Cops and Communities: How Conflict Management Training Can Help

“Policing is a people business, and we ought to spend as much time teaching our officers how to talk to people as how and when to use force.”
— (Chief Kim Dine of Frederick, MD, noted in testimony for the Critical Issues in Policing Series) Bill Micklus

We have entered an era of increased police scrutiny, sparked by recent accounts of abusive police practices. People we never knew suddenly have become household names representing the many sad sides of this issue, and a highly emotional and complicated discourse has occupied our society.

No one disputes that the job of the police officer is a dangerous and often thankless one. They put their lives on the line every day, with the potential of facing an armed, hardheaded, impulsive, predatory, violent person, and under constant pressure to make quick, potentially life-or-death decisions. And no one would dispute that the core mission and obligation of law enforcement is to protect life, keep peace, enforce society’s laws, and offer a framework for people to live freely without the worry of victimization.

21st Century Policing: Conflict Management Training

Consider this interesting statistic: 80% of all police engagements are ‘low-level’ everyday events, such as traffic violations, loitering, and minor personal conflict between two parties. A major crisis or felony has not been committed. Here is the shocking part: Police get minimal-to-no training in these kinds of engagements. The training they generally receive is a ‘combat curriculum,’ such as hostage negotiation, crisis interventions, SWAT drills. While these skills are important, the average police officer will need to call upon them for a small portion of their day or, for that matter, their career.

What is missing? A way to productively engage with this citizen through conflict management, mediation and interpersonal communication skills.

“In the law enforcement profession, most of the officer’s communication skills are self-taught. Academies provide basic verbal intervention training and then the officer’s develop their own style with coaching from their Field Training Officers. Trial and error is their way to develop a style that works” says Bill Micklus of UMCPI. He continues; “Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provides a system, not just a style, for the officers to employ. When an officer is called upon to resolve a dispute, they count on their self-taught style to work for them. Videos from body-worn cameras show us that when their initial approaches don’t work, they tend to make two choices; first, they use the same technique over again, just louder. Secondly, they often go in random directions hoping that something they say will work.” “The environment has changed and Law enforcement officers must be open to innovative ways to approach those changes, including looking outside the traditional sources.”
— Bill Micklus - UMCPI

Mediators Beyond Borders Consulting (MBB Consulting) Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute (UMCPI) and Resologics

A new direction in police training is beginning to appear in forward-thinking police departments throughout the country. One such effective program is in place through a collaboration between MBB Consulting and Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute (UMCPI) (and a kick-start from Resologics) to train five police departments in conflict management.

As conflict advisors, ombuds and mediators, we are all honored to be taking part in this important effort. As Vanita Gupta, representing the US Department of Justice’s support of police training reforms, says: “Transformation is more than just . . . enactment of specific reforms. It really is a fundamental change in how the community relates to the police department and vice versa.” This is, in essence, what we have undertaken.

Among our citizenry are people who are dealing with difficult situations due to drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness, PTSD, or other emotionally-challenging causes.  When a police officer receives a dispatch call, they have no idea what is behind the individual’s behavior they are about to encounter. Armed with skills and training, instead of guns and tasers, that police officer is able to make an enormous difference in the outcome of that call.

“Officers have two primary styles to influence people or to seek compliance, coercion and cooperation. Coercion is a faster and more direct way to force compliance, but is limited when leveraging trust and cooperation. ADR gives officers a structured system of communication skills that support their current methods while providing significantly more options.”
— Jeffrey Range and Bill Micklus

Our, and now MBB Consulting’s (effort led by Jeffrey Range) collaboration with UMCPI has resulted in the development and piloting of a training class for police officers, which focuses on non-crisis situations, and includes exchanges between both police and citizens as well as among citizens.

Cops and communities: a partnership

We believe that conflict management, relationship-building skills, and balancing authority with empathy are crucial supports to 21st-century policing, and to changing the current dynamic between cops and communities.

Future articles will share more about this exciting partnership process and outcomes. We welcome your feedback on this important work.