achieve this objective, communications by law enforcement personnel must be professional and clear; this is what Peel meant by “effective.”
Verbal versus Nonverbal Communication
The two areas of communication that law enforcement personnel must consider when seeking effectiveness in carrying out this mandate to maintain public approval are
- verbal communication
- nonverbal communcation
Verbal communication, naturally, involves the use of the spoken word and is the most common form of communication used by street-level officers who commonly give orders to suspects such as “stop,” “On the ground,” and similar commands.
Nonverbal communication includes not only the written word, but also gestures, and other forms of body language (Wallace and Roberson, 2009). Both forms must be mastered if the criminal justice professional is to remain effective and proficient on the job.
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In the daily activities of any officer, verbal communication occurs on a regular basis and reflects the department for better or worse. From the simple traffic stop to the domestic dispute, from the reporting of a crime by a citizen to the testimony of evidence by an officer, communications must be honest, direct, and clear. An undercover officer from Morgan City, Louisiana assessed the communication situation facing law enforcement personnel in this way, “Keep it simple, stupid” (Oakes, Personal Interview, 2011). What he described was the need in communications to keep the words simple and avoid saying too much, especially in reports. According to him, too much detail in a written police report can derail a case and too little can prevent a prosecution. If an officer attempts to use language which is too expressive or too detailed, the receiver of the message can easily become lost and confused. If the receiver is a jury, the case is likely to be lost as well. Thus, clear and direct is another way of saying ‘simple.’
In addition, nonverbal communication plays an active role throughout the system. From memos sent by superiors to demeanor presented in the courtroom, such communication can make the difference between a criminal punished or released. One study indicates that simple gestures such as leaning close to the jury when speaking and good eye contact greatly influence the result of the trial (Remland, 1993). It stands to reason, therefore, that if a jury can be influenced by body language, any communication by law enforcement personnel can be improved in such ways, especially when testifying. In every activity from speaking to the public either formally or informally to dealing with coworkers, good nonverbal communication is of equal importance with verbal, perhaps of greater.
Situational Considerations in Communication
A saying goes that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In the case of law enforcement personnel, this principle is of vital importance. The saying means that a officer must adapt to the environment and act accordingly. The same can be said of communication. By adapting communication to various environments and cultures, law enforcement personnel become more effective in their goal of protecting the public and apprehending criminals. Therefore, it is prudent to examine the various situations wherein law enforcement officers may find the need to adapt.
For instance, in situations requiring announcements to the public, law enforcement personnel may find the need to carefully choose their words and avoid technical jargon (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). The use of words not understood by the public will detract from the message and confuse listeners. Hence, when making such announcements, the axiom to “keep it simple, stupid” is best. In addition, one would need to remember that gestures and body language play a strong role in how the message is received and interpreted.
A second area of consideration is the courtroom. Law enforcement personnel are frequently requested to give testimony in court. In such situations, the officer must remain composed, speak truthfully, and clearly. Simple is a must, but detail is required or else the case could be lost to either a jury that does not understand what is said or to technicalities and again, what is communicated through nonverbal cues is important. Even judges need to be aware of the impact of nonverbal communication in the courtroom for there is evidence that expectations can affect the outcome which jurors decide (Rosenthal, 2002).
Even in correctional facilities, officers must be aware of the impact their words and gestures make on others. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the effects of words and actions on prisoners. In that experiment, the “guards” became verbally and otherwise abusive to the “inmates;” prison guards today must refrain from such actions. In addition, even among coworkers prison officers must exercise proper communication skills. In this setting, the Johari window is important, for guards should attempt to have as much knowledge in common wiht each other as possible (Wallace & Roberson, 2009). By increasing the window of shared knowledge, guards maintain solidarity and control of the inmate population. Finally, guards should always be clear and concise when giving instructions to inmates because of the often adversarial attitudes of some.
A special note of consideration is needed. Some correctional facilities house only juveniles. Guards in these environments need to be especially mindful of properly and effectively communicating with youths. Young people often misinterpret messages and reject authority. Hence, it is important that corrections officers in such settings be especially mindful of both verbal and non-verbal communication. They have an even greater challenge to effective communications than law enforcement officers in other settings and must be especially careful in choosing how to communicate. In dealing with young people, simple, clear language is vital. In addition, body language is still important for conveying the correct message in any situation which may arise involving juveniles.
Criminal justice personnel today are faced with daily challenges. One of the greatest challenges is effective communication. If communication is poor, their job and the jobs of others are made more difficult and the goals of the organization may fail to be met. If communication is effective, the results to the profession become positive and the goals become easier to reach for all.
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Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1998, Jul). The past and future of U.S. prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727.
Oakes, J. (2011, August). How Sir Robert Peel Influences Modern Policing. Retrieved from http://jeffoakes.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/how-sir-robert-peel-influences-modern-policing/
Remland, M. S. (1993). The Importance of Nonverbal Communication in the Courtroom. Information Analysis, (), 1-26.
Rosenthal, R. (2002, Nov). Covert communication in classrooms, clinics, courtrooms, and cubicles. American Psychologist, 57(11), 839-849.
Wallace, H., & Roberson, C. (2009). Written and Interpersonal Communication: Methods for Law Enforcement (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.