Improving Officer Safety and Citizen Support: Solving the Puzzle

By Mike Masterson
Two police officers on horses talk to citizens on a gravel path.

Law enforcement agencies devote much time and energy to the tangible things that can be improved—better-equipped squad cars, more efficient technology systems, new police headquarters and firearms ranges, ballistic shields, energy-conducted weapons, and handgun and rifle rotations. These projects often take away the focus from equally important intangibles, such as how police officers treat others. How they regard people, from coworkers and citizens to the individuals they arrest, is crucial to law enforcement’s reputation and corresponds to officer safety. 

To make a law enforcement organization outstanding requires assistance and commitment from everyone through a carefully determined, consistent approach, one interaction at a time. The first steps toward becoming a top-notch police agency are harnessing the power of trust, improving control that comes from confidence, and capitalizing on the positives of respectful relationships with the public.

Law enforcement has a strong foundation in its mission statement: To Protect, Serve, and Lead the Community to a Safer Tomorrow. The Leadership Test, a document posted at the Boise, Idaho, Police Department, provides a daily reminder of police values by asking, “Are we doing the right thing…at the right time…in the right way…for the right reason?”1

Procedural Justice


In 2006 law enforcement forums introduced procedural justice, and many police agencies began incorporating it into their training. The theory of procedural justice indicates that compliance with the law and willingness to cooperate with enforcement efforts primarily are shaped not by the threat of force or the fear of consequences but by the strength of citizens' beliefs that law enforcement agencies are legitimate. It is not about enforcing laws or making arrests, but treating people fairly. Procedural justice contains four distinct elements.

  1. Voice: Individuals want the opportunity to explain the situation, to tell their story before officers make any decisions.
  2. Neutrality: The public wants evidence that law enforcement personnel act in a neutral, consistent, non-prejudiced way.
  3. Quality of treatment: People want to be treated with courtesy and respect. They do not want to be dismissed or disrespected.
  4. Integrity: Individuals want to see that the officer tried to do what was right in the situation.2
Chief Masterson
Chief Masterson leads the Boise, Idaho, Police Department. 

Law enforcement leaders in Washington State simplified these elements. They are included in the LEED Model.

  • Listen: Allow people the opportunity to provide their side of the story, to be heard, and to vent.
  • Explain: What are you doing, why, what the other person can do, and what is going to happen.
  • Equity: Tell the person why you are taking action. Provide a fair reason free from bias and show that officers consider the person’s input.
  • Dignity: Act with dignity and leave people with their dignity.3

These concepts are not original. What is new is the recognition of how these responses benefit successful policing interactions, from traffic stops to protest marches. There is one constant in all aspects of law enforcement’s mission and work. It is relational and involves those interpersonal contacts with people—the individuals with whom officers partner and work and, most important, the public they serve, whether while investigating a crime, solving a neighborhood problem, interviewing a witness, or making an arrest.           

Police agencies have struggled with some recurring obstacles that have slowed the development of the profession.4 Consistent respect, civility, and courtesy are among those hurdles that continue to challenge law enforcement. 

Public Cooperation

Law enforcement must be responsive to the "people realities" of the 21st century. Sir Robert Peel’s philosophy was that “police must secure the willing cooperation of the public through voluntary compliance of the law to…secure and maintain the trust of the people.” This seems like a simple theory until delving into the details of how to achieve it.5

Public cooperation is essential for law enforcement officers to accomplish their mission. Citizens generally think highly of policing as an institution. Law enforcement officers encompass the front line of defense against oppression, seeking justice for people who have experienced injustice. Often receiving optimum stature in the community, policing is the most visible form of democracy for ensuring liberties and freedoms. The two pillars of authority under which officers operate—legal and ethical—are of equal importance. Without public trust, confidence, and cooperation, police officers have little chance of achieving their objectives.

Officers are in the people business, providing a form of customer service. There is a strong nexus between officer safety and public treatment, particularly with apprehended individuals. How law enforcement personnel treat people often determines how those citizens regard the next officer they meet. If law enforcement personnel attack the dignity and respect of a suspect, how will that person interact with police during their next encounter?

Citizen Respect

A citizen of Boise, Idaho, Mark had many police contacts and arrests during the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was angry at law enforcement because during one arrest [he alleges] an officer called his dad, a pilot who died in combat in Vietnam, a “piece of crap.” It became Mark’s mission in life to tell that story to as many people as possible, and each time he repeated it, the police department’s reputation suffered. The man’s behavior became so aggressive that he drove around looking for marked police cars and made obscene gestures to the officers to provoke a confrontation. After learning Mark’s story, a day shift watch commander (a lieutenant) and the police chief (the author) created a certificate from the Boise, Idaho, Police Department recognizing Mark’s dad as a hero who sacrificed his life for the country’s safety and freedom. The watch commander and the police chief presented the certificate to Mark at a local restaurant. In tears, Mark stared at the document for an hour after the officers left. For over 6 years the police did not have any problems with Mark. He finally got what every person who has contact with law enforcement wants—fair treatment with respect and dignity. Mark passed away in December 2012, but not before Boise, Idaho, law enforcement officers honored his request for a final personal get-together.

Poet Maya Angelou once said, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”6 The one aspect of police work the public will remember over time is how law enforcement officers treated them. The three most important ingredients for success are treating individuals, including those who violate the law, with fairness, unconditional respect, and civility. When officers treat citizens in this manner, these people likely will mirror the same treatment when dealing with police in the future.

When handling citizen complaints, such as when an officer shoots a mountain lion, police should keep in mind that customers are not always right, but there is nothing to gain by proving them wrong. Without yelling, debating, or negating the person, an officer should say something, like “While I value your right to express your opinion on this matter, I respectfully disagree with it because….” When a complainant calls about a ticket or policy issue where the officer’s performance met leadership’s expectations, the chief could say, “I am sorry you feel this way” or “I am sorry the incident went so poorly for you.” Expressing empathy—saying we are sorry for how another person perceives the way they were treated—is not a sign of weakness and does not make an issue of the officer involved.

People have the right to comment on government management and what they perceive as unjust. Officers do not have to agree with them. The value is in acknowledging the citizens' right to their opinions, which are shaped by their experiences. The goal at the end of any conversation is to leave a person’s dignity intact. Law enforcement personnel may meet citizens again as victims, neighbors, witnesses, or jurors, and it is important for these individuals to remember their last police contact as fair.

The program Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect encourages officers to treat everyone they encounter, including criminals, with a basic level of unconditional respect. Over time, this lessens community hostility, promotes citizen cooperation, improves crime statistics, reduces complaints and lawsuits, diminishes personal stress, and increases officer safety.7 The way police treat the public today affects officer safety tomorrow.

Respecting people is not a form of appeasement and does not require police officers to tolerate injustice or relax moral and ethical standards. The way personnel choose to conduct themselves, especially when dealing with someone difficult, rude, or cruel, is a reflection of character and personal commitment to being the better person. It has to do with what people merit intrinsically and the foundation officers lay for those who follow. Respect is not a soft skill; it is a hard skill that takes time and patience to develop.8

Showing respect is not a sign of weakness and should not be confused with being ineffective. Being a tactically sound officer means having respectful relationships with the public, even in situations involving an arrest.

Police Fairness

When police officers are fair to people, those individuals develop greater support and respect for law enforcement.9 A recent report, It’s a Fair Cop: Police Legitimacy, Public Cooperation, and Crime Reduction, based on a national survey, examined what motivated the public to cooperate with law enforcement officers. The most important factor found with citizens cooperating and abiding by the law was that when people thought police were on their side, they were less likely to commit a crime and more inclined to help the authorities.10

Chart showing the path to public/police cooperation, which includes communication, trust, civility, shared values, fairness, and unconditional respect.

The public ranked trust, shared values, approachability, and friendliness as most important in perceiving police fairness. In other words, people will never forget how you made them feel. Four major factors shaped this perception.

  1. People thought that officers would treat them with respect.
  2. Police made fair decisions.
  3. Officers took time to explain decisions or answer questions.
  4. Law enforcement officers were friendly and approachable.11

Research revealed that the better the quality of the interaction between police and the public—the way officers talked, interrelated, and treated people—the higher the level of trust, which then encouraged greater respect for the law and those who enforce it.

Effective Communication

The ability to control emotions and actions sets law enforcement apart from many occupations. Factoring in that police are the only professionals authorized to use force legally, it is imperative for officers to devote time to improving the first line of defense—communication skills.

Effective communication skills are fundamental in all successful relationships. In policing it begins with how officers express themselves using effectual language and carefully chosen words to achieve professional objectives. It is the distinction between commanding and communicating. Words are a force option to gain voluntary compliance.

Research has indicated that if officers answer a “why” question, 70 percent of the time they will receive no further resistance. Explaining why implies respect for the person asking. Estimates showed that police presence and verbal direction are effective in gaining voluntary compliance 97 percent of the time with only 3 percent requiring empty hand, intermediate weapons, or deadly force.12 Through training and practice, police officers can hone communication skills and improve officer safety.

Asking questions with respect for the person separates people from their anger. Police can give the individual the last word; the officer has the last act. These concepts, called “verbal judo,” involve the mastery of communication by directing behavior with words.13

Best Practices

Law enforcement best practices involve moving police organizations toward a responsive view of seeing members of the public as people, not objects. This is not necessarily a new way of thinking for police because many advanced-thinking agencies recognize the importance of this approach. When hired many officers indicated that their interest in policing was to help make a difference in people’s lives. Police must maintain that passion in their professional lives, even though they may witness horrific crimes and blatant disrespect by others. Despite these experiences, officers must not develop a good cop/bad people mind-set. It is important in law enforcement to understand the merit of regarding all individuals, even suspects and criminals, as human beings. That does not mean that officers should trust everyone, let their guard down, or avoid using force when necessary. Police can be tough on bad behaviors without treating people poorly and fueling their resentment.14

With regard to unconditional respect, the challenge for law enforcement is how to move from concept to practice, from idea to method, and to establish it as part of police culture. Officers accomplish this through training, cooperating, and sharing success stories. They must help each other acquire these skills and use them inside and outside the organization.

Police officers should have a positive influence on the lives of individuals and use every opportunity to build constructive relationships with the public. This comes from the inside out. Law enforcement will not achieve this organizationally until each officer understands the skill and value of internalizing it personally.

Tactical Communications

The concept of tactical communications involves using words to gain voluntary compliance. It includes recognizing behaviors that require immediate use of force.

  • If a suspect jeopardizes officer security
  • Once a police officer is attacked
  • If an offender flees
  • If a suspected criminal uses excessive repetition (e.g., “no, no, no I will not”)
  • When revised priorities require it for dealing with the immediacy of a situation

These communication skills often are introduced to law enforcement personnel through training. Officers must understand the Five Universal Truths of Human Interaction—from verbal judo.

  1. All people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
  2. Everyone wants to be asked, rather than told, to do something.
  3. All individuals want to be told why they are being asked to do something.
  4. People want to be given options, rather than threats.
  5. Everyone wants a second chance.

To improve tactical dialogue, police must learn to be cautious of certain dangerous assumptions they sometimes make. These include several suppositions.

  • Physical power is the best weapon.
  • Fear works better than kindness.
  • People are basically bad or corrupt.
  • Officers distrust words as an effective power technique.
  • You cannot talk with drugged or disturbed persons.

Law enforcement officers who are too rigid in their role conception may be subject to manipulation. They must question whether intimidation works or not.15

Tactical communications classes encourage officers to apply a mind-set of disinterest, or nonbias. A course offered by the Boise, Idaho, Police Department provides two strategies for remaining disinterested. First, ask by focusing on who, what, when, where, why, and how. Second, direct by using strip phrases—a verbal judo concept—such as “I hear that, but…” or “I can appreciate that, but….” Officers can use these phrases to achieve their professional objectives. The use of these tactics puts the police officer in control of the conversation, preventing the situation from going in the direction a difficult person may be trying to go in.16

Progressive communication techniques help officers keep emotions under control when dealing with disrespectful people. These methods defuse verbal confrontations, de-escalate physical resistance, and gain voluntary compliance.

  1. Ask—the ethical appeal—“May I please see your driver’s license?” This works well with those who generally respect authority.
  2. Set the context—the reasonable appeal—“Would you please give me your driver’s license so I can complete my investigation?”
  3. Present options—the personal appeal—“I need your driver’s license because you have committed a crime, and I am going to issue a ticket and release you.”
  4. Confirmation—the practical appeal—“One last time, is there anything I can do to convince you to give me your driver’s license?” The appeal here is “What is in it for me?”17


For decades law enforcement leadership has asked officers to remain professionally distant from those they serve. Today the goal is to incorporate respectful, strategic communication into verbal and command-presence dialogue with the public. Law enforcement’s role is relational, and officers are “contact professionals.”  

Law enforcement officers train for active shooter, ambush, and other tactical scenarios. Maintaining the skills involving the use of force is critically important, but not to the exclusion of the strategic skills necessary at the beginning of a contact. Communication is the first step to officer safety, and it is time to draw from research and emphasize the importance of effective communication skills.

If police officers feel better about themselves and their role in society, their work environment will be safer, and they will be confident that they have the most support possible from the community. It is exciting to bring together experience, research, and best practices to develop today’s law enforcement officers. Participation and commitment are important for the community; law enforcement families; and officers who protect, serve, and lead the community to a safer tomorrow.


The Leadership Test, used by permission of Bill Westfall, Gallagher-Westfall Group.

Tom Tyler, “Procedural Justice,” (accessed May 13, 2013).

Susan Rahr, John Diaz, and Joe Hawe, “The Four Pillars of Justice Based Policing: Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity,” (accessed May 13, 2013).

David C. Couper, Arrested Development (Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2011).

Jack Colwell and Charles Huth, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 2010).

From a poem by Maya Angelou, as quoted by Bob Kelly, Worth Repeating: More Than 5,000 Classic and Contemporary Quotes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2003).

Colwell and Huth, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect.

Colwell and Huth, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect.

Andy Myhill and Paul Quinton, It’s a Fair Cop: Police Legitimacy, Public Cooperation, and Crime Reduction (Great Britain: National Policing Improvement Agency, September 2011).

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p. 6.

12 Statistics from the Boise, Idaho, Police Department, use of force training.

13 George Thompson, Verbal Judo: Words as a Force Option (Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing, 1983), 19.

14 Charles Huth, Force Science News 199, (accessed May 13, 2013).

15 Boise, Idaho, Police Department training material, adapted from concepts of George Thompson, Verbal Judo: Words as a Force Option (Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing, 1983), 19; George Thompson, Verbal Judo: Redirecting Behavior with Words (Jacksonville, FL: Institute of Police Technology and Management, 1994); and George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion (Colorado Springs, CO: William Morrow-Harper Collins Publishers, 1993).

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.