Communication Barriers in the Law Enforcement Field
The recent incidences of fatal shootings of innocent and unarmed civilians by law enforcement officers have highlighted the importance of communication when it comes to law enforcement. For law enforcement officers, effective communication skills are the overriding pillars of success. Undoubtedly, they supersede any paramilitary training, special skills or experience that law enforcement officers have. Additionally, effective communication skills help in building strong interpersonal relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and the community. On the other hand, ineffective communication skills can lead career stagnation, a barrage of complaints from civilians, and poor working relationships. In extreme cases, as have been witnessed across the country, fatalities occur. Essentially, law enforcement officers communicate for a living and communication is a constant state of any given human society. Like all aspects of human societies, law enforcement is not immune to communication challenges. In essence, officers have to effectively navigate these barriers, which include language barrier and lack of comprehension of para-verbal and nonverbal clues, to ensure that they are safe while protecting the lives and properties of their colleagues and civilians. The need for overcoming these communication barriers has been heightened by the ever-increasing population of non-English speaking immigrants in various communities across the country (Shah, Rahman & Khashu, 2005).
Barriers to Effective Communication in Law Enforcement
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior” (Merriam-Webster n.d). This definition relays two important aspects of effective communication that are relevant in even contexts beyond law enforcement. By noting that it is the exchange of information, this definition recognizes the fact that effective communication is a two-way process marked by sending and receiving a coded message. Secondly, it identifies the various forms of communication that many law enforcement officers are required to use to safely and effectively execute their duties. It notes the fact that the message to be transmitted and received can be non-linguistic and linguistic representations or both.
For law enforcement officers, however, a safe and effective discharge of duty requires grasping paraverbal or paralanguage elements during verbal communication such as intonation, stress, and tempo. This shows that communication is a continuum with elements that interlink all forms of communication. Within the law enforcement field, effective communication also encompasses understanding the nonverbal clues contained in written messages such as emoticons, letters and word spacing, font colors, capitalization, and handwriting (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2010). Additionally, the emergence of advanced information technologies required law enforcement officers to grasp both traditional and emerging verbal and nonverbal cues used with emerging communication channels such as emails.
One of the leading barriers to effective communication within the law enforcement field is the semantics barrier. In law enforcement, like other professions, specific phrases, expressions, words, nonverbal, and paralanguage expressions have specific meanings. However, there is a different interpretation of these elements within the field, especially between the officers and the general public whose safety they are tasked to safeguard. Such differences also exist within the law enforcement field especially when it comes to the choice of expressions, symbols, and words (Waltman & Wagner-Marsh, 2010). Consequently, problematic communication may arise among the officers and between the officers and the general public. Mostly, semantics barriers manifest in the form of obscure messages due to wrong, sentence sequence, word or phrase choice by either the officers or the civilians. The resulting linguistic chaos can lead to chaotic communication. The law enforcement field comprises of numerous parties including victims, suspects, criminals, and attorneys. It also comprises of law enforcement officers and witnesses. These parties form a complex mesh of individuals with different skills and cognitive and psychosocial abilities. Certainly, the chances of any of these individuals misinterpreting or wrongly translating a message, symbol, or cue are high. In some cases, a communication breakdown as a result of semantics barrier can result from failure to clarify assumptions, use of technical jargon, and misinterpretation of body language (Waltman & Wagner-Marsh, 2010).
The incidences that lead up to the controversial fatal shootings of many African Americans by law enforcement officers bear the hallmarks of semantic barriers to communication. For instance, before fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, on 26th February 2012, George Zimmerman had assumed that he was one of the young men who had a penchant for burglary. Indeed, Martin was a guest of one of the residents of The Retreat at the Twin Lakes gated community where Zimmerman was tasked with policing. From the telephone recordings between Zimmerman and the dispatch team, it is possible to deduce that Martin was running away from Zimmerman while the officer assumed that he was a criminal (Schneider, 2012). Like in other cases of fatal police shootings, including that of Ezell Ford, Dontre Hamilton, and Tamir Rice, this case was a classic example of the police, civilians, or both misinterpreting and mistranslating both nonverbal and verbal cues. Consequently, the situations resulted into fatal shootings that sparked controversies in the country and beyond.
Effective communication is hinged on the establishment of a successful emotional connection between parties. Such a connection fosters enhanced understanding between all parties involved in law enforcement. However, psychological barriers such as distrust between communities or individuals and the officers significantly affect the all-important community-policing relationship. In such communities, cooperation with the police can be perceived as snitching and usually attracts backlash and retaliation. Moreover, premature evaluation and lack of attention can severely affect communication between parties involved in law enforcement (Waltman & Wagner-Marsh, 2010). In Trayvon Martin’s case, George Zimmerman prematurely evaluated the situation and concluded that Martin was a criminal. As an officer of the law based in the community, he failed to pay attention to the fact that even though he was wearing a hood, Martin might have been a law-abiding teenager walking along the streets of the neighborhood. The current security situation in the community led him to distrust young black men walking around the area. Undoubtedly, the same can be deduced from the reaction of Martin to Zimmerman’s presence. He ran off even though he was running towards his host’s house (Schneider, 2012). Premature evaluation, distrust, and lack of attention can also be cited in the case of Dontre Hamilton and Tamir Rice. The former was a mentally unstable individual who was fatally shot by an officer who did not pay attention to the existing procedures and distrusted people who resisted arrest or confronting an officer (Luthern, 2014). Hence, the officer prematurely evaluated the situation (Bever & Lowery, 2017). On the other hand, Tamir Rice was barely a teenager when he was fatally shot by officers who prematurely concluded that he was carrying a gun based on the information given by witnesses and their assessment. In reality, the young boy was carrying a toy gun.
When officer Timothy Loehmann and his colleague respond to the Tamir Rice situation, their initial dispatch left out a critical piece of information: the suspect was a juvenile (Daily News, 2014). Undoubtedly, that information would have significantly changed how they would have responded to the situation hence probably Loehmann would not have shot and killed the 12-year old. Moreover, the Cleveland police department failed to carry out background checks including his track record before hiring Loehmann (Bever & Lowery, 2017). Such communication initiatives would have revealed his emotional instability. This incident points to the organization-based communication barriers and their consequences. The failure to include the age of Tamir Rice in the initial dispatch amounted to subversion of organizational rules, regulations, and policies when it comes to effective communication. However, in some cases, these rules might have led to bureaucratic red tapes or complicated process that hindered effective communication.
With limited resources, priority should be accorded to addressing organizational issues that affect effective communication within the law enforcement field. Clogged communication channels as a result of corporate rules, regulations, policies, and culture can severely affect even officers with excellent interpersonal communication skills. Organizations set the standards of communication, progressively monitor the communication channels, and make adjustments whenever the need arises. Moreover, it is imperative that law enforcement organizations set up effective communication training programs for officers that are aimed at improving their listening skills and grasp of verbal, nonverbal, and paralanguages elements of communication. Such initiatives should also include community awareness programs, which are aimed at fostering improved relationships with the local communities. Research studies have established that the perceptions of the general public towards police work and procedural justice are determined primarily by how the police treat them during police encounters (Ratcliffe et al., 2015). Changing the public perception is critical in ensuring that law enforcers have a better connection and communication with the general public.
With unlimited resources, law enforcers should be trained on the languages spoken in the communities they police, which can be achieved by hiring bilingual officers. Also, additional language interpreters should be recruited to help the officers in dealing with Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals whose population is increasing across the country. Such interpreters will also enable the translation of verbal, nonverbal, and paralanguage elements used by the communities being policed. Furthermore, communities dominated by LEP individuals can be assigned to bilingual people who are capable of speaking the local language (Shah, Rahman & Khashu, 2005). Establishing a departmental language assistance program can help officers in bettering their communication skills.
Law enforcement departments across the country are beleaguered by poor communication skills. Some of the communication strategies and channels used by various parties within the law enforcement field are shown by the key concept involved in communication: exchange of information. Consequently, most players in the field have resorted to one-direction communication channels that are ineffective. Combined with the complexity and number of parties involved in law enforcement, poor and inefficient communication have led to the loss of lives and properties and a disjointed approach to police work in many communities. Effective communication in the field is restrained by semantics, organizational and emotional barriers. Some resources, will form a sturdy foundation for fostering effective communication in the field, notwithstanding tackling organizational barriers. Creating an organizational culture that intentionally promotes effective communication at a policy level will ensure that the rest of the solutions have a solid foundation for success. Additionally, it will ensure that communication bottlenecks that clog the organizational communication channels are unclogged while the personnel are trained and adequately equipped with practical, effective communication skills and knowledge.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d). “Definition of communication.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communication
Bever, L. & Lowery, W. (2017, May 30). Cleveland police officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice is fired — but not for the killing. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/05/30/cleveland-police-officer-who-fatally-shot-12-year-old-tamir-rice-is-fired/
Burgoon, J., Guerrero, L. & Floyd, K. (2010). Nonverbal Communication. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Daily News. (2014). Cleveland cop who murdered 12-year-old Tamir Rice not told boy’s age”. Daily News. New York. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/12-year-old-tamir-rice-shot-cleveland-autopsy-article-1.2043229
Luthern, A. (2014, December 22). “Ex-Milwaukee officer won’t be charged in Dontre Hamilton shooting”. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/former-officer-wont-be-charged-in-fatal-shooting-of-dontre-hamilton-b99398655z1-286559211.html
Shah, S., Rahman, I. & Khashu, A. (2005). Overcoming language barriers: Solutions for law enforcement. Vera Institute of Justice: Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice.
Schneider, M. (2012, March). “911 tapes in Trayvon Martin shooting released”. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved from: http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/11360266-418/911-tapes-in-trayvon-martin-shooting-released.html
Ratcliffe, J. H., Groff, E. R., Sorg, E. T. & Haberman, C. P. (2015). Citizens’ reactions to hot spots policing: impacts on perceptions of crime, disorder, safety and police. J Exp Criminol 11:393–417.
Waltman, J. & Wagner-Marsh, F. (2010). Adapting for Diversity: Overcoming Key Communication Barriers for Human Resource Professionals. Journal of International Diversity, 1(4), 92-104.