Communication Is Key To Bridging Gaps And Overcoming Challenges Facing Law Enforcement

Date 03.23.2016

Written By Ted Sexton

Gaps, challenges, and communication are becoming increasingly important words when considering the career survival of both executives and line officers alike.  In this blog we will address how communication can be used to bridge gaps and alleviate challenges, ensuring the career survival of law enforcement executives.  Many law enforcement executives are appointed, and discover that somewhere within a four- to five-year period that their appointing body is ready to replace them with “new leadership”.  Reasons and issues for these feelings will abound. For elected sheriffs, these same issues left unattended will bring opposition on Election Day.

In a law enforcement sense, gaps are normally issues and wounds that have evolved over years and have deep seated roots which, by fact or perception, live on for the next chief to inherit. Examples of challenges in today’s environment would include deeply dividing issues such as race, custom and practices regarding use of force, high visibility patrol tactics, and the treatment of emotionally or mentally challenged individuals.  These challenges can be addressed by policy and training, but even more so by effective communication both internally and externally.  Gaps also can be addressed by developing open lines of communications, including the vital practice of listening, to give those concerned an opportunity to say exactly what’s on their mind.  At times, listening can be tough, but in my experience it usually leads to follow up dialog and the foundation of trust. For an executive that needs to build trust within the community as soon as possible, listening will be paramount.

In today’s ever changing dynamics, executives face daily challenges  to provide services and maintain a well disciplined and trained agency that meets the expectations of the public and local government.  While an executive many have clearly defined expectations on how their officers will interact with the community, the challenge is that their officers’ every word and even physical demeanor could be the catalyst to cause a gap in community trust. Years of building trust can be lost in seconds. The ultimate challenge for an executive is to balance the community’s expectations with the concern for their officers and employees to have a safe working environment, while also ensuring that their officers know  the executive will have their backs if necessary.

Communication skills, be it interpersonal, written, or verbal, are more important in today’s law enforcement environment than ever before. The abilities to communicate and   to listen to employees will often lead to sound relationships. For those executives that deal with union representatives, effective communication is even more important to develop trust and mutual respect. The ability to clearly define policy and training needs to persons from line troops to local government leaders to most importantly the community is pivotal.  In my experience, two-way dialog leads to constituency building amongst a community, which will help to close gaps previously mentioned and address community policing needs. 

Communications by social media is the new paradigm that some executives have identified and mastered. Basically gone are the days of an officer involved shooting statement made available based on the traditional media’s publication or TV news schedule.  “An officer involved shooting occurred and the department’s Internal Affairs Unit is investigating. We cannot make any further comments about the on-going investigation at this time.”

Executives need to be mindful that the days when the general public seek news from the traditional media are dwindling.  Social media is the new medium that most now utilize for their “news” in real time, eliminating the need to wait for the 6 o’clock news or morning newspaper. The consistent use of social media by law enforcement agencies today is as important as your radio infrastructure. Those who use and understand the use of all mediums of social media stand to reap great gains in developing lines of communications on a daily basis and particularly in times of crisis.

I am not recommending abandoning the traditional media. In general law enforcement agencies understand well how to work with and communicate through the traditional media outlets. However, the fact that many executives do not personally use or understand social media outlets has slowed many agencies to embrace the phenomenon.  To fail to realize the immediate benefit is to lose out on a medium to deliver your agency’s message directly and unfiltered to the citizens you serve. The opportunity to get the details of an incident directly to your community can serve as your initial press release. By doing so you address gaps and challenges in a way that communicates in a transparent direct fashion that can and will build trust in your community.

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Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is also the retired Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, a former National Sheriff's Association "Sheriff of the Year," and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.