How to develop effective communication in law enforcement

Effective communication in law enforcement agencies is clear, concise, easy to understand, and easily accessible. Keep reading to learn more.

November 8, 2021

Article highlights

In order to function effectively, communication in law enforcement agencies has to be clear, concise, easy to understand, and easily accessible. The problem comes when people communicate in different styles, via different channels, and the language is not clear or easy to understand.

Police officers continually receive new policies, new updates, new protocols, new orders, and new programs. Not to mention the memos and messages coming at them from different departments and leadership. It can be overwhelming.

This can have long-lasting ripple effects in an officer's understanding of certain regulations and policies, which in turn, can have a negative impact on civilians.

Effective communication can also help officers question witnesses and suspects, gather more information, and have a better understanding of what's happening in the community just by listening effectively and speaking clearly.

You can increase morale, increase job satisfaction, improve feedback, and enhance teamwork by prioritizing effective communication in law enforcement agencies. 

The rest of this article will discuss the importance of internal communication in law enforcement, help you understand why nonverbal communication in law enforcement is critical, and share some tips for effective communication.

Importance of internal communication in law enforcement

One of a department's top priorities should be the state and quality of its internal communication: The way officers communicate with each other, how leadership communicates with the rank-and-file, and the policies and regulations that dictate how the department operates. If you can master this, you'll go a long way toward improving how well your department functions.

More collaboration and teamwork

Effective communication means your officers will better understand the policies and directives from leadership. They'll know what to do in specific situations, and they'll make better decisions.

Effective communication from leadership will also help resolve personal conflict and provide meaningful guidance. And most importantly, they will help accurately convey information and avoid confusion in communicating with higher-ups, subordinates, the community, and the media. Effective communication can help de-escalate a situation, deal with language barriers, and put people at ease.

Police administrators need to communicate effectively in order to provide meaningful guidance to officers and resolve conflicts. Police officers need to communicate effectively – clearly, concisely, and in simple language – to be able to share arrest reports with the district attorney or in court.

Better equipped officers

Good communication isn't just what you say or how you say it, but even what you say it with. That means law enforcement officers need to be able to communicate different information via different channels.

It can be something as simple as police radios and body cams when responding to a call. It's being able to share memos, policy updates, and training modules in a single location, accessible by mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. It also means having unlimited access to all of that information, so the best cellular devices and plans are a must.

Ensuring your officers can communicate through those different channels means they will have some of the latest and greatest in police communication equipment.

Increased compliance to important updates

One accreditation requirement law enforcement agencies have to meet is to have all law enforcement personnel sign off on new policies and updates. Another is through testing the new policies to ensure everyone understands the requirements.

Communicating these policies in a clear, concise manner can speed up the process of getting more people to read and sign the new procedures. It also ensures the new changes are implemented quickly and consistently.

Higher employee satisfaction

Effective internal communication in law enforcement helps your staff feel more connected to their fellow officers and the department as a whole. This connection leads to higher employee engagement and satisfaction.

Highly engaged organizations often see a 41% reduction in absenteeism and have 24% less turnover. They also see a 17% increase in productivity, which can translate into better police work, faster filing of paperwork, and improvement in community relations.

Written communication is easier to understand

We've said it several times: effective communication is clear and concise, including written communication. The problem is, police officers tend to write as official-sounding as possible and will avoid using simple words to convey a message. For example, an incident report may contain the line, "The owner stated he returned to his domicile and discovered the frontmost point of entry had been forcibly opened" rather than "The home owner came home and saw the front door had been kicked in."

Effective communication uses simple language to avoid confusion. This goes for all forms of communication in the department. While there are some use cases for jargon, writing in plain English helps avoid confusion over policies, procedures, regulations, and other orders. There's no question about what is being said, and the meaning is always clear. 

In other words, "eschew convoluted phraseology to obviate ambiguity."

(Avoid big words to prevent confusion.)

Nonverbal communication in law enforcement

No one is quite sure how much of a person's communication is nonverbal – gestures, facial expressions, body language, as well as the tone of voice, volume, and inflections – but communication experts agree that nonverbal communication does influence the content of how, and how well, we communicate.

How it helps your agency’s culture

Imagine an officer shouting at a witness about a crime. How effectively will they get a statement? Imagine a captain sharing important information at a morning briefing, but in a mumbled monotone. And imagine how it will affect morale if every conversation between officers was punctuated by fidgeting, sighs, and a lack of eye contact?

These examples show the importance of understanding and monitoring one's own nonverbal cues. People are less likely to work with someone who disrespects them. Orders may be ignored or misunderstood if they're not delivered clearly and confidently. And witnesses won't want to cooperate when they're being shouted at.

By training your department on effective communication in law enforcement, you can improve the agency's culture. You can reduce conflicts, increase satisfaction, and teach people how to treat each other with respect. All of that can go a long way to improving relationships with the community and within the department.

Benefits in the field

Improving nonverbal communication in law enforcement can also help your officers in the field. For one thing, they can learn to read each other's body language and learn to use hand signals when speaking isn't an option. Having standardized hand signals is a must for SWAT teams and other tactical officers but should be a standard for any officer to communicate without speaking.

Understanding nonverbal communication also helps officers read the body language of citizens and suspects. There are cultural differences between different communities and nationalities. Officers that have a better understanding of nonverbal communication in law enforcement situations will better understand how to read the body language of the people they're talking to.

Tips for effective communication in law enforcement

There are several training modules and lessons available for law enforcement personnel to improve their communication. Many of these lessons are accessible on a training management system like PowerDMS' where your staff can watch them at their convenience. In the meantime, here are some tips for effective communication in your law enforcement agency.

Formalize key processes/Develop a system for consistent communicating 

Very often, agencies without a policy manual will rely on doing things "the way we always have." Or they use outdated policy manuals that haven't been updated in years.

By formalizing certain policies, especially around communication strategies, you can create an environment where everyone understands what is expected of them, how information is to be relayed, and even what channels and methods should be used in certain situations, such as when to use mobile phones versus police radios, how to interrogate witnesses and suspects, and even how reports should be written and delivered.

Collaborate on policy updates with stakeholders across the agency

Writing policies should involve the stakeholders affected by those policies: They can tell you whether the policy will work or make things more difficult. While the stakeholders don't have to be the ones to write the policy, they should at least be consulted to make sure the policies are valid, viable, and not too restrictive or lenient.

Good policy management software like PowerDMS can help you organize all the updates and share them with leadership for approval and the entire department for signatures and testing.

Be proactive, not reactive

Rather than waiting for an old policy to be tested or an emergency to spotlight the need for a new one, identify the policies that are outdated or missing, and then prioritize the top ones. Put a policy management team together to write those new policies (see below).

Waiting for a reason to update policies can put your department at risk for a lawsuit or having your liability insurance canceled. Proactively writing your policies lets you prevent a problem before it arises. And sharing your new policies with your local community helps improve community relations and increases trust.

Assign a person or team to manage policies/compliance

Rather than just appointing a temporary committee to write a few policies, assign a person to handle the policy creation and management process. Ideally, this will be someone likely to also work with any accreditation agencies when the time comes.

This person can assemble a team to help write and update policies, share feedback, and create the best policies available to regulate your department. Make sure you get buy-in from top leadership, too, to ensure that the department will follow the new policies once they're published.

Make job-critical documents readily available

These are the policies and regulations that dictate how officers will respond in the field to certain situations, such as an active shooter scenario, high-speed pursuits, racial profiling, and even take home car policies.

Make them available in one easy-to-access format, such as PowerDMS' policy management solution. This cloud-based solution lets officers and staff access policies from anywhere, on any kind of device, any time of day.

Establish alternative communication protocols

A good crisis response policy will cover as many possible situations as possible. An effective communication policy will do the same, sharing alternative communication protocols and methods in case of communication outages.

For example, protocols should discuss scenarios like switching to mobile phones if the 800 MHz radios are compromised, switching to landlines if the mobile network fails, or even a series of hand signals when verbal communication is impossible.

Final thoughts

Policies that reinforce effective communication in law enforcement can greatly improve a department's effectiveness, efficiency, and engagement. Internal communication will be simpler and easier to understand. Officers will have a greater understanding of nonverbal communication. And it will be easier to create policies and procedures by using simple language and avoiding jargon.

To learn more about creating and managing policies for your law enforcement agency, including effective communication policies, you can read more on our website.

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