As Easy As Parenting, Part III: Bridge-Building in the Community

Posted on 29 March 2011 by


In Part I of this series, Dave described how officers should use their interviewing techniques not just on suspects, but on everyone they come in contact with in the community. In Part II, Dave set forth his personal philosophy and tactics for conducting non-hostile, non-custody interviews. Your mileage may vary, but this is how Dave does it. In this Part III of this Two Part series, Dave offers some take-away points and tips on how to apply the techniques and tactics described throughout the series in everyday conversations. And in Part IV, Dave will cover in-custody and hostile-witness interviews.

I am a firm believer that we are an integral part of our communities, not separate from them. As a rookie cop, I couldn’t see it, but as the perspective of my personal lens has become much broader, it has become very clear to me that this is the case. As time has passed, I’ve learned lessons, and I now see the value of relationship building.

So I make it a point to get to know not just our frequent flyers, but everyone who will afford me the opportunity to let me get to know them.

This may sound self-serving, but every contacts I make has the potential to help me do my job more efficiently and accurately.

The payoff is huge.

There is never a day, nor a time in my day when I will not set aside a few moments to get to know somebody. Some cops are much more comfortable doing this than others – and frankly some are much better at it.

Leveraging Your Skills
I have spoken about some techniques in dealing with interrogation of suspects and witnesses before (and will get to the custodial interrogation process as I see it in the next part of this article). Some of the same strategies apply to this type of interview.

As I do during custodial interviews, I always introduce myself by first name. I never lie or embellish. I still offer to buy someone a drink or hand over a stick of gum or a sticker to a kid.

But relationship-building interviews and conversations are markedly different in many ways. The goal of this type of interview is to build a bridge between you (the overbearing Police Department) and the rest of the world. It is much more casual than interviews with suspects or people of interest to a specific investigation. You’re not trying to make a case on the person you speak to, but rather, you’re working to gain allies in the community, and streams of intelligence.

You can attend public meetings, citizen police academies, and other public-relations-inspired events throughout a year, but simply communicating with people tends to return more valuable information than anything concocted during the buzz of the community-based policing frenzy.

Breaking The Ice
Making good contacts is relatively easy stuff. One of the first steps after introducing yourself is icebreaking. A simple, “How are you doing today” or “How do you like your iPhone?” will work. Just don’t be offensive. After that, the door usually opens right up.

People are generally curious about what we do day in and out. Make it easy for them to ask and the tell them.

Explain your job and tell them what different divisions do. People are intrigued to know what is on your belt, how bail works, what a Tasing feels like, etc., etc., etc. Just tell them – you were curious about it at one time or another yourself.

Do not make someone feel dumb when they ask these questions. If you know the answer, tell them. If you don’t know tell them that too. Don’t get discouraged if you have to explain that driving barefoot isn’t illegal, even if you have answered that question 100 times.

If your department offers citizens ride-alongs, explain these, and be prepared to see them again soon. I encourage you to respond during these conversations by asking similar questions of them. Ask what they do for a living, if they have kids, where they go to school and the like. It is really important to try to make these relationships as valuable as possible and I do this in a few ways.

Learn About Them
As before, I really try my best to learn about the person. Show sincere interest and find similarities to talk about. Inject a little about yourself, be prepared to answer many “Is it true that . . .?” questions.

Listen keenly. Find out what neighborhood a person lives in, where they work, and listen for things they consider problems. Offer solutions or tell them that you don’t know how to solve them but you’re interested in helping.

Give Something
Show your concern and willingness to go out of your way for members of the community and you will reap the benefits. Offer to drive by their house if they go on vacation, even if your department doesn’t generally offer this service. Stay true to your word. If you offer to do something or promise a follow-up, complete the task.

It is worth noting that, while this strategy works very well with anyone, I have found that it works really well with those who expect it the least: the guy with a shady past, or the anti-government skeptic.

I can’t say that I give my home phone number out to every stranger I meet, but I won’t say I haven’t ever done it. One of my best sources of information is an over-sized, tattooed beast of a man who has a past that includes some fairly violent stuff.

I met him shortly after he got out of prison when I arrested him (two sets of cuffs) for assault. Though he was not happy to go to jail, he was treated with respect and today, he has my cell phone number and even friended me on Facebook.

To be fair, he’s turned his life around and has become a great asset to society and to me. I will from time to time get a call from him in which he will ask for advice on how to handle a problem, and from time to time he’ll get a call from me to ask him for some of the same.

This all started by having a simple, polite conversation on the way to jail.

A conversation during which I empathetically listened to what he had to say.