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August 26, 2010

A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way



My best friend’s father has owned a business in a surrounding city for nearly 30 years. Like many small businesses in this economic climate, he has been forced with the difficult task of closing his doors. With this comes the harsh reality of displacing his employees – one of whom has worked for him for 15 years. Unfortunately, this employee did not take the news very well and his anger at the situation manifested in the form of threats of violence against my friend’s father.

He called and told me that he has had to fire many employees over the life of his business but none left him with such an unsettling feeling as did this employee. For the first time, he felt as though a person was capable of harming him.

Workplace violence is a very real phenomenon as evidenced by the recent shooting of 8 people by a disgruntled employee in Connecticut. For this reason, I advised my friend’s father to call his local police department to report the incident.

But this column is not about workplace shootings. It’s about police service and how one interaction with an officer can formulate a reputation about that police department – and all police officers.

When the officer responded, my friend’s father explained the words and actions that lead him to believe that his employee may be capable of coming back to harm him. The police officer’s response was this: “You may as well hire a body guard because the police can’t protect you 24/7.”

Because I think like a cop, I will admit to you that the very same thought has crossed my mind in some situations. In fact, when people are victims of property crimes and ask for a full forensic work up, I have to fight the urge to make a sarcastic statement about watching too much C.S.I.

But then I remind myself that no matter how many similar reports I have taken, there are human beings that were victimized and the crimes against them are significant and singular to them. Now, I know for sure that my friend’s father was under no illusion that the police were going to provide him with a 24-hour bodyguard. He wanted the incident documented in the event that the employee returned. Furthermore, he needed some direction from a person who was equipped to give him some advice about keeping himself safe. What he didn’t need was a cop who seemed bothered by the fact he had to show up.

I realize that poor attitudes are not exclusive to the police profession. I have had many encounters in my role as a customer or client when I wondered how the person assisting me had come to loathe his job so much. I suppose it has less to do with the job and more to do with his or her overall attitude about life in general but that is a column for someone in the field of psychology.

Most people are reasonable and understand that a police officer cannot solve all of their problems. What citizens come to expect, however, is an attitude of service when they encounter a police officer. Service comes in many different forms but the most effective thing a police officer can do is provide people with a sense of empathy for their plight. It wouldn’t have taken much for that officer to tell my friend’s father that his fears were understandable and provide him with some tangible resources and reassurance that the police where there to assist him.

The most successful police officers I know have achieved levels of success by treating people with dignity and respect – whether it is a citizen to whom they are providing a service or a person who breaks the law. An important lesson for police officers is that people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

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