Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Misguided loyalties: An open letter I hope will produce a great cop!

To the young, hopeful police cadet at the public counter:

Young man,

I applaud your desire to be a uniformed police officer. I’m certain – 100% certain – that you are motivated by goodness and for all of the right reasons. I hope that you accept this message with the knowledge that I, and the rest of the community, hope that you become a model public servant at a time we really need model public servants.

First of all, I hope you will believe that you were, in many ways, a victim today.
You were the victim of a very common phenomenon among corporations, organizations and public agencies. As my wonderful and brilliant friend, Barbara Quint, says, “They make the mistake of putting the least experienced and least knowledgeable people on the skin of the organization facing outward --- they ask them to answer the phones or greet the customers.

When your superiors read this criticism of them, they won’t feel good, but those with wisdom and a good grip on reality will agree with me. They’re not likely to admit it, but I know they are also good people who entered law enforcement for the right reasons.

What happened today in the lobby of the police department was absolutely wrong and absolutely unnecessary. The problem is that you were put in an important position, but they didn’t arm you with the skills that are mandatory if you’re planning to be an effective law enforcement officer. They put you on the counter and then failed to offer you the support you must have. They put you n the counter and failed to either teach you or convince you that your job is to serve the public. So I have sympathy for you. I’m very unhappy with the policy that put you in that uncomfortable position. I hope, however, that this detailed letter will offer you information that you will treasure in the future. For a few days it’s going to trouble you probably. It should. If it doesn’t, you might question whether you’re in the right field.

The woman came to your window with two problems. The first and most difficult problem for her was that she doesn’t speak English. OK, she spoke enough English to say to you, “I don’t speak English.” I’m sure she repeated that well-practiced line at least a dozen times during her troubling time at the police department.

Right off the bat, when someone says they don’t speak English, please believe them. As you’ll see in today’s horrible newscasts about the Fullerton Police officers charged with murder and manslaughter, sometimes things get out of hand when they shouldn’t.

When someone says they don’t speak English, the first thing you should do is to understand that this is the time that, if you say anything, you should say it clearly and with good diction. The response, “You’re speaking English to me now,” is not a good response. When you learned what language she spoke, you did the right thing by trying to find designated interpreter in your department for that language.

Here’s where the department let you down. The designated interpreter wasn’t in the building. You spoke with someone on the phone who apparently said they’d help her on the black telephone in the lobby. The poor woman stood with her ear to that phone for more than five minutes, occasionally saying, “Hello? Hello?”

How long should a customer who has no clue what’s going on have to wait for someone who doesn’t pick up the phone before you realize that it’s time to find another solution to the problem? In my opinion, you should have been trying something else after about a minute or two.

That’s when I asked you if there’s something else you could do to solve the problem. Yes, I asked it a lot of different ways, but you answered it pretty much the same way. Your response was that there was nothing you could do about it.

That’s where you make the fatal mistake. Yes, I could blame the department for hanging you out to dry or for not empowering you to think outside the booth and solve a simple problem.

To make it clear, the problem was that she speaks a language that you don’t speak. I don’t speak that language either, but I know for a fact that there are many, many people working for your city who do speak that language. I found a good candidate on your bulletin board. There was one commander listed who I could tell speaks that language.

However, when it was clear that you were immobilized by the problem, I used my cell phone to call a friend who lives and works in New York City. She speaks the language. It wasn’t difficult for me to brief her, hand the phone to the elderly woman who doesn’t speak English, learn from my friend what the woman needs and then tell you, the person at the public counter.

Thank heavens the problem wasn’t one of life or death. She simply wanted to contest a citation. Heck, I could take over from there. I know all about how to do it. You do it at the courthouse. But then she pulled out the parking ticket and I knew that she was in the right place – at least the right place to start.

Here’s your second mistake, in my opinion. You said something akin to “Why didn’t you tell me it was about a parking ticket.” Do you remember her response? I do.

“I don’t speak English.”

You pointed toward the traffic window and suggested she get the form to fill out. Her reply?

“I don’t speak English.”

So I took her down there so I could tell the person at that window what the problem was. You did something then that I applaud. You also walked to the window and handed her the form she would need to contest the citation.

Of course, the form was in English. I asked her if you might have it in her language, but you told me there isn’t one in her language. Then she looked at the form.

“I don’t speak English.”

I came up with a plan that would help her, but first I returned to your window to express how disappointed I was in what I had just witnessed. This is the part where I wish you had listened, but I believe you were more motivated to prove your innocence. That’s normal.

But here’s the message that I gave you. Your job as a policeman or a police cadet is to serve the people – to solve their problems. As I said to you, your career as a police officer is mostly about solving people’s problems. When I you said there was nobody in the building that speaks her language, I reminded you that one of the commanders certainly must speak that language. Your reply was something like, “He’s probably busy.”

That’s where the message became very, very clear. You are more afraid to bother a commander than you were to throw your hands up and say to the woman (who doesn’t speak English) that she’s not important.

This is the part where I reminded you that you work for her. You work for me. You work for every person in the city. You are a public servant – not a commander servant. Now, in all fairness, as I mentioned, you were set up. If the administration of your department were to remember who they work for, they would have said something to like:

“Young man, our job is to protect and serve people. We work for them. We have powers that they don’t have and they rely on us to solve their problems. Some are about protecting them from danger, but most of them are about helping them with something we have the ability to help them with. So when you work the public counter, please remember that we expect you to go out of your way to help the people for whom we work. We need their support. We need to spread the word that, in the end, we’re here for them. You’re a cadet, so it’s understandable that there are many things that you don’t know. It’s not easy working a desk when you don’t have the training and experience that the rest of us have. So because of that, you need to know that you are only a phone call away from the dispatcher, the supervisor, and, if necessary, the watch commander. In fact, I’ve instructed every employee here to be at your beck and call if you’re with a member of the public who has a problem that you can’t solve on your own. Just let us know and we’ll jump to help you. After all, we work for the public.

“Now, if you can’t reach the supervisor or the watch commander, then here are the phone numbers of all of the commanders. You should not be left alone to solve problems that you’re not empowered to handle. Don’t ever be afraid to call on anyone you think might be able to help you solve that problem.

“But most important, don’t leave a customer hanging! Never! Some will be difficult, some will be bellicose, some will be confused and some will speak no English. It’s your job to facilitate the solution to their problems.”

But I doubt that you got this message from the supervisors, watch commanders, commanders and others who work for me --- and for that elderly woman who doesn’t speak English.

Here’s a great way of handling situations when you don’t know what to do next. Just say, “I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but I promise you I’m going to get an answer right away!” It works every time. The message is, “I’m on your side and we’re going to solve this problem together. After all, I work for you and you expect police people to be there for you.”

When I worked in law enforcement, there were many people who called us when they should have been calling someone else. I could have said, “That’s not our department,” and told them to call someone else. Instead I’d say to people calling us, “Is this a toll call for you? Let me call you back right now so it’s not costing you anything.” Then I’d call them back and say, “I’m not the right person, but I’m not going to get off this phone until I know that I’ve put you in direct contact with the right person in the right agency.”

Then I’d give them my name and direct phone number in case we got cut off. Next, I’d ask them to stay on the line while I found the right person. When I found the right person, I’d let them know that I was putting them in touch with a customer who has had the run-around. Then I’d personally introduce the customer to the right person.

Even though I’m no longer in law enforcement, I still knew there was a way of solving this woman’s problem. I called my friend in New York again and asked her to tell the woman that I was going to take her across the street to get help from a retailer I know who speaks her language. He was happy to help the woman. Together, the three of us filled in her request for an administrative review of her parking citation and he instructed her to walk back to your building and drop it off. It wasn’t that difficult.

You could have arranged a similar meeting by calling anyone in City Hall who speaks the language. Anyway, it’s not hard to solve problems when you:

1)      Have the desire to solve the problems, and
2)      Have the authority to solve reasonable problems, and
3)      You will never allow yourself to say, “I can’t help you.”

Just so you’ll know, I’ve trained thousands of law enforcement folks and conducted customer service training for many law enforcement people. I made contact with your chief within the last year. I offered to volunteer my time and services to help your department.

The chief passed me off to someone else and that’s where the whole thing died. It’s a shame. Maybe you would have already received the training I was offering.

I leave you with one question: If you were in charge, what changes would you make to prevent this kind of problem in the future? I have a few ideas. I’m positive that if you presented these (or your own) suggestions to your administrators, they’d respond in a positive way. There was a time when suggestions scared people in power, but I want to believe that the leaders in your city are different. Here’s what I’d suggest:

Get a listing of every city employee in the area who speaks any other language and deputize them as public servants in your department.

There are notices on your bulletin board that are encouraging citizens to learn about police work in your city --- it even suggests they could volunteer after their 13-week orientation. Why not suggest that they post one of those invitations in each language that people speak in your city.

How about a phone line that connects with outside contractors who speak different languages? In a major emergency, it would be worth the cost. And everyone who comes to your department knows that there’s a lot of money available. Why not buy a service. Suppose you suggest that.

One last thing. After the elderly woman and I left the building, I understand that some of the witnesses to our encounter expressed their opinions (negative opinions) about people who speak the language that the woman speaks. I really hope that you didn’t say or do anything that suggested that you agree with those people. You know that you could quickly lose your job if anyone witnessed such a response.

I hope you take this in the spirit in which I’m sharing it. I want to believe that you’ll never forget this lesson and that it nudges you in the direction of being the best public servant this city has ever seen.


Don Ray


Paul Curtis said...

What you ran into defines the difference between professional police officers and amateurs and yours was an amateur. Until people understand their purpose which is to help others, they will continue to help themselves, at the company trough, at lunchtime, and at quitting time. In the meantime, don't take anymore time away from your reading of an old People magazine while you are supposed to be working. It is one thing not to know. It is an entirely different thing not to care.

Dave Lange said...

Cool Don!!! You hit the nail on the head. My Chief would wonder about some people coming to the Dept. to thank him for my having given them a ticket and then taking the time to explain the reason and possible dangers that prompted that ticket. That's "Public Relations"

Don Ray said...

Dave, you and Paul get it -- from years of experience. Police officers can change more than just the city's budget. Wouldn't it be nice if, every day, people would tell their friends about their wonderful encounter with a caring public servant? Even better, wouldn't it be great if such encounters were so commonplace that they were no longer remarkable? I will never forget the Michigan police officer who wrote me a ticket on a legal pad. It read, "Sgt. Ray, thanks for your service. Please slow down so you can spend time with your grandchildren one day."

Sevag said...

You're absolutely right Don. I think if more of the public felt the police is on their side things would be a bit different. I, for one, am a ver pro-officer kind of person. Whenever those around me say "Freaking cops, I hate 'em. They're out to get you". I tend to defend the police right away and it usually turns out they are upset because they were ticketed for a violation.
However, I do understand their 'us and them' mentality. They sincerely feel the police do not have their best interest. Maybe all don't, maybe some do. Overall, the message is always the same no matter where you work. Even about your people and culture. You are a spokesperson for everything you represent. Follow the golden rule and this small world of ours will definitely be a better place.

Don Ray said...

Sevag, you offer a profound observation that leads me to wonder if there could be a cause-and-effect situation going on. People tend to fear people or groups of people they don't understand. In that situation, it's not unusual for folks on both sides to react to this negative energy. Could this tension account for people on both sides to begin to see it as a much larger "them and us" situation?

This is where I think people on both sides should look at every person they encounter as an individual and not label them as a member of any "them" group. I like to suggest to people behind counters -- i.e., public servants -- that they treat every person who approaches them as if they were their mother or father's best friend. Would you treat your mother's best friend the same way you treated someone who doesn't speak your language? Would you go out of your way for someone with connections to your family or your world? That's the self test I recommend.